THE DEMOCRATS need to have long, hard look at themselves. They tried to slay the monster – but they may find that Hydra has returned, strengthened for the fight to change the terrain of US politics not just for a term but for a whole generation.
The second impeachment was their attempt to neutralise the Trump comeback, but at the last-minute Democrats held back. There were speeches and videos, but none of the live witness testimonies that really mattered. Trump sensed their weakness and wouldn’t play their game. His lawyers presented a token defence based on a cocktail of gaslighting and falsehoods – and any Republicans who were fancying themselves as Brutus scurried back to their party bunker. It was round one to the Trumpublicans, as we have come to know them, who are now regrouping. The Democrats lost their nerve – and, with that, a monumental chance to champion accountability and democracy.
The first impeachment of Trump saw the House split on party lines to deliver the acquittal. Three Democrats and all the Republicans bar one opposed conviction. “Trump acquitted” said the headlines. The final vote in 2021, 57-43 on the charge of inciting insurrection, saw seven Republicans vote with the Democrats – not enough for a two thirds majority. “Trump acquitted” said the headlines. Well, Trump didn’t understand what a “majority” meant either.
All seven rebel Republicans are now facing censures in their states from party leaders and officials. Rebel Senator Bill Cassidy explained his rationale brusquely: “Our Constitution and our country is more important than any one person. I voted to convict President Trump because he is guilty.” Republican official Dave Ball was equally blunt. “We did not send him there to do the right thing,” he said about Senator Pat Toomey, a fiercely conservative fiscal hawk who voted to convict Trump.
The “Grand Old Party” (GOP), with its avuncular support for the military defence of the Union is gone. Out are the values of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln. Ronald Reagan’s “three-legged” coalition of fiscal, social, and religious conservatives sprinkled with strong security and traditional family values has had its day. Mainstream Republicans have no idea what to do next: they have no celebrity to take Trump on, and a return to traditional Republican values is not going to win over the voters.
In Trump’s Republican Party, the exhausting 2020 US election is over, but the former president has a $31m political war chest to invest in securing supportive candidates for the midterm elections, a springboard for his 2023 campaign to be the Republican presidential candidate in 2024.
He is the sitting candidate who lost the 2020 election – but he is already ahead in the GOP. An Axios-Ipsos opinion poll in January showed 64% of Republicans support Trump’s behaviour and 57% want him as their next presidential candidate. A Politico-Morning Consult poll released three days after his acquittal found that 59% of Republican voters wanted Trump to play a prominent role in the Party. Polling from Suffolk University and USA Today showed that 46% of Trump voters would follow him if he formed his own Party, with 42% saying the impeachment had strengthened their support.
On 28th February, at a conservative gathering in Florida, Trump set out to launch his bid for control of the Republican Party and take the first step towards declaring himself the presumptive 2024 nominee. He will start by counterposing his flamboyant leadership to Biden’s quiet reserve – probably starting with a pop at Biden’s reversal of Trump’s Islamophobic immigration policy. He will play the victim, from whom the election was stolen, who has not retired and is still in charge.
If mainstream Republicans are rudderless, the Democrats similarly adrift. They are in no position to question Trump’s candidacy on grounds of his age. Despite losing the impeachment, they may rely on using Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment to keep him off the ballot paper in 2024. (This states that no one shall hold office if they have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the state in which they seek office.) If they wait until 2024, Trump will be unstoppable.
The Democrats may hope that further investigations of the Capitol riot and into Trump’s business affairs, both of which are underway and showing promise, will see off the Teflon president. It’s another gamble: the 9/11-type commission to examine the Capitol riot which Nancy Pelosi proposed is likely to prolong the polarisation of political debate and overshadow President Biden’s legislative agenda – which may be the only promising weapon the Democrats have left.
Accountability is a powerful bulwark against authoritarianism, but the Democrats have blown it. Their light touch accountability – putting Trump on trial but going easy on him lest he play the martyr – made them look vindictive rather than righteous. Former Michigan Representative Justin Amash said not to call witnesses was “a huge mistake”, explaining, “live testimony is everything at an impeachment trial.” Democrat Impeachment Manager Jamie Raskin admitted, “If he gets back into office and it happens again, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.”
Judging Trump through a traditional political lens would be a mistake. His branding is against the norms and political consensus – which is what makes his supporters identify with him to the exclusion of rational argument. Trump’s lawyer, Mr van der Veen, has already started making Trump’s supporters personally slighted by the steal. “History will record this shameful effort as a deliberate attempt by the Democrat party to smear, censor and cancel, not just President Trump, but the 75 million Americans who voted for him,” he said. Before the Florida rally, Trump’s close adviser Jason Miller confirmed the continuity of Trump’s approach: “Trump effectively is the Republican Party. […] When you attack President Trump, you’re attacking the Republican grass roots.”
A US president can use anti-Semitic tropes, indulge in Islamophobia and say some of the most racist and misogynist things, lie about an election (and more), get impeached twice, incite a mob… yet remain popular. For Trump’s supporters, it’s not about the economy, stupid. Collective prosperity, fairness, climate change and justice are overshadowed by the macho nostalgia of Making America Great Again. Trump has captured the hearts of the disenfranchised, the working class, the blue-collar worker. The Democrats cannot shirk the need to win over their brains.
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