Back in January 2016, before Donald Trump won his first presidential primary, before he secured his position atop the Republican Party and before he won the White House, he mused about the unbreakable bond between himself and his supporters with a joke about murder.
“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” Trump said, to a laughing audience, while pointing his finger at them like a gun. “OK? It’s, like, incredible.”
What was once true of his supporters is now true of nearly the entire Republican Party. The Senate voted 57 to 43 on Saturday to acquit Trump, now an ex-president, of inciting an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 as part of his plan to overturn an election he lost.
Just seven Republicans joined all 50 Democrats and independents to vote to convict, despite a mountain of evidence presented by the House impeachment managers. It was short of the 67 votes needed to convict.
Trump stood in the middle of Washington, D.C., pointed his supporters at Congress and fired. Seven people ― three police officers, including two by suicide, and four Trump supporters ― died as a result of the president’s actions. And his party let him off the hook.
Trump’s first impeachment acquittal, over his attempt to bribe a foreign president with congressionally approved funds to interfere in the 2020 election on his behalf, revealed that the Constitution’s impeachment power was broken beyond repair due to the asymmetric polarization of the political parties. His second impeachment acquittal shows the Republican Party no longer places limits on the actions it will excuse.
The Republican Party remains fully under Trump’s thumb. Just 10 Republicans in the House voted to impeach Trump and seven in the Senate voted to convict after he aimed his supporters at the Capitol and they sacked it, screaming bloody murder for Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others.
“I hope ― I trust we could all agree that if the president incites a violent insurrection against our government that that’s impeachable conduct,” Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), one of the House impeachment managers, said during the trial.
It was not.
Despite Trump’s historically consistent unpopularity and the GOP’s loss of the House, the Senate and ultimately the White House during his four years in office, his support from the party’s base ― those who would excuse him shooting someone on Fifth Avenue ― remains strong enough that any vote to hold him accountable is likely to be politically toxic for Republican lawmakers.
Those who either voted to punish or refused to endorse Trump’s election lies now face censure and reprimand from their home-state parties and primary challenges from pro-Trump candidates.
Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), Tom Rice (R-S.C.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) and Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) have all been censured or reprimanded by their respective state or local Republican Party committees for voting to impeach Trump. The Arizona Republican Party censured Gov. Doug Ducey (R) for not illegally overturning President Joe Biden’s win in the state as Trump demanded. Most recently, the Louisiana Republican Party reprimanded Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) for voting for a motion deeming it constitutional to hold a trial of an ex-president in the Senate.
This threat was made clear during the impeachment trial when Trump’s lawyer Bruce Castor played video of Trump threatening to back primary challengers to Republicans who did not do his bidding. (The video was ostensibly to show that Trump used the word “fight” in a rhetorical sense, and that he was only urging on elected officials.)
“Nobody in this chamber is anxious to have a primary challenge,” Castor said in front of a room of Republican senators. “That is one truism I think I can say with some certainty. But that’s the way we operate in this country.”
Others who crossed the president by not helping him overturn the election results or by voting for his impeachment fear for their lives. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his wife were targeted with a steady stream of death threats from Trump supporters after he upheld Biden’s legitimate win in the state. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) purchased body armor after receiving a number of death threats for voting to impeach Trump. Arizona state Sen. Paul Boyer, a Republican, faced threats from his fellow Republican state senators and death threats from the public after he cast the deciding vote against holding the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in contempt and authorizing their arrest for refusing to hand over 2 million ballots cast in the county as part of an investigation to prove Trump’s election lies.
These personal concerns may weigh on the minds of Republicans who hope to be reelected and remain alive, but so do broader political concerns. The conservative movement that brought about Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority” and Ronald Reagan’s “Moral Majority” has withered to a minority status. Republican presidential candidates have now lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight elections, which is the longest such drought for a party since the 19th century.
But Trump showed that Republicans can win without popular support. He showed them a path to minority rule.
Trump paved this path by juicing rural, white voter turnout in the right states to tilt the Electoral College with a poetic promise to Make America Great Again for the “true” people of the homeland who feel that their country has been taken away from them. To do so, he would crush their perceived domestic enemies, who make up the Democratic Party coalition.
Republican voters by 57%-43% view Democrats as “enemies” rather than “opponents,” according to a CBS News/YouGov poll. This compared to 41%-59% among Democrats. This view of Democrats as enemies is cultivated from a fear that conservative cultural dominance is long over and conservative political dominance is waning. Among Republicans, 79% believe that “the political system is stacked against more traditionally minded people,” according to a survey by the conservative think tank AEI. And, according to that same survey, 55% of Republicans believe that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”
Considering both Trump’s electoral road map to success and the views of his voters, Republican lawmakers are clearly not eager to change direction by convicting Trump and disqualifying him to “hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit.”
