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The United States Senate has voted to acquit Donald Trump of inciting an insurrection after the 2020 election. Seven Republicans joined all fifty Democrats in the most bipartisan vote for conviction in history, but it fell ten votes short of the needed two-thirds majority.
President Trump’s first impeachment was for abusing the power of his office to get himself reelected. He asked the government of Ukraine to open an investigation of Joe Biden in return for U.S. military assistance. Many Republicans acknowledged that the evidence supported the charge, but questioned whether the matter was serious enough to constitute “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Now some Republican Senators, notably leader Mitch McConnell, are ignoring the evidence for a different reason, the claim that the Senate lacks jurisdiction over a president who has already left office. Most constitutional scholars say that it must have that jurisdiction, in order to hold a president accountable for offenses he commits in his final days in office and to bar him from seeking office again. McConnell is hardly the right person to raise this objection anyway, since he was the one who insisted on scheduling the trial for after the Inauguration in the first place. This is not McConnell’s first act of Machiavellian duplicity. He was also the one who insisted that an Obama Supreme Court appointment could not be considered in a president’s final year in office, but a Trump appointment could be considered in his final few weeks in office.
The real reason for acquittal has nothing to do with legal technicalities, and everything to do with the power of the pro-Trump faction in today’s Republican Party. Most Republican Senators could not bring themselves to convict him, no matter how egregious his conduct. For months Trump waged a campaign to convince his followers that only fraud could prevent his reelection, despite the fact that his approval rating had never reached 50% in four years. He actually convinced a majority of Republicans that he did win, without presenting any significant evidence of fraud. When he exhausted his legal means of contesting the election, he turned to illegal means, such as pressuring state officials to find him additional votes and pushing Vice President Pence to exceed his constitutional authority by refusing to accept the state results. Then Trump called his forces to the Capitol, not to stand on the periphery of the Capitol grounds to chant or pray while the votes were counted, but to “fight like hell” to “stop the steal.” And while the Capitol was being invaded, he not only refused to do anything to stop it, but poured fuel on the fire by tweeting that “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our country and our Constitution.” How could any Senator fail to see this as inciting an insurrection? McConnell himself said, “Trump’s actions preceded the riot for disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty. There’s no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”
What I have been arguing, especially in my last post, is that Trumpism is not just an aberration in Republican politics. It is the culmination of a disturbing transformation that has been going on for some time. One way to describe it is to say that the party has been transforming itself from the party of limited government to the party of hostility to government. The first is a healthy aspect of a two-party democracy. The second is a danger to democracy.
In America, free-market capitalism and democratic government grew up together and still need each other. Capitalism has been an engine of economic growth, but democracy has constrained its most inegalitarian tendencies. Unregulated capitalism allows the accumulation of vast wealth and power, which are too easily used to the detriment of workers and consumers. From time to time, democratic reforms such as antitrust laws and worker protections are enacted to keep the playing field reasonably level. While Republicans defend free-market capitalism against the threat of state socialism, Democrats defend democracy against the threat of plutocracy, the rule by a wealthy ownership class.
In this context, the presidency of Donald Trump, the authoritarian billionaire, has turned out to be dangerous to our democratic institutions. He has undermined respect not only for our election process, but for Congress, the legal system, federal agencies, the intelligence community, journalism and science. But his peculiar combination of plutocracy and populism has been too tempting for Republicans to resist. How can a plutocrat be a populist? Well, by co-opting a large segment of the working class who used to vote Democratic. By dividing the electorate along racial, ethnic and religious lines so that they vote their cultural identities and privileges instead of their economic interests. By blaming economic distress on foreigners, immigrants and minorities and trying to wall the country off from the world through border walls and high tariffs. By denying and ignoring real problems like climate change, the pandemic, the threat of technological change to existing jobs, and gross economic inequality. And by characterizing reasonable reforms as socialist threats to liberty.
Republicans were already pursuing such strategies before Trump took them to an extreme. He joined them in proposing tax cuts that were a huge gift to corporations and the wealthy, and that deprived government of revenue it needs to address pressing problems like the pandemic. Aside from that, his legislative agenda was mostly negative, opposing reforms such as Obamacare and efforts to combat climate change.
The debate over the Affordable Care Act is an excellent example of the coalescence of Republican and Trumpian interests. As Paul Krugman points out in Arguing with Zombies, it was actually a moderate measure that relied mainly on the private insurance market, as opposed to the single-payer systems of many other wealthy democracies. It required insurers to accept people with pre-existent conditions, but it also required healthy people to carry insurance. (Otherwise, insurers might have to raise premiums sky high as they insured the people with the greatest claims.) Then it subsidized premiums for low-income consumers and called on states to expand Medicaid for the poor. Krugman says that “Republicans hated Obamacare not because they expected it to fail, but because they feared that it would succeed, and thereby demonstrate that government actually can do things to make people’s lives better.” They never came up with a more conservative way of covering everyone, so they resorted to a campaign of deception, calling the ACA a government takeover of medical care and claiming that government “death panels” were going to decide who lived and who died. Trump then took the deception to a higher level. He claimed that he had his own plan to cover preexisting conditions at much lower cost, and that he would present it in a few weeks. He was still saying that four years later.
The Trump presidency has suited a Republican Party that prefers obstruction to governance and deception to truth. Krugman says that it no longer contributes very much to democratic policy debate, which requires both sides to acknowledge demonstrable facts and seek solutions in good faith. Supported by right-wing media propaganda campaigns, Republicans have created a monster within their own base, a mob of misinformed anti-government extremists who now pose a threat to democracy. Republican leaders like McConnell might prefer not to live with them, but they cannot seem to live without them either. What remains to be seen is whether the pro-Trump majority and the anti-Trump minority can live with each other within the same political party, or if that party comes apart at the seams.