A president should not be able to get away with outright lying about the outcome of an election for two straight months, alleging without evidence that it was stolen from him in a vast conspiracy, and then inciting an insurrection against Congress as it attempts to certify the results, with the ultimate goal of getting himself pronounced the winner despite the fact that he lost.
That’s why we’re back here — putting Donald Trump on trial in his second impeachment weeks after his successor was sworn in. We’re doing it all again, one last time, because if a president can’t be convicted by the Senate for doing what Trump did, then impeachment might as well be stricken from the Constitution on grounds of worthlessness. As Impeachment Manager Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin put it in his opening remarks on Tuesday afternoon, if Trump’s actions are “not an impeachable offense, there is no such thing.”
In a word, Trump should be convicted. But we all know he probably won’t be.
Does the outcome matter? Just as they did a little over a year ago during Trump Impeachment 1.0, nearly all Democrats and a tiny number of Republicans say it doesn’t — that the principle is the point; that Trump’s actions and statements, the evidence of his guilt, need to be entered into the public record; that if he isn’t convicted, the fault and the shame will lie entirely with those Republican officeholders who place rank partisanship and fealty to a disgraceful man ahead of their duty to the country and the Constitution.
I get that moral logic. I feel it in my bones. That’s why I’ve favored a second impeachment trial from the moment the first deluded insurrectionists broke into the Capitol building on the afternoon of Jan. 6.
But now, as the trial gets underway in the Senate, I’m having doubts — not about what should happen, but about the wisdom of forging ahead when we know what likely will happen.
For four straight years, Trump’s critics made versions of the same normative claim: This shouldn’t be allowed to happen! The president shouldn’t be permitted to lie and cheat, to insult and exaggerate, to denigrate and humiliate anyone and everyone who resists falling in line and bowing down obsequiously before him. And yet it happened, over and over again. He kept doing things he wasn’t supposed to, and he kept getting away with it.
How? By discrediting his accusers — by pulling, dragging, yanking them down to his own level. That’s why Trump’s acolytes in Congress and sycophants in the media so often ended up sounding like automatons stuck in a loop, endlessly hurling the same countercharges of hypocrisy and double standards at the president’s critics.
It was as pathetic as a playground taunt of “I know you are, but what am I?” Yet it was remarkably effective at convincing an overwhelming majority of Republican voters that Trump’s accusers had no business portraying themselves as his moral betters. And if none of his accusers’ judgments could be taken seriously, if their charges could be dismissed as a subterfuge concealing baser, purely self-interested, political motives, then Trump could get away with anything. Then everything was permitted.
That was the saga — the degrading spectacle — of the past four years, in which expectations for public morals and comportment were continually defined downward by the president’s own gutter-level, mob-boss conduct and his party’s need to excuse it.
What has genuinely surprised me about the political mood of the country since Trump was silenced on social media in the days after the insurrection, and even more since he left office altogether, is how quickly we seem to have rebounded into normalcy. Not that the rottenness Trump revealed has disappeared or been repaired. Far from it. Plenty of politicians and members of the mainstream media remain eager to continue practicing the deranged and sinister Dada politics that dominated the last few years. But without Trump gaslighting the nation day and night from the White House, the maelstrom has settled down somewhat, with a semblance of order returning to Washington and a sense of moral equilibrium beginning to return.
Now don’t get me wrong: The danger hasn’t passed. Trump was a symptom of a disease that goes far beyond him, even if he personally made things incalculably worse. The stress test of his presidency pushed American democracy to the brink. We have no way of knowing if we’ll continue to back away from the edge over the coming months and years, or end up rushing back to it with the next election or following a traumatic event we can’t begin to contemplate or predict.
What seems clear, however, is that a second impeachment trial that ends in acquittal for the former president — won in large part by his defenders successfully discrediting his accusers and explaining away the appalling gravity of his words and deeds following the 2020 election — will pull us back to the moral chaos of the Trump presidency once again. It would be a vivid, pernicious reminder that refusing to back down in the face of inconvenient facts and recalcitrant reality can be a plausible path to prevailing. That practicing politics as a form of absurd performance art yields dividends. That shamelessness pays.
Maybe the outcome will be different with Trump Impeachment 2.0. Maybe this time it won’t just be liberals who are moved by rhetorically powerful presentations by the House managers arguing their case against Trump from the well of the Senate. Contingencies are always at play in human affairs. It’s possible they could produce a rapid shift in public opinion and a change in voting intentions in the Senate, with a sufficient number of Republicans voting to convict the former president and titular head of their party. If they do, my last-minute skittishness will appear foolish.
But if they don’t, we’ll be right back where we were for the entirety of the Trump presidency — standing slack-jawed before a civic travesty, wondering just what the hell to do about it.