Trump’s Acquittal Dampens My Optimism About America’s Future
I still have faith in America, but it’s hard to reconcile optimism with the stark reality of American politics
I try to stay positive and test negative these days.
The latter goal is temporary. I hope we can put the pandemic in the rearview mirror sometime soon. I don’t know if we can put the last few weeks of American politics in the rearview mirror anytime soon.
Donald Trump committed the most egregious and treasonous crime in the history of American politics. And yet again, he got away with his cruelty.
During Trump’s 2016 campaign, he famously said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. The remark seemed foolish at the time; people chalked it up to the bluster and self-aggrandizement at the center of the Trump brand.
Time has proven that remark spot-on. Trump himself didn’t shoot or attack anyone on January 6th. What he did was worse. Much worse. He incited thousands of people to do that on his behalf. A man who has spent his life operating as a wannabe mafioso coopted thousands of people to be his hitmen and do his dirty bidding for him.
As it happened, he sat back in revelry. Some subordinates urged him to condemn the insurrection and send the rioters home. His message was ham-handed at best and malignant at worst.
“We love you. You’re very special.”
It felt like a fitting bookend to a failed presidency. Seven months into his presidency, Trump said there were fine people on both sides of the August 2017 violence in Charlottesville. Two weeks before the end of his presidency, he praised people who were trying to overthrow the government and overturn a free and fair election he decisively lost.
Trump’s Acquittal Speaks Volumes About The Fragility Of Our Democracy
Five people lost their lives because Donald Trump and his heinous henchmen incited an insurrection against the United States government. At least 138 police officers were hospitalized. The Confederate flag was flown inside the U.S. Capitol for the first time ever. January 6th was tragic beyond belief.
And if it weren’t for a combination of heroism and sheer dumb luck, January 6th would’ve gone down as perhaps the most tragic day in American history. Four sitting presidents have been killed — Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy. The insurrectionists almost killed the Vice President, the Speaker of the House, and many of Washington’s most powerful figures. They almost decimated the power structure of American government.
On top of all that, four days prior to inciting a deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol, Trump tried to pressure Georgia’s Secretary of State to throw out just enough votes to overturn Georgia’s election results in a desperate bid to remain in power. Watergate legend Carl Bernstein deemed that “far worse than Watergate.”
In a span of a few days, Trump committed some of the worst crimes in American history. Despite all of that, the petulant man-child at the center of it all got away with being a world-class bull in a china shop…again.
Trump is the only federal official in United States history to have been impeached twice. Fortunately for him, removal from office requires a two-thirds vote in the U.S. Senate. Both times he was impeached, his party of sycophants, hypocrites, and traitors protected him.
The first time around, Trump was charged with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress and could’ve been charged with dozens of other high crimes and misdemeanors. Sadly, every single Republican except for one with at least a little bit of a spine (Mitt Romney) voted to acquit on both counts.
This time, Trump was charged with incitement of insurrection and once again could’ve been charged with dozens of other high crimes and misdemeanors. Although a few Republicans managed to do the least they could to stand with their country above their depraved party, only 57 Senators voted to convict Trump. The seven Republicans who displayed some conscience are either retiring (like Richard Burr and Pat Toomey), not up for reelection until 2026 (like Lisa Murkowski), or simply less concerned with the political implications of going against their party (like Romney).
The Founding Fathers made a few big mistakes when they designed our system of government. Establishing a requirement of a two-thirds majority to remove an elected official from office was not one of them.
It’s supposed to be a high bar to kick someone who’s been fairly elected out of power. It’s supposed to supersede partisan strife and the vagaries of politics.
The historical record validates the wisdom of that choice. Before Trump, only three Presidents had been impeached: Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. Johnson should’ve been removed from office but he escaped by one measly vote. Nixon would’ve been removed if he hadn’t resigned. Clinton arguably deserved it too, but his trial was just that: arguable.
The Congress got two bites at the Trump apple. Both were more than enough to achieve the bipartisan, universal two-thirds majority required to send him home. This was the moment to put country above party.
In normal political times, you’d expect maybe a handful of Senators to consider the overwhelming evidence against Trump and still vote to acquit him. You wouldn’t expect almost half of the Senate to do so.
