Former President Trump will once again make the kind of history you do not want your name associated with on Tuesday when his second impeachment trial commences in the U.S. Senate. As with Trump’s first trial (barely more than a year ago, if you can believe it), the outcome is not in doubt. But just because we know how it will end doesn’t mean the trial won’t be gripping. Members of Congress narrating their terrifying Insurrection Day ordeals will be a riveting spectacle. And just as we did in the House last month, Americans will get a quick and dirty head count of how many Republicans value democracy itself more than their own political fates.
Don’t get your hopes up on that score. While the political and evidentiary cases for GOP senators to convict Trump and bar him from ever holding federal office again are straightforward, the path to 67 votes is not. Instead, viewers should brace themselves for torturous arguments about how it is unconstitutional to impeach a former president, and some extremely “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is” galaxy logic about how Trump did not incite the crowd to insurrection because he did not literally say the words “please go and lay violent siege to our national legislature.” Gathering more than one Republican in a room these days is a plain invitation to this kind of sophistry.
It is possible to imagine a world where Trump would have no defenders. After all, the 45th president of the United States exited the White House in a state of objective disgrace so thorough that it wasn’t even particularly remarkable that he and his wife slipped away hours before Joe Biden’s inauguration in a kind of Helicopter Ride of Shame.
Trump spent his last months in office conspiring to overturn the clear results of the 2020 election with a slimy pillow company executive and a group of awful lawyers in painfully obvious cognitive decline, all while ignoring his responsibility to help manage the rampaging pandemic that has now claimed nearly 500,000 American lives in a year. Had he succeeded in his dark quest, he would have triggered at minimum the violent breakup of the United States of America and God knows what else.
It’s also not like Trump is an unassailably popular figure. His final approval rating in the Five Thirty Eight average was 38.6 percent, close to the lowest marks of his term. A 13-point majority wants him found guilty and to never see him darken the national doorstep with his presence again. Even if you cautiously assume these polls are all a few points off, their message is nevertheless stark. With the next national elections 21 months away, there simply could not be a more auspicious opportunity for America’s warring political parties to come together in defense of the principles of democracy itself.
Last but not least is this: Without a conviction, Trump remains a serious threat to run again in 2024, and until proven otherwise has to be considered the favorite for the GOP nomination. Multiple sitting Republican senators, including Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Ted Cruz (Texas), are rumored to be serious 2024 aspirants. Have none of them considered that eliminating Trump from contention would help clear a path for them? Are they really worried his supporters would stay angry for all three years until Iowa? Imagine you’re a sports executive chasing the off-season’s hottest free agent and you could just vote one of your competitors off the island. Damn the consequences, because successful major-party nominations fly forever.
But even if Trump himself shows up on the Senate floor dressed as the QAnon shaman screaming “You’re damn right I ordered the Capitol siege, and I’d do it again!” he isn’t getting 17 Republican votes for conviction. As sad as it is to acknowledge, no more than a handful of GOP senators will join their Democratic colleagues to issue what amounts to a formal reprimand for attempting to extinguish American democracy from the face of the Earth.
It’s not for lack of recognition of what he did. Unlike in the House of Representatives, where there is a growing gaggle of giddy grifters eager to carry the torch of Trumpism onward into fresh caves of disaster and humiliation, there are no more than a handful of GOP senators who are dumb or blinkered enough not to understand that the former president’s actions after the 2020 election were seditious, unforgivable, and more than enough to merit impeachment and conviction.
So why won’t they turn on Trump? The former president commands not just the MAGA political movement, but also serves as the de facto warlord of a ragtag army that can harass and intimidate elected officials until they break, resign, or disappear from public life. Together they are, ironically, one of the greatest forces of cancellation ever known to humankind.
Some Republicans who know perfectly well what a threat Trump remains may simply prefer being part of a crowd of people doing the wrong thing together rather than offering themselves up as tribute to the maddened hordes. After spending four years running away from reporters, offering limp excuses for Trump’s incendiary behavior, or pretending not to have heard about the latest outrage, why pay that steep price now when it’ll all be over in a week?
Senators who plan to fight for re-election also fear a primary challenge from the MAGA militia’s political arm. With some relatively effortless planning, Trump could organize a series of rallies to build support for challengers not just to theoretically vulnerable GOP senators like Ron Johnson (Wis.) but also the many Republicans up for re-election in safe seats, like Mike Lee (Utah) and Marco Rubio (Fla.). The latter has been the subject of speculation about whether Ivanka Trump will challenge him for his seat in the primary. There’s a better chance of the Miami Marlins winning the World Series than there is of Rubio taking that kind of noble political risk.
The political scientist David Mayhew once famously characterized members of Congress as “single-minded seekers of re-election.” Getting vanquished in a primary is almost as good a way to lose your seat as defeat in the general election. For every Joe Lieberman who runs successfully as an independent after a primary loss, there are a hundred politicians who are just done. It’s also, for what it’s worth, an acutely embarrassing way to go out: rejected by your own most fervent partisans and replaced by a fresh new sensation. It’s the political equivalent of getting left for someone younger and hotter.
That means the “no” votes are likely to be limited to a familiar cast including moderate Republicans Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), and Mitt Romney (Utah), along with retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.), and Ben Sasse (Neb.), who hasn’t announced his retirement but frequently talks like he doesn’t care if he wins another election. Those are the five Republicans who voted against Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s motion to dismiss the trial as unconstitutional. Even hoping for that lot to stick together through a conviction vote might be asking too much.
There’s no sugarcoating how depressing this all is. What is it about our political system that incentivizes so many elected officials to choose hyper-partisan interests over those of the country as a whole, over and over again? What causes otherwise decent men and women, who surely recognize the threat Donald Trump poses to the health and future of the American experiment, to pay his ransom and forfeit their honor rather than take a stand for decency and the common good?
If nothing else, maybe the trial will help us answer those questions. It certainly won’t rid us of the scourge of Trump and Trumpism. If Collins, Sasse, and the few remaining Republicans of integrity really wanted to do that, they would formally renounce their party and put in the work of building an alternative.
That they still refuse to do so says more about them than it does about Trump.