On Feb. 9, the epilogue to Donald Trump’s presidency began. The post-presidency Senate impeachment trial promises to be both spectacular political theater and also profoundly important for the future of American democracy – and, most immediately, for the future of the Republican Party.
Trump has been out of office for less than a month, but in those few weeks Joe Biden and his team have worked to so thoroughly scrub the body politic of Trump’s toxic influence that it’s almost easy to forget just how vile and omnipresent the man was for the past four years.
There is, however, a danger in this rapid-onset amnesia. Both Trump himself and the political forces he unleashed or accelerated were so atrocious that they will affect the American story – and the political allegiances of people on the left and the right – for decades to come.
While it may be tempting to treat the Trump era as an aberration, doing so risks smoothing the way for a redux version of the 45th president’s term. If we do not learn from this awful period and do not recognize just how close American democracy came to being destroyed in the final, desperate weeks of the Trump presidency, then at some point in the not-too-distant future we risk a return to demagoguery and the all-out assault on the truth that Trump orchestrated.
Which brings us back to the impeachment trial.
Republican senators, unlike Trump’s more fanatical sycophants in the House, are unlikely to defend his Jan. 6 words and actions. Instead, they will try to obfuscate; to say that with Trump out of office – and out of sight – there is no need to hold such a trial; to claim that the proceedings are just political payback. Some, such as Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul, will likely build on recent statements in which they have played the party pragmatists, warning their colleagues that they risk splintering the party’s base if they vote to convict, and arguing that if Trump did indeed commit criminal acts, the courts rather than Congress should deal with him.
But the longer the trial goes on, and the more the House managers present the evidence of Trump’s lies and insurrectionary actions, the more unsustainable this head-in-the-sand position will become.
This puts the GOP in a politically perilous position: Defend Trump’s actions – in which his mob tried to hunt down his own vice president in order to hang him – and the GOP ends up on the wrong side of the majority of voters; vote to convict him, as he so surely merits, and the GOP senators risk alienating their own primary voters, a large majority of whom remain stubbornly loyal to Trump.
The party that so opportunistically embraced Trump and Trumpism back in 2016 is now about to be hoist with its own petard. Damned if they do and damned if they don’t, the GOP senators are about to face a grand, and very public, reckoning over their Faustian bargain.