The Reality Behind Donald Trump’s Second Acquittal

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.”


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22 thoughts on “The Reality Behind Donald Trump’s Second Acquittal

  1. This turned out as well as could be expected. In the court of public opinion, Trump is guilty as charged. McConnell
    agrees that he was guilty as charged and suggested he could be held accountable in criminal court.
    Polling shows that Trump is losing support among Republicans and you can be sure that some Republicans will be
    doing what they can to wrest that power from him, without totally alienating the remaining deplorables, who
    make up his base.
    Time for the Dems to get back to work and show Americans what a competent Gov’t looks like.

  2. The constitution cannot be silent on the matter of coups, one of the most dangerous and important situations for any political system to contemplate. This cannot be the final constitutional act of this drama, because if it is then the rule of law is provably lost, and it is only a matter of time before whatever political legitimacy that remains is eroded entirely and another coup is attempted.

    Perhaps we will see action taken soon using the 14th Amendment. Although that could prove problematic as precedent for a simple majority in both chambers of Congress to bar a former or current government official from holding office, considering the zero-sum, hardline, vindictive partisanship that is our reality. This situation cannot legitimately hinge on liability or conviction under civil or criminal law. I am not a lawyer, but I have studied constitutional law and political philosophy at a graduate level and afterward. The conduct in question was an act made by a public official acting in his official capacity, and as such the constitution cannot be silent on the matter or defer in any way to a body of law that is, essentially, subordinated to itself.

    McConnell’s speech was really something. A legalistic escape hatch, a loophole. And all the more hypocritical and dangerous considering that the trial was intentionally delayed until Trump was out of office. All the Republican pontificating around constitutionality proves is that, barring a subsequent route via the 14th amendment and a decisive conclusion, the constitution itself is broken, the impeachment process has been rendered essentially irrelevant, and officials engaging in lawless official acts of the most serious type can be immune to accountability. Hence, political legitimacy and the rule of law are destroyed, and politics is reduced to the single dimension of power. That is authoritarianism in its very essence; we needn’t wait for the dictator to fill that vacuum before diagnosing what it is.

    It is very disconcerting to hear people like Schumer and so many others talk about ‘public disgrace’ or ‘the court of public opinion’ as somehow relevant to any of the above. It misses the point entirely. It’s the same logic that was at play with the last impeachment, which essentially deferred accountability for attempts at election interference to the remedy of the very electoral process itself, a circular absurdist logic. Our crisis is a constitutional one, and so far, essentially nothing has been done about it other than to expose it for what it is.

  3. H-Man, a truly from the belly post which is rare for you which hammers home the abuse of our constitution. If this did not warrant impeachment, what does? You wonder if the president was black and the crowd was black and the assault on the capitol was black — same result? A walk in the park.

  4. It’s hard to decide whether McConnell’s speech excoriating Trump, given after the Senator voted to acquit the former president, is monumentally hypocritical or monumentally delusional. Did the most powerful Republican in the US government somehow think that by calling Trump out for the imminently impeachable offenses he’d committed, but doing so only AFTER the Senator had voted not to hold the ex-president responsible for said offenses, would somehow prove to the nation that he isn’t just another of Trump’s toadies? That he can now hold his head up and say to himself, ‘Yes, I’ve done everything I could to protect American democracy’? All I can wonder is, if he’s still in office by the time the next wannabe Mussolini comes along, how low will Mitch sink in fealty to the new regime? Though it’s hard to imagine sinking lower than having spent the last four years shining Donald Trump’s shoes with the oil off of your nose.`

  5. Great post.
    Even my 87 year old parents -who voted for Trump, and Republican their entire lives, are completely mortified by his actions.
    My parents mental faculties are in place, by the way.

  6. Somewhere around 1971, Lewis Powell (before he was Justice Powell) wrote a now-famous memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce outlining the threat to capitalism that the left posed, and proposed a long-term solution.

    In a 2007 Harper’s Magazine article, “The Tentacles of Rage,” Lewis Lapham described how the monied right responded, and how the modern right began and proceeded.

    What we are seeing now is a very pathological version of Eric Hoffer’s observation that “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” In this case “the racket” is Trumpism.

    My inclination is to say that “the left” needs something analogous to the Powell memo, and something analogous to the follow-on. The reason I left the Democratic party in 2004, however, is that I don’t believe the left has what it takes to pull off something like that. Maybe this next generation does. I hope so. But when I saw Diane Feinstein hug Lindsey Graham after the Amy Barrett confirmation, I saw all of my worst opinions about the left made manifest.

    Oddly enough, I find that hope — for me — is in the business sector. Twitter cutting off Trump…Amazon cutting off Parler…etc., Those things give me a little bit of hope.

  7. A bipartisan 57-43 vote is pretty damning, with several of the 43 trying to stake out the logically non-existent space where they can justify a vote for acquittal yet condemn Trump’s conduct. Trump is 74 and is unhealthy. He will be fighting for his legal life within a few months. There is nobody who can clearly take over his cult of personality. If we can see two years of competent leadership, if people get some distance from the abusive relationship that our country has been in, and if we can stave off the Republican voter suppression efforts, it’s possible that we have just bounced off of the nadir.

  8. Unlike Trump’s first impeachment, this case required very little in the way of time commitment to understand the charges.

    ?? All you had to do was listen to the call. “I would like you to do us a favor, though”.

    Anyone who didn’t want to argue in bad faith knew exactly what Trump meant. Indeed, the most genuine defense from MAGA types who were not sufficiently up to date on the latest approved talking points responded with a variation of “but, but, but everyone does it? I am sure Obama and Clinton twist arms and coerce people all the time”.

