The Senate voted to acquit Donald Trump on Saturday, closing the book on one of the most dubious episodes in American history.
Actually, that’s not accurate. Let me rephrase. The Senate could have closed that book, but thanks to the acquittal, it remains open.
Although the vote was short of the two-thirds needed to secure a conviction, seven GOP senators voted with Democrats to convict. The first time Trump was impeached, only Mitt Romney summoned the fortitude. This time around, Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Ben Sasse, and Pat Toomey all voted with Romney.
The proceedings were briefly disrupted Saturday when the Senate agreed to hear witnesses. At issue was a statement by Republican congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, who said that, when House minority leader Kevin McCarthy pleaded with Trump to call off his supporters during the riot, Trump initially blamed Antifa. When McCarthy told him that, at least as far as he could tell, the legions of furious usurpers waving Trump flags, shouting Trump slogans, and wearing Trump-branded apparel were, in fact, the genuine MAGA article, Herrera Beutler claimed Trump told McCarthy “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
Of course, calling witnesses would have prolonged the trial, and because the outcome was always a foregone conclusion, prosecutors settled for entering Herrera Beutler’s statement into the record.
Jamie Raskin delivered another mostly flawless performance Saturday in his role as lead impeachment manager for the House. There were doubtlessly plenty of folks applauding him on social media, although I can’t claim to have checked. I generally stay away from social media. It’s immeasurably inimical to public discourse.
The problem with Raskin’s closing argument — and with the entire trial — was simple. A disconcerting number of US lawmakers showed by their words and deeds over the past four years that they’re willing to acquiesce to soft autocratic rule. I say that not as a partisan, but as a political scientist and also as someone with working eyes and ears.
Unlike Trump’s first impeachment, this case required very little in the way of time commitment to understand the charges. You didn’t have to sit through hours of expert testimony. Nor were you compelled to familiarize yourself with a long list of characters at the heart of a hopelessly clumsy attempt at international skullduggery. You didn’t have to learn about any foreign energy companies or judge the character of anyone’s children.
Instead, all you had to do was connect two dots. A man called his supporters to a rally, where he told them that if they didn’t “fight like hell” they wouldn’t “have a country anymore.” A couple of breaths later, he told them to march up a nearby street and to a specific building. Shortly thereafter, many of the attendees did in fact march up that street, and upon arriving at said building, they proceeded to fight like hell.
The problem for Raskin (and the problem for the country more generally) is that tens of millions of voters would be fine with authoritarian rule by Trump, assuming it didn’t hinder their daily lives. Dozens of members of Congress are similarly predisposed, as evidenced by the actions taken by some Republicans in the House and Senate to overrule voters. Some lawmakers went so far as to demand that Mike Pence unilaterally declare Trump the winner (it was slightly more complicated than that, but not much). Pence, you’ll recall, penned a lengthy letter on the day of the riot explaining why he couldn’t (and wouldn’t) do anything of the sort.
Raskin and his colleagues spoke during the trial as though they were preaching to the proverbial choir — as though everyone in attendance was, at heart, committed to democracy and the Constitution. But they weren’t. They were, in part anyway, speaking to Trump loyalists. Importantly, “loyalists” now means the same thing in American politics that it does in countries with autocratic regimes. While there were a few potential fence-sitters on the Republican side headed into Trump’s second trial, most of those who voted to acquit weren’t going to be swayed by any amount of “evidence.”
As noted, no “evidence” was necessary. There wasn’t anything ambiguous about this situation. Trump drove down every conceivable avenue in his effort to change the election outcome, and every, single one of them was a dead end. He even tried exerting direct pressure on state legislators and local officials. When he ran out of time, he called his supporters to the Capitol and the rest is history.
Obviously, Democrats were going to vote to convict. Equally obvious was Romney’s vote. Nobody was surprised by Collins, Murkowski, and Sasse either. And Toomey made his feelings clear weeks ago during several network television interviews. McConnell has his own, unique calculus, as do a few other GOP senators, so explaining their votes not to convict Trump is a bit more nuanced.
But the critical point is that Raskin’s closing argument, as eloquent as it was, was just a lengthy exercise in question-begging. He was, in part, speaking to people who were fully prepared to see the US transition to autocratic rule.
So, it’s not that his emotional appeals to democratic norms “fell on deaf ears” as much as it was that he was asking current members of a regime in exile to register a vote that would open the door to banning their leader from returning to power.
For those Republicans, the idea of going on the record against Trump wasn’t so much a non-starter as it was nonsensical. When you’ve sworn fealty to a dictator, you don’t vote against him, especially not when the vote entails “convicting” him of something or barring him from office.
That’s what Raskin should have said. He should have explicitly called out the fact that some sitting lawmakers are tantamount to regime loyalists in a third world dictatorship. Instead of pretending everyone cares about democracy, he should have made it clear that under no circumstances would those loyalists ever betray Trump irrespective of what he did. Raskin should have then explained how perilous that is going forward. He should have told the Senate that while Trump might not be an existential threat, he’s shown that a real dictator could run roughshod over the country’s checks and balances.
If the “You’re fired” guy can commandeer one half of America’s political duopoly and capture nearly half of the electorate, just imagine what an honest-to-god authoritarian with a modicum of military buy-in and the capacity to physically coerce rivals could do.
That’s why this remains a disconcerting situation. Trump isn’t a “former president.” He’s a democratically deposed pseudo-dictator. He even has a base of operations at a sprawling luxury resort. If you redacted the names, the entire tale would be indistinguishable from the story of some banana republic you’ve never heard of.
And this story isn’t over.
On Saturday, commenting on the trial outcome, Trump said “our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun.”