Let’s be clear about one thing: There was never a chance that the Senate would vote to convict Donald Trump.
Two-thirds of sitting senators is an impossibly high threshold, even in a chamber where Republicans didn’t have a slim majority. We knew going in that this was a losing fight.
But in spite of that, I’m glad we did it. However long the odds, we had to try. It drives home the gravity of Trump’s conduct, and it sends a message that Democrats are prepared to do whatever is in their power to stop him. To roll over and accede, without even a fight, would have sent the message that impeachment is dead and that there is no remedy when a president breaks the law.
In a way, I’m glad that the Senate voted against calling witnesses. It makes the issue at hand that much clearer. If they’d made a show of listening to witnesses or weighing the evidence, I don’t doubt that would have been enough to satisfy many soggy-hearted centrists. Instead, their actions removed all possible doubt as to their motivation: he’s from their tribe, he’s given them power, and that’s the only thing that matters to them. However criminal his actions, they’re not even going to pretend to be objective.
What I wonder about is the mindset of the Republicans who voted to acquit. They’re not, most of them, unintelligent. Try as they might to close their eyes and cover their ears, I have no doubt that they knew full well that Trump was guilty. They know that he’s spreading a stain of corruption and lawlessness through the fabric of American democracy. They know that he’s doing damage to our nation that may not be repaired for decades, if ever. And they know that by immunizing him from consequence, they’re emboldening him – and whoever succeeds him – to do even worse, now and in the future. Regardless of what lines they mouth on Fox News, how do they justify it to themselves, in the darkness of their own souls?
This same point was made in an editorial by Sen. Sherrod Brown. According to him, the Republican senators are fully aware of Trump’s lawbreaking and criminality, but they voted to acquit because they’re afraid of retaliation:
In other words, it’s pure craven fear. They believe that going against the leader of their party, no matter what he’s done, would harm their reelection chances, and they’re determined to cling to power no matter the cost. Even though they’re all wealthy, incredibly privileged people who would be fine either in government or out of it, hanging onto their seats matters more to them than the integrity of the nation they serve. They’re dead-set on remaining the biggest fish, even when the pond they swim in is drying up. (It’s already happening, as Trump retaliates against whistleblowers and interferes in prosecution of his allies.)
There’s an old Russian proverb: The tallest blade of grass is the first cut by the scythe. In private, many of my colleagues agree that the president is reckless and unfit. They admit his lies. And they acknowledge what he did was wrong. They know this president has done things Richard Nixon never did. And they know that more damning evidence is likely to come out.
So watching the mental contortions they perform to justify their votes is painful to behold: They claim that calling witnesses would have meant a never-ending trial. They tell us they’ve made up their minds, so why would we need new evidence? They say to convict this president now would lead to the impeachment of every future president — as if every president will try to sell our national security to the highest bidder.
I have asked some of them, “If the Senate votes to acquit, what will you do to keep this president from getting worse?” Their responses have been shrugs and sheepish looks.
I’m pleasantly surprised that there was one Republican who broke with the groupthink and admitted the obvious, and I’m even more surprised that the voice in the wilderness was Mitt Romney, who’s famous for blowing with the political winds. I suppose this has less to do with a sudden outbreak of political courage and more to do with the fact that Romney has an independent base of support. There’s plenty to criticize the Mormons for, but they do seem slightly less enthusiastic than evangelicals to sell their soul to the first politician who promises them worldly power.
The other conclusion to draw from this story, I’m coming to believe, is the fundamentally undemocratic way that America is governed. A president who lost the popular vote by millions is one example, and this acquittal is another, as this story points out:
Democratic Senators represent a total of 168 million Americans and Romney 1.5 million, a total figure 18 million greater than the 151.5 million represented by the remaining Republican senators who voted to acquit. Yet the acquittal was confirmed.
If this had happened once, it could be dismissed as an aberration permitted by America’s arcane political system. But, I’m coming to believe, it’s central to the Republican strategy. As their voters age and die, as rural regions depopulate while young people flock to cities, they’re focusing more and more on establishing perpetual minority rule for themselves. We can expect ever-more-aggressive gerrymandering and voter suppression in the future, and there will no doubt be worse to come.
As this episode shows, they’re not just willing but eager to turn a blind eye to outright criminal conduct, as long as it’s done by someone who’s on their side. For all its faults, America has done much to advance the principle that no one is above the law – but we’re well on our way to throwing that idea out and becoming a banana republic.