The second impeachment trial of Donald Trump will begin next week. But there’s more at stake in the proceedings than Trump’s legacy.
The overwhelming majority of Republicans are determined to resist impeachment regardless of their personal feelings about Trump. Perhaps some still think a conviction would be worth it if it would definitively end his political career. But even they may understand that it would be political malpractice and a breach of faith with their voters to join with the Democrats seeking Trump’s scalp.
But Trump’s future is not what is really at stake in the debate about the events of Jan. 6. As disgraceful and criminal as the behavior of the mob was that day and as troubling as Trump’s mistakes were, the point of impeachment isn’t about punishing him or even whether it would be legally possible for him to run again for president in 2024. It is the future of the entire Republican Party that is currently up for grabs.
As their choice of language, the broad scope of their accusations, and the measures beyond impeachment that they are considering as a response indicate, Democrats have more ambitious goals than further shaming or disqualifying Trump from a future presidential run. The rhetorical inflation of a dangerous riot by a mob to a full-blown “insurrection” is more than political hyperbole.
By retroactively transforming the riot at the Capitol into an armed rebellion conducted by white supremacists and then linking it to not just Trump but to everyone who attended his Jan. 6 rally, supported his questioning of the 2020 election results or even those who voted for him, the goal to the exercise is more far-reaching than most GOP officeholders still seem to understand.
What Trump’s opponents have done is to launch a campaign that seeks to treat the “insurrection” as not just the fitting culmination of the Trump administration but the prism through which to view the Republican Party as disloyal, authoritarian, and violent. By this means, all those members of the House and the Senate who voted to challenge the Electoral College results can be labeled as accessories to insurrection. By painting with such a broad brush, the same can also be retroactively applied to those who raised questions about the election results even if they opposed the Jan. 6 challenge in Congress.
The conservative focus on Big Tech censorship and mainstream media bias in the wake of Jan. 6 is at least in part a recognition of the stakes involved in the current debate. The silencing of Trump and others on the right by Twitter, the deplatforming of Parler, and the increasing calls for “deprogramming” of Republicans as well as for driving Fox News off the air are all ominous. So too are Democratic attempts to use the riot to justify a vast expansion of efforts to spy on American citizens, which seems aimed at discrediting dissent with a broad brush of domestic terrorism.
Inflating the events of Jan. 6 into an insurrection involves transforming the few hundred rioters into a full-fledged domestic terrorism conspiracy even if there’s little evidence to back up that charge. Hence, the effort to claim, as The New York Times recently asserted, that Trump and the Republicans wrongly focused attention on the threat from Antifa and the violence committed in the name of the Black Lives Matter movement rather than on the supposedly more serious white supremacist threat.
Given the far greater toll of injuries and damage done during hundreds of BLM riots when compared to the one impulsive charge at the Capitol, this allegation falls flat. Yet by associating Republicans with terrorism, the claim still does the needed damage to Democrats’ opponents.
But what many are missing is that if the defining issue of American politics becomes a defense of democracy against Trumpist insurrection, that, rather than fears about demography or even Internet censorship, may be the factor that will lock Republicans into a permanent minority position that will determine the outcome in 2024 and beyond.
Democrats know they can’t count on running against Trump or COVID (with a candidate in hiding and thus protected from gaffes) in the future. But the transformation of the riot into an “insurrection” and skeptics about the election results into seditious rebels would allow them to do just that.
Seen in that light, the impeachment trial isn’t just an act of revenge. It is a vehicle for making the culture war about Trump a permanent feature of American politics.
The riot provided Trump’s opponents something that could justify the hysterical rhetoric they had been employing for four years. Democrats had been claiming that Trump’s administration was the first step toward tyranny since before he was elected.
That their rights were intact throughout his time in office never stopped them from employing outrageous claims about him being a Nazi and an authoritarian. But it was not until the Capitol riot that they had anything that could make it appear as if their fears were based in anything but hyper-partisanship. That is why the effort to milk genuine public outrage about the riot into a national trauma on the level of the 9/11 attacks is so crucial to the future of American politics.
Running against an insurrection is the sort of opportunity that doesn’t come along very often. Republicans did it throughout the second half of the 19th century as their efforts to weaponize continued resentment against Democrats who had either supported the Confederacy or opposed the Union war effort and reconstruction. The specter of the “bloody shirt” of the cost of that actual insurrection kept the GOP in power for 44 out of 52 years until the Republican schism between Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft elected Woodrow Wilson in 1912.
In the month since the riot, the false narrative of an “insurrection” has become the Democrats’ “bloody shirt” for the 21st century. What matters now is how Republicans respond to the challenge it poses for their future.
That is why it is imperative that the response to impeachment not be merely a procedural argument about wrongly punishing a president with removal after he leaves office. Nor can Republicans hope to evade this problem by joining with Democrats to convict Trump, even if they believe his conduct is worthy of censure. Not only will that not work, the divisions it will promote within the GOP will be just as fatal to their future electoral hopes.
Instead, the only possible response to the Democrats’ attack is to refute the charge that what happened on Jan. 6 was anything like an insurrection or sedition. Even if the challenge to the Electoral College result was poorly reasoned and constitutionally impossible, the pro-Trump protest that the president addressed was neither illegal nor a threat to democracy, however misguided or intemperate his remarks might have been.
The minority of those who came to support Trump who violated the law—as opposed to merely exercising their right to protest, like those who took part in “mostly peaceful” BLM protests that turned into riots and looting—deserve severe punishment. But their conduct cannot be treated as something that can discredit everyone who applauded Trump that day or wished for a different outcome last November.
One needn’t think well of Trump’s post-election conduct or condone all the exaggerated claims of fraud he promoted to understand that transforming a protest, no matter how ill considered, into a rebellion is an act of political mischief aimed at discrediting legitimate opposition, not a defense of the Constitution. If Republicans fail to refute these false charges, they will be paying the political price for handing the Democrats a “bloody shirt” with which to assail them for many election cycles to come.