Why Trump’s impeachment will change American politics

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The result of February 13th’s impeachment trial left many Americans embittered at the state of their country. Mere weeks after the near-unanimous, bipartisan condemnation of Trump was expressed even by the highest-ranking Republicans, Donald Trump was easily acquitted by the senate. To add insult to injury, Mitch McConnell, the senate majority leader, admitted to senators that he believed in Donald Trump’s guilt, despite voting in favour of his acquittal. As has been the general analysis of the trial, it looks as though, at its worst, the impeachment accomplished nothing of note. Trump can now seek re-election in 2024 to the shock of some Democrats. Lindsey Graham has said that the Republican party is the party of Trump, and it looks as though the GOP will be unable to disassociate from the former President’s voter base if they do not move quickly. However, to focus on these facts would be to ignore the very real and crucial victories won during the impeachment. If you ignore the possibility that Trump could have been impeached, if you deny that the trial’s primary goal was to remove Trump from public office, it is clear that impeachment meant far more than could ever have been anticipated. In both its purpose and result, the trial was a statement, by both the Republicans and the Democrats. A statement which will go on to define American politics for years to come.

It is odd that, in a case where both parties are in agreement on the issue of guilt, the result would have been so one-sided. But, then again, it was to be expected. Impeachment would have changed the way we think about Presidents and their power, it would have set a precedent for impeaching a president out of office and, most crucially, would have made Trump, and hence his Republican colleagues, accountable for an event which many believe he was solely responsible for. Is it any wonder Republicans were resistant to voting with Democrats? The verdict of the senate does not change the fact that the former President had a part to play within the insurrection. Mitch McConnell stated after the results: “No question, Trump is practically and morally responsible.” However objective their decisions are meant to be though, an impeachment has and will continue to be, run on party lines, so long as the party system is allowed to affect it.

Initially, being impeached does not mean anything. The first phase of the process requires a simple majority to win in the House of Representatives, which amounts to 51%. Under ordinary circumstances, the house will be split evenly, so assuming that all representatives vote on party lines, the first phase should be close, but very much possible. This has been the case throughout American history, because while only three Presidents have been impeached by the house, 5 presidents have been investigated on the basis of impeachment, including Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. It is the second phase, in the senate, that really determines impeachment. In 1998, when Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial was held, the senate democrats voted unanimously to acquit Clinton of obstruction of justice and perjury. Similarly in Donald Trump’s trial, votes were broadly dictated by party, although in some ways, the little ground gained by the impeachment managers speaks volumes to the success and impact of the trial.

100 senators voted in the final phase. 50 of them were Republicans. 48 were Democrats, and the remaining 2 were independents. Considering that 57 people voted to impeach Trump, that result seems significantly more impressive. Of course, the required two-thirds majority was unreachable, but Stacey Plaskett and her team knew that the odds of impeaching Trump were small going in. 57 votes is a win for the Democrats. A big win. Which way Democratic senators would vote was never in question, but then it cannot be said with confidence that the aim of impeachment was to convince Republicans either, despite the bipartisan support they received. On the part of the impeachment managers, the real aim was to shed light on what happened and then make the trial disappear. The brusque dismissal of key witness testimony is evidence enough of this. Had the managers chosen to bring in witnesses of both the Capitol attack and the former President’s behaviour, we might have seen a different result. But that is not what the Democrats wanted. At least not at the expense of dragging out the trial until April, at the latest.

In their best-case scenario, they would shift perhaps 10 Republican voters, if they are persuasive enough to overrule the trial’s unconstitutionality, meanwhile, it eats up valuable media coverage and public attention at President Biden’s expense. For now, they have had to make do with Jamie Herrera Beutler’s written testimony. It is in Joe Biden’s interests to draw a line under the Trump administration’s work and start afresh. From his policies on climate change to a $1.8 trillion stimulus package, Biden does not just want to move out of his predecessor’s shadow, he wants to carve out his own legacy. He wants to ignore the last 4 years and lead off from the Obama administration’s final work. By choosing to pursue other important battles, the Democrats have not only shown a remarkable amount of self-control, but of foresight too. In the long-run, the political issues they disagree with will more readily be fixed by long-term, systemic changes than impeaching Trump. This impeachment is, for the Democrats, a statement on their agenda.

For Republicans too, this trial was not all that it seemed. This impeachment represents a statement on the direction the GOP is taking. Burr, Cassidy, Collins, Murkowski, Romney, Sasse and Toomey. Make no mistake, their decision to vote to convict Trump was courageous. Trump is the Republican party, and their votes were an indictment on the party’s unity, as evidenced by the seven’s immediate censorship after voting to convict the former President. We should not look past the fact that some of these senators were essentially protected by their up-coming retirements, in the cases of Burr and Toomey, and, in fact, six of the seven will not have to face the consequences of their vote for at least 4 years, when they will battle for reelection. It is fair to argue then, that their decision was not brave so much as it was contentious, however, forty-three of their peers did not vote in the same way, like Rob Portman who was in a similar position to the seven, and that must speak to something. These Republicans voted against their party to call out Trump over the power he has over the GOP. This period of time symbolises the crossroads Republicans have come to. Do they oust out a popular yet tainted figure at the risk of losing the next election, or do they keep him despite the direction he is taking them in? Demographics and national priorities are shifting. By 2050, white people will no longer be the majority and America’s progressive wing is becoming stronger. The time for small government is, for the foreseeable future, over. When addressing the issue of their leadership, Republicans will have to judge whether their short term gains will outmatch the possible long-term losses they could suffer.

Perhaps Mitch McConnell’s speech after the verdict explaining why he believed Trump was guilty but did not vote for impeachment, was not as ridiculous as Democrats accused it of being. As unprincipled as it may seem to acquit a man who is, by McConnell’s own admission, guilty, the senate majority leader’s job is to keep his party intact and to win. 59% of Republicans believe that Trump should play a major role in the party’s future. 81% approve of Trump’s leadership, a jump of 7 points since January. Perhaps most surprising is that according to one poll, 53% say that Donald Trump should be the Republican nominee for president in 2024. The problems that the Republican party face are insidious, they are ideological. The spectrum of the party is broadening to encompass more radical views. If McConnell’s desire to reform the party, and by doing so making them more electable, is genuine, he will have to work with the very forces he wishes to dispel. If McConnell wants to ease the GOP out of Trump’s grip, the Republican party will have to go through some dramatic changes to engage a wider voter-base. The impeachment trial will become one of the key place markers when historians look back at the republican party and how its influences changed over the years. If adjustments are to take place, they have to happen now, when there is momentum behind the movement. In this way, the impeachment trial is very probably the most formative moment in the Republican party’s recent history. Only time will tell how formative it will prove to be.

Initially, the trial may seem to have failed; Trump can still run, and the Capitol attacks remain unjustified. But as a show of clarity, of strength, of the possibility of bipartisan support, and as a statement, Donald Trump’s impeachment matters, not just for one party, but for both Republicans and Democrats. This impeachment trial has changed American politics.