The strange kabuki of the trial of Donald Trump
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
The trial of former US President Donald Trump in the US Senate had all the hallmarks of a Shakespearean tragedy. The Democratic impeachment managers put together a chilling case proving Trump's complicity in the January 6 assault on the US Congress.
Like a Shakespearean tragedy, the end was pre-ordained—Republican partisan obduracy prevented the 67 votes against Trump that were required for impeachment. However, seven intrepid Republican senators voted according to their conscience and created history. Although Trump was acquitted, this was the most bipartisan vote for a presidential impeachment ever.
Here is an excerpt from a US senator's remarks: "American citizens attacked their own government… because they had been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on Earth—because he was angry he'd lost an election… There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day."
Eloquent but also odd, because the speaker voted to acquit Trump. Those words came from Republican leader Senator Mitch McConnell, who sought refuge in a dubious technicality. What's noteworthy is that not a single Republican senator defended Trump. How could they?
The Republican senators were right there when it all happened: The murder threats against Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Trump egging on his supporters with false claims of a stolen election and making the illegal demand that Pence not certify the electoral college results. Republican senators were in a tough spot—it was impossible to deny Trump's complicity, yet to acknowledge Trump's guilt would be committing political harakiri. The Republican base would eat them alive.
The Republican base, in fact, appears to live in a different world. Politico reports that a "Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted in the days following the Senate trial shows that despite the impeachment managers' gripping presentation and video laying out Trump's role in the January 6 rampage… Republican voters got over any misgivings they had about Trump's role on January 6 very quickly. Fifty-nine percent of Republican voters said they want Trump to play a major role in their party going forward. That's up 18 percentage points from a Morning Consult poll conducted on January 7, and an increase of nine points from a follow-up poll on January 25, before the impeachment trial began."
There you have it. The Republican Party has gone off the deep end. It has morphed into a cult—the party of Trump. This did not happen in a day. For decades, Republicans have turned a blind eye to morally unconscionable behaviour for partisan gain.
In 2008, Republican presidential candidate and Arizona Senator John McCain chose former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin combined ignorance with shameless mendacity. She claimed—I kid you not—that she was an expert on Russia because Vladimir Putin's planes flew close to Alaska. Later, when President Barack Obama tried to get his healthcare plan approved, she railed about "death panels" who would send elderly people to their deaths. It was a vicious falsehood, but so what? The grassroots were thrilled, and party elders looked the other way.
Take Rush Limbaugh, the recently deceased rightwing talk radio host. Over 15 million people listened to his show. Limbaugh's toxic, mendacious meanness makes Palin look like Mother Teresa. "He spun conspiracy theories about the supposed involvement of Mr Clinton and his wife, Hillary, in the death of the former deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, and spread lies about former President Barack Obama's birthplace. He… almost always referred to him on the air by using the former president's middle name, Hussein, a trope that right-wing commentators used to evoke the false impression that he was not an American and was possibly a Muslim," The New York Times reports.
"Few media stars were as crucial in making disinformation, false rumours and fringe ideas the right's new reality… Mr Limbaugh's willingness to indulge the paranoia among Mr Trump's most ardent supporters was especially powerful in misleading people to believe that bad news about their president—like his loss in November or his mismanagement of the coronavirus response—was simply made up by his enemies or the result of a nefarious plot (In the case of the virus, Mr Limbaugh called it nothing more than a "common cold".)"
Limbaugh laughed all the way to the bank, Republicans won the presidency in 2016, and everyone was happy in the Republican Party. Until it all blew up with the January attack.
This attack is tearing apart the broader Republican coalition. College educated Republican supporters in the affluent suburbs are fed up with a grassroots untethered from reality, policy and civility. The Republican brand is tanking in popular American opinion polls.
Meanwhile, after a few days of uncharacteristic silence, Mount Trump has erupted. "Mitch is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again," Trump said in a statement. "I will back primary rivals who espouse Making America Great Again and our policy of America First."
In 2020, Republicans lost the presidency and both the House and Senate. Just when they need to get their act together for the 2022 elections, a nasty intra-party fight looms.
"Republicans are starting their life in the Senate minority mired in a civil war over the future of the GOP and former President Donald Trump's role in the party," Politico reported. "Trump's scathing attack on… McConnell… exposed rifts that could dash the GOP's hopes of retaking the Senate in 2022 if they are allowed to fester."
Republicans may well discover that political victory at any cost can turn out to be a Faustian bargain.
Ashfaque Swapan, an Atlanta-based writer and editor, is contributing editor for Siliconeer, an online South Asian publication.