    That, at least, is a genuine acknowledgement we all understand what Trump was doing…

  9. H.L. Mencken: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents… the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” = Trump = Taylor Greene = Kevin McCarthy = Mitch McConnell = white racist lynch mob = Republican Party =

    H.L. Mencken: ‘Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.’

    Trump is among the last acts of the US Imperium because:

    imperial decline progresses by supplanting genuine leadership and public participation with a courtier class responsible only to oligarchs;
    US leadership and citizens can’t tell trusted friend from odious enemy as the US looks and acts so much like the enemy;
    American enemies now look like soft beds of reason, retraint, and stability;
    the immense US military is incapable of winning the smallest wars, or even retaining the allegiance of its junior officers;
    praetorian guards are created loyal only to money and cruelty (BORTAC – US Marshals);
    the economy is used like a casino to enrich the unworthy;
    children are used to punish immigrant families fleeing US imperial savagery in their own countries;
    the most recent generations are the worst educated since 1776 as science, schools, libraries, an independent press, and dissenting voices are crushed by corporate design;
    resurgent bigotry is aided by brutally stupid police and a corrupt justice system;
    ruthless violence is blessed by empty prayers and Hollywood blockbusters;
    smug indifference is widespread for anything that doesn’t touch their own families, or their favourite sport;
    vast numbers of citizens parade their ignorance around like they have just married a supermodel.

    These are all signs of a society about to collapse with only a minor environmental disaster needed to start the landslide, out of the ecosystem armageddon certain to come.

    This article is an impressive summary of some social ills Trump displays: Andrew Bacevich:

    Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

    Americans have been lying to themselves for decades, if not centuries, so the logical conclusion had them electing a proudly ignorant, bare-faced liar as President. The world can no longer pretend US citizens know anything about the world, their own best interests, or the best interests of their longest allies and best friends. Americans have put the world through several financial bubbles and 3 great recessions in 20 years, destroying decades of lower and middle class wealth. Americans can’t be expected to defend democracy, expand human rights, maintain an incorruptible rule of ‘law’, or manage the most important part of world’s economy.

    George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”

    Americans have ignored the wise counsel of everyone intelligent, including the founders of the country. They would rather cheer and emulate criminals like the Mafia, Al Capone (a syphlitic monster), the Sopranos (because reality is never bloody or psychopathic enough). It’s no accident that generous, intelligent, kind human rights activists, environmentalists, and anyone making a record of the truth are being murdered in the thousands. The murderers are protected by goose-stepping morons. American leadership want this to happen, and are overjoyed it’s happening in the US at the hands of a classic white racist lynch mob.

    Americans have committed racist crimes against humanity across the world since the Mayflower. Now the monsters created by their lies, arrogance, and brutal stupidity are chasing them down the street. The rest of the world should wake up and remove born-again Yankee collaborators from power before they destroy the World.

    1. excellent comment / post to an excellent article … the US was able to survive the House Committee on Un-American Activities era so perhaps it can regroup after this treasonous travesty … one can hope …

  10. Believe it or not, despite some of the more dire concerns raised, this essay and the above comments made me feel a little bit better. The outcome of the trial was never in doubt. I hoped, going in, the case would be made competently and airtight enough to serve future electoral purposes. I believe that happened.

    What I found heartening was the obvious concern and intelligence all of you demonstrated. There is no denying that tens of millions of people approving of soft-autocracy is a problem I think we all have a lot of listening and teaching to do. And I’m comforted there are people up to that task.

  11. The message from the last four years, and especially on 1/6, is that the sedition will be completely unpunished in this country. People like Donald Trump and Josh Hawley can do and say whatever they want with no consequences. Unless all who were involved in planning and executing the riot on 1/6 are convicted and punished to the fullest extent of the law, America lost. The Proud Boys and their enablers have surely won.

    Peggy Noonan wrote a wonderful column for Saturday’s WSJ. One of the points she made had to do with the shameful way those who savaged the Capitol rummaged through the desks of the Senators who help make our laws there. She also pointed out that those desks don’t just belong to the senators who are currently in office. They belong to history. Every senator who has ever served our country has used one of those same desks. By tradition most have left their names somewhere in and about those hallowed bits of furniture, now desecrated buy the pigs who oinked through the hall. In my lifetime I have been lucky enough to meet and break bread with three of those senators: Everett Dirksen who had one of the sharpest minds I have ever had the good fortune to be in the room with, Charles Percy, who I got to meet with his family when he visited my boarding school and I got to serve him dinner and talk with him and finally Chuck Grassley whose home I have visited. Senator Grassley’s wife was also a student of my wife and his daughter too two MBA classes from me. These individuals, at least when I knew them, put the current crop of cowards in our service to shame. Their desks deserved better than they got and the vandals should be punished the way vandals used to be punished, harshly.

  12. A fine opinion piece.

    I would posit, however, that the political situation the United States finds itself in is probably more analogous to the Weimar Republic than to a banana republic.

  13. It should not have been a surprise that Trump would be an autocratic president. He ran his organization as he wished. He ran roughshod over the political infrastructure because he was both ignorant of it and frankly, that was how he ran his company and that was how he was going to run the USA. His tantrums when he could not bully his way through should have been clear enough from the very beginning that he was ill suited to the position. The adults in the room leaked and resigned as the cowards they were.

    How a wealthy businessman (self proclaimed) from high fashion New York City was able to convince the multitudes that he had their best interests at heart is a sad testament to the power of oratory. The free press he received from the start, especially the press coverage of his rallies, formed the core of his ascendancy to godhood, all at no cost to him.

    As destructive as the covid pandemic has been, without it Trump would very likely have been re-elected. This era will be the grist for historians to mull over for a hundred years.

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