It goes without saying that Donald Trump caused the Capitol Hill riot that took place on Jan. 6, 2021. It doesn’t take a law degree to recognize (unlike Trump’s defense team) that an impeachment trial is not a criminal trial, and the standard for conviction is much lower.
The outcome of last week’s vote, while hardly a surprise, was shameful nonetheless. It was, on one hand, reassuring to see more Republicans than expected voting for conviction. Their courage was admirable, rendering the impeachment the most bipartisan one in American history.
On the other hand, to put it bluntly, the bar was on the floor.
Members of Congress feared for their lives on Jan. 6, with rioters breaking into the Capitol and chanting death threats aimed at the vice president. The riot resulted in the death of five people, and two of the officers present took their lives in the aftermath. As the House impeachment managers repeatedly reminded senators, it was clear that day that the president did not have their back.
For a brief period following the riot, it appeared that Republicans might try to distance themselves from the former president. However, it soon became clear that most of the party was unwilling to risk retribution from its kingmaker. While some members who voted for acquittal, like Senator Josh Hawley, sincerely believe in the Trumpist project, others have caved out of fear of electoral punishment. All but one of the Republican senators who voted to convict did so with the luxury of not being up for re-election in 2022. While the need to win elections is understandable, if there was a single time it was necessary to put principles over politics, this was it.
It was especially disheartening to see Republicans who supported impeachment, many of them long-time conservatives (and certainly no friend of the Democrats), face more vitriol from their party than did Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has a history of peddling in dangerous conspiracy theories. At least Republicans who went all-in on impeachment like Representative Liz Cheney and Senator Mitt Romney can sleep at night with the satisfaction that history will look favorably upon them.
Numerous state and local Republican officials baselessly blamed left-wing instigators for the Capitol riot. Senators, meanwhile, who often pride themselves in belonging to “the world’s greatest deliberative body” and who experienced the riot firsthand, instead cloaked their arguments for acquittal under the more respectable guise of constitutional jurisdiction, despite such arguments having been widely debunked by legal scholars from across the ideological spectrum.
Current Minority Leader Mitch McConnell exemplified this tactic in an in-character yet shocking charade, arguing that the Senate did not have the authority to impeach a former president while failing to mention that he was the one who sought to delay the trial until after Trump left office. Most of the remaining 42 Republicans who voted for acquittal followed suit in their stated justifications.
The contrast between the defense, who armed themselves with no shortage of fallacies and falsehoods, and the prosecution was striking. The impeachment managers laid out the trial’s constitutional legitimacy and made use of primary sources to show that rioters believed they were acting on behalf of the president. Trump’s legal team, meanwhile, provided little in the way of substance, which was hardly surprising given the substance in question.
Though they touched upon Trump’s words and tweets from the day of the riot, their roughly three-hour defense was marked by seemingly endless whataboutism aimed at Democrats. Highlights included showing video compilations of Democrats saying “fight” out of context and playing a lengthy portion of Trump’s widely condemned Charlottesville speech, supposedly to show that Democrats had selectively focused on the worst of it (exactly how this helped their case was unclear).
The defense also pointed to videos of Democrats calling to impeach Trump on different occasions throughout his time in office. The point they were trying to make was clear, as Democrats have been accused of foaming at the mouth to impeach Trump for some time now.
If Democrats are plagued by so-called “Trump derangement syndrome,” however, it is not a disease but rather a symptom of the former president’s gross misconduct and numerous potential violations of the Constitution beginning from the moment he took office. The fact that Trump was able to get away with all this and more has already set a dangerous precedent that would be troubling for U.S. democracy even if the Capitol riot had not occurred.
Republican opponents of impeachment made the case that it would create a dangerous precedent, whether through impeaching a private citizen or by punishing political opponents for their free speech. It is certainly plausible that Democrats’ initiation of multiple impeachments in a single presidential term may lead to the mechanism becoming more frequently invoked by both sides of the aisle. Greene, to this point, began calling for President Joe Biden’s impeachment before he was even inaugurated based on unsubstantiated allegations pushed by the Trump campaign.
However, none of this deterred Democrats from going through with the trial. Republicans argued that the impeachment would be “polarizing,” but after decades of Republican-driven polarization in Washington, such calls ring hollow. There can be no unity without accountability.
By the time the first class of Tea Party politicians was elected to Congress in 2010, the groundwork for Trumpism had already been laid. The real estate mogul who helped promulgate the racist birther conspiracy was in a perfect position to weaponize the culture war divisions that had been fomenting on the right.
Trump’s rise during the 2016 Republican primary was concerning in and of itself, and the party establishment abrogating its gatekeeping role once it became inconvenient made it all the more so. Prominent Republicans like Ted Cruz, whose wife was mocked by Trump, eventually caved and became some of the former president’s biggest enablers.
What was once the party of Abraham Lincoln allowed itself to become the party of Trump, willingly associating itself with his over 30,000 falsehoods, entertainment of conspiracy theories and repeated violations of long-held democratic norms. Any sound political observer would hope for the Republican Party to distance itself from Trumpism and the rise of extremism that has come to signify it. In the meantime, however, it is imperative that Democrats stand their ground when Republicans — particularly with McConnell as their new de facto leader — try to play dirty. After all, what good is a norm if only one side is committed to upholding it?
Sylvana Schaffer is a junior majoring in International Studies and Political Science from Laguna Beach, Calif. She is the co-president of the College Democrats chapter at Hopkins.