The necessity for the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump was in no way obviated by the predictability of its outcome. An unprecedented blatant assault on our democratic constitutional order by a sitting President of the United States had to be answered by more than verbal expressions of outrage. It had to be answered by the branch of government that came under attack on Jan. 6. My only reservation about the impeachment is that it was limited to just one article centered on Trump’s behavior on that day. Trump’s fraudulent campaign to overturn the results of the election already constituted impeachable behavior; it should have been the subject of a separate article.
I don’t know how many minds the trial changed, either among Republican senators or among the broad public. All the polls I‘ve seen show clear pluralities of Americans, if not actual majorities, favoring Trump’s conviction, but that was true even before the trial began. Solid majorities, even before the trial, correctly attributed responsibility for the insurrection to Trump. Judging by the polls, Trump has lost further public support since his defeat for re-election.
So, putting Trump on trial was not only morally imperative, but politically smart: it was in line with public opinion and may have helped to reinforce it. Besides, the trial was enormously productive. If a picture is worth a thousand words a video is worth maybe a hundred thousand. The House impeachment managers assembled a huge body of searing, graphic evidence of the horrors of the insurrection. It constitutes a permanent record of the ugliness of Trumpist fascism and the threat it poses.
The trial was productive, too, in putting Republicans on record. For all his hypocrisy and mixed motives, I appreciated Mitch McConnell’s devastating condemnation of Trump’s behavior, which could easily have been spoken by any of the Democratic managers of the indictment. Other Republicans need to follow McConnell’s lead; he has given them political cover to do so. Of course, McConnell was hypocritical in hiding behind the procedural claim that an impeachment trial should be held only for a sitting office holder: it was McConnell himself who had blocked the possibility of a trial while Trump was still in office. And, while McConnell’s revulsion for Trump is undoubtedly genuine, his expression of that revulsion was also politically expedient. As Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats have suggested, it was McConnell’s way of reaching out to the substantial sectors of the donor class who find Trump distasteful. So, McConnell gets to have it both ways—by arguing and voting for acquittal, he appeases the GOP base and makes excuses for his Republican Senate colleagues. At the same time, he tells his party’s paymasters in corporate America that (wink, wink) we’re really not that crazy.
The fact that McConnell saw it expedient to reach out to corporate America the way he did suggests reason for optimism that the threat of American fascism will be containable. In many if not most countries that fell to fascism, it was with the complicity of traditional conservative forces. In the United States the traditional conservative forces generally understand that existing American democracy works pretty well for them. Our system of checks and balances, together with its numerous anti-majoritarian features (the small state advantage in the Senate and electoral college, etc.) make progressive policy change exceedingly difficult. Who needs openly authoritarian rule when the game is already loaded in your favor? The Republican party has long been a marriage of convenience between plutocrats on the one hand and the propagators of racist-tinged cultural grievance on the other. Over time, the latter forces got out of control. Under Trump, they took over. McConnell would like to rein them back in and restore marital harmony. Skillful as he is, I am skeptical of his chances for success.
After Trump, the one person who comes out of this whole process the dirtiest is House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy had already put himself in a class of repugnance outranking even Senators Cruz and Hawley. Unlike those two gentlemen, who used doubletalk to justify their challenge to the election results, McCarthy had explicitly endorsed the big lie that Trump had won the election. Now we learn that in a telephone shouting match on Jan. 6, Trump not only refused McCarthy’s plea to call off the insurrection; he actually commended the rioters as they mounted their violent rampage. McCarthy still voted that day to decertify the election results. No less importantly, he kept quiet about his telephone clash with Trump. Had he gone public early enough, this clinching evidence of Trump’s sociopathy could conceivably have moved enough GOP senators to support conviction and permanent disbarment from office.