The Second Annual Impeachment of Donald J. Trump is now history, with the 57-43 vote to convict falling ten short of the constitutional threshold but marking the first time in four presidential impeachments that multiple senators of the president’s party broke ranks. To understand why 43 Republicans failed to convict a president who had committed the most clearly impeachable high crime in history, look beyond Trump to the state of the Republican base.
Roughly one-third of the country wants to stop the clock on the twenty-first century at all costs. These people are Republicans.
They constitute an outsized majority in Appalachia, many states of the South and interior West, and in gerrymandered House districts across the country. In 2016 and 2020, they responded by the millions to Trump’s promise that he and only he could halt the inexorable march toward multicultural democracy that is upending traditional patterns of cultural and political power. To accept that Trump had been voted out of office by the rest of the country would be to accept that Trump had failed in this fundamental promise. It would mean the final obstacle to these changes was gone. It would mean the dam had broken. This is an untenable proposition.
It is far easier for the Republican base to believe the lie that the election had been taken from them, because the challenge to privilege feels life threatening. Staying in power is the only way to prevent the ascendency of a culturally and politically hostile America, and preventing their ascendency is more important than democracy itself and more important than the rule of law. In fact, their ascendency is experienced as a direct threat to democracy and order, a reason to rise up violently as patriots – if necessary.
On January 6, Trump told his followers it was necessary and they obliged.
On February 13, forty-three Senate Republicans validated their actions.
But they didn’t have to. Outside a few true believers, it was a cold political calculation – a version of the same calculation they have been making for years, the calculation that motivated eight members of the Senate jury to perpetuate the stolen election lie even after the Capitol had been invaded. But the costs of that calculation have escalated in dangerous ways. Four years ago it was possible to dismiss a candidate of white grievance as an anomaly who could be held in check. One year ago it was possible to praise his tax and judicial agenda while dismissing his crass behavior. Now it’s necessary to endorse insurrection.
Consider the circumstances surrounding the two Trump impeachments. Last year’s charges stemmed from a pressure campaign to get Ukraine to support fabricated allegations against Trump’s likely opponent to facilitate a fake media narrative about Joe Biden – an abuse of power committed while still operating within the framework of a democratic election. This year’s impeachment was about fomenting an insurrection after that election was legitimately lost in order to stay in power at the cost of bringing down the republic. The first impeachment required condoning shady dealings that were dismissed by reluctant partisans as proved but not impeachable. No one could make that claim this time. This impeachment required condoning violence, death and the attempted overthrow of a legitimately elected government.
No wonder Mitch McConnell twisted himself into a pretzel by voting to acquit, then immediately proclaiming Trump’s guilt while offering up a contrived, self-serving and hypocritical justification for his vote by falsely pleading that a president could not be tried when no longer in office – after having made sure the trial wouldn’t take place while he still was. The reason for McConnell’s desperation to have it both ways may be found in today’s ABC News/Ipsos poll showing that the America residing outside the Republican base overwhelmingly wanted to see Trump convicted. McConnell needs to position his party to compete next year in states where insurrection doesn’t sell and reopen the corporate cash spigot by convincing corporate America that his party really isn’t the party of Trump despite how it just voted. Wait until the courts get ahold of Trump, he said. That’ll show everyone.
If McConnell felt he could have survived as Republican leader he would have dispatched with Trump by whipping the ten additional votes needed to convict. But he couldn’t. There is no stronger evidence that he and his party will continue their strive for power regardless of the price, nor is there any more ambiguity about what that price will be.