Many of the Republicans who stood by their disgraced leader hid behind the weak procedural argument that they lacked constitutional authority to convict Trump since he had left office. As Perry Bacon Jr. wrote for 538, this was quite the “convenient rationale — it allowed Senate Republicans to avoid both angering the base and defending Trump’s conduct in the run-up to and on Jan. 6.”
Congressional Republicans chose not to atone for the sin of empowering and emboldening his presidency time and time again. Their fealty to him knows no bounds. Along with many other themes addressed in this piece, that’s a topic worthy of another piece or a hundred pieces.
We Cannot Move Past January 6th
This was the moment to rise above the ugly politics of our time and send a resounding message about the strength of our democracy. It’s both easy and hard to believe the Senate couldn’t rise to the occasion.
Article I of the Constitution was devoted to the legislative branch for a reason. The Founding Fathers experienced firsthand the dangers of tyranny resulting from an omnipotent executive. They were flawed, imperfect men. They would be catatonic if they were still alive to witness what has become of their bold and brave experiment in self-government.
This is a dark moment for America, as Joe Biden said in the wake of Trump’s acquittal.
“This sad chapter in our history has reminded us that democracy is fragile. That it must always be defended. That we must be ever vigilant.”
The events of January 6th should be discussed the way we discuss Pearl Harbor or the JFK assassination or 9/11. The siege on the Capitol will shape history as much as those events, if not more. It bears repeating that a faction of Americans motivated by their president attacked the power center of the federal government in an effort to overturn an election and kill elected officials. I know we live in a fast-paced world and that our attention spans have dwindled, but we cannot move past this.
Trump’s impeachment trial lasted 3 hours and 25 minutes. That’s not much longer than The Godfather. We turned a trial of a president who incited a fascist coup into a movie. The Senate reached a verdict on a fascist authoritarian coup faster than anxious teens take standardized tests.
The list of Trumpian transgressions that came and went over the last few years is far too long. This one cannot and should not be added to that list. As I said earlier, Trump committed the most egregious and treasonous crime in American history, bar none. We can’t move on from that.
In a healthy democracy, a fascist authoritarian like Trump would never have sniffed electoral victory. In a quasi-healthy democracy, someone like Trump couldn’t have gotten away with the litany of crimes and misdeeds he committed. Trump should not have escaped justice and accountability for inciting an insurrection against the government.
Perhaps the criminal justice system will handle that. I’m not holding my breath.
I’ve been in a foreign country for a couple of weeks and I’ve paid hardly any attention to current events back home. It’s been a wonderful privilege I don’t take for granted.
Having somewhat distanced myself from American politics, it’s hard for me to deny the following sentiment: If we can’t convict a man with a rap sheet longer than a CVS receipt, it will take a long time for the country to reach the spirit of bipartisanship and decency that was at least signaled by Biden’s electoral victory.
I hate to bring up the historical parallel with Trump’s failed coup attempt: Adolf Hitler. In 1923, Hitler infamously staged a failed coup attempt known as the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. It fueled Hitler’s rise as a national figure. A couple of years later, he published Mein Kampf. Less than a decade later, Hitler brought fascism to Germany.
Hitler succeeded because he bullied other powerful people to fall in line. Trump escaped justice by the same means. As Maeve Reston wrote for CNN, this sets a dangerous precedent in America. If an autocratic leader who repeatedly violates his oath of office can escape justice by bullying enough powerful people to protect himself, what happens if (or when) another American fascist (like Josh Hawley or one of Trump’s children) assumes the presidency with a degree of competence and focus Trump could never muster?
I doubt America will devolve into fascism like Nazi Germany. But America had a golden opportunity to repudiate fascism and turn the corner against the ugliest political developments of recent times. Its failure to do so underlines the difficulty of forming a more perfect Union.
America is torn between democracy and fascism. We’ve been tested before but we would be wise to heed the wise words of Abraham Lincoln:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Nonetheless, I’m keeping the faith. I’ll conclude with the same words I wrote last month upon Biden’s inauguration.
The last few years haven’t diminished my love of America. They’ve deepened it. And if you believe in a brighter future, I hope you can find a space in your heart and in your mind to believe we are standing near the end of something ugly and at the beginning of something beautiful.