After all, the same lawmakers who let Trump off the hook promoted Trump’s election fraud hoax along the way.
Months before the 2016 election, Trump claimed that he could not lose unless there was election fraud. His political consigliere Roger Stone registered a group called Stop the Steal at the time. But this turned out to be unnecessary. Still, Trump claimed falsely that he “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
In 2020, as the House impeachment managers explained, Trump laid the groundwork for leveling false charges of election fraud as soon as the coronavirus pandemic led states to loosen mail-in voting rules to make their elections safer. He then used these lies to falsely claim victory early on the morning of Nov. 4, well before all valid votes were counted. He then fomented an invented tale of election fraud that included Venezuelan voting machines, Italian spies and anonymous white-hat hackers and filed a series of frivolous lawsuits, all of which failed. And Stop the Steal came back.
When Trump was asked if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power, as every president who lost reelection had done before, he said, “We’re going to have to see what happens.”
Despite his clear intentions, Republican leaders in Congress backed Trump as he engaged in an unprecedented effort to overturn a fair democratic election.
“The president has every right to look into allegations and request recounts under the law,” then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.
More than half of the House Republican caucus, including Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), signed an amicus brief in support of a frivolous lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) seeking to overturn the election results.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) opened his own investigation into Trump’s false allegations in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
McConnell, McCarthy and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) also voted to block the congressional inauguration committee from going forward with plans for Biden’s inauguration despite a lack of evidence for any reason to do so.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) backed up Trump’s election lies with a call to investigate Pennsylvania’s election results. Graham even called up election officials in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada to question their election process. Officials in Raffensperger’s office claimed that Graham suggested the secretary throw out some valid mail-in ballots. (Graham denies this, but the Fulton County district attorney is investigating.)
After the Electoral College affirmed Biden’s victory on Dec. 14, Trump’s efforts turned to Jan. 6, when the votes would be certified by Congress. And then he got support from Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), among other senators, who promised to contest the results in states Biden won.
“What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?” an anonymous senior Republican official told The Washington Post on Nov. 9. “No one seriously thinks the results will change.”
They Know Better
Trump refused to concede his election loss. He then embarked on an unprecedented effort to overturn the results and install himself as leader. At the last minute, when Congress was meeting to count the electoral votes and secure Biden’s win, he gathered his greatest supporters, some of whom are members of violent militias and street-fighting gangs, pointed them at the Capitol and told them to “fight like hell, [or] you won’t have a country anymore.”
Everyone knows the “downside for humoring him” now.
While the insurrection was still ongoing, McCarthy reportedly called Trump pleading with the president to call off his supporters, as he was the one who sicced them on Congress. According to Rep. Jaime Herrera Buetler (R-Wash.), Trump at first pretended the insurrectionists were the left-wing anarchist group antifa, but when McCarthy informed him otherwise the president said, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.” Even after this, McCarthy voted to overturn state election results and against impeachment.
After the insurrection, McConnell expressed his belief that this was Trump’s fault.
“The mob was fed lies,” he said on the Senate floor after the insurrection. “They were provoked by the president and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like.”
But now McConnell has voted to acquit Trump of exactly this.
When Trump was acquitted in his previous impeachment trial for pressuring Ukraine to launch a corruption investigation into Biden in order to hamper his presidential campaign, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she believed “the president has learned from this case.”
“I believe that he will be much more cautious in the future,” she added.
He was not. But someone did learn a lesson. Collins voted to convict this time, as did Republican Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.), Bill Cassidy (La.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Mitt Romney (Utah), Ben Sasse (Neb.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.). Romney was the only GOP senator who voted to convict Trump both times.
Trump has now been acquitted in two impeachments. Every time that he transgressed the limits of his office, whether it was trying to get a foreign country to interfere in the 2020 election, lying about his election loss and then seeking to subvert democracy by inciting an insurrection on Jan. 6, most Republicans humored him.
In their final day of arguments, the House impeachment managers explained what it would mean to further humor Trump by not convicting him and disqualifying him from holding public office ever again.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said he was not worried about Trump running again and winning. “I’m afraid he’s going to run again and lose, because he could do this again,” Lieu said.
“If we pretend this didn’t happen, or worse, if we let it go unanswered, who’s to say it won’t happen again,” Neguse said.
And, finally, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), the lead House impeachment manager, asked if there is “any political leader in this room who believes that — if he is allowed by the Senate to get back into the Oval Office — Donald Trump would stop inciting violence to get his way?”
“Would you bet the lives of more police officers on that? Would you bet the safety of your family on that? Would you bet the future of your democracy on that?” Raskin asked. “President Trump declared his conduct ‘totally appropriate,’ so if he gets back into office and it happens again, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.”
But Republican senators acquitted Trump. And now we’ll have to see what happens.
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