Trump exits as a Bad President, unable to re-enter as a Martyred Citizen.
While Congressional Democrats (and some ship-fleeing Republicans) are likely to feel frustrated and deflated having failed to impeach, debar then potentially imprison a defeated Donald Trump (not long ago Trump supporters wanted to jail a defeated “crooked” Hillary Clinton) for his heinous behaviour in office, it is quite likely this outcome will benefit them more in the long term.
In fact a different outcome might paradoxically have damaged the cause of those already facing the mighty task to steer the ship of state in a more leftward direction.
Firstly what would have been seen as justice by many loyal Democrats (and some neutrals, if there are any in this most divided nation) could have been seen as vindictive by those less reliable supporters whose trust and votes are still need to be won back in order to secure a stable future (and a Democrat majority in the Senate in the mid-term elections). Rather than allow Trump to vanish on the margins, his sore loser protestations gradually fading like the tantrum of an exhausted child, successful impeachment and possible subsequent criminal charges would have kept him longer in the public eye. It would have facilitated his rebranding as no longer an autocratic perpetrator but as a citizen victim, martyred by the establishment for having the courage to challenge it. Instead of delegitimizing his manifest excesses he becomes a lightning rod for further civil unrest by those many Americans who feel disenfranchised, no more the self-aggrandising billionaire Chief Executive of the nation but a brave dissenting voice, first silenced by the Big Tech giants of Silicon Valley and then persecuted by the political establishment. And given his bellicose speech singled out for inciting the Capitol riot, contained the qualification “peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard” there would never have been a national consensus over his guilt. For whether Trump was unlawfully responsible or not – and his influence is undeniable – so much of politics, especially electoral politics, is about perception and it is very likely such a verdict would have stoked the cause of the Far Right and leading it to expand rather than recede.
This is because those who believe “Trumpism” will disappear with Trump may have been tempted by a seductive but dangerous wish-fulfilment, a naïve faith in what I call the Hollywood Theory of History: that evil enters society through an individual malicious agent and all one needs to do is vanquish him or her and the evil will float away on their last dying breath. Expose the corrupt politician, arrest the Cartel Boss, assassinate the belligerent foreign leader then bribery and cronyism, the criminal drugs trade, war itself will disappear too. This may happens in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but less so in the real world. And in that real world Donald Trump is not a cult leader. 74 million Americans voted for him, they will not all simply disengage from politics the way The Family dispersed after Charles Manson (and his inner circle) was locked up.
In fact this reducing and personalizing of what are complex social forces while emotionally emollient distracts from the underlying issues that need addressing. The particular flavour of Trump’s Republicanism derives from ingredients that will continue to exist beyond his impeachment or incarceration. Rising economic inequality. stagnant real wages and the decline of manufacturing made worse by globalization, the offshoring of jobs and competing in the labour market with workers from poorer economies has fuelled the anti-immigrant xenophobia that led to Trump’s outrageous Wall-building. The USA losing its place at the top of the world economic league – which it has held since the decline of the British Empire – to China has led to protectionism. Fear of unemployment has provided working class support to pulling out of the Paris Climate Change Agreements. Fear and insecurity exacerbated by the massacre on 9/11 – the greatest trauma felt by American citizens since losing the Vietnam War, if not Pearl Harbour, led to the “Muslim-visa ban”, generalised Islamophobia and pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. And while the Democratic Party establishment is thankfully though belatedly drawing attention to persistent inequalities based on race, gender and sexuality, it remans reluctant to challenge socio-economic inequality (and re-think its fondness for Wall Street and neo-liberal trade deals) to staunch the flow of reactionary social values in blue collar middle America.
Donald Trump exploited those forces to propel himself from TV and business celebrity into the White House. He has now left Pennsylvania Avenue but those forces, economic, social and political will not vanish with him and neither will the 48% of the electorate who voted for Trump disappear after he packs his bags, with or without the lifelong honorific “Mr President” that an unimpeached POTUS is allowed to keep with him. The 46th President, Joe Biden gets this. His post-victory talk is of ending an uncivil war and of healing a nation. With a brisk series of executive orders efficiently dismantling some of Trump’s most egregious projects such as selective visa denial from targeted Muslim countries, separating child migrants from their parents or drilling for fossil fuels in national parks, and more to come, the “martyrdom” of Donald Trump could have distracted from rather than accelerated the pace of much needed progressive reform.
Finally there is the point made by constitutional advocates, some of whom took part in civil rights defences in the 60’s, that should Trump be found guilty at his impeachment for the provocative language he used to encourage civil disobedience on completely spurious grounds, and which was followed by five deaths, it would however set a bad precedent for those calling for street protests in support of genuine social justice. As one such lawyer remarked “once you set a precedent against a bad person, it can then be used against a good person”. We should remain mindful that “Fight like hell” is figurative speech not uncommon among Trade Union leaders after the bosses announce a factory will be closed and jobs will be lost, to exhort members to protest to prevent it; among health campaigners when a ward or department or hospital is announced to close, for patients and staff to protest and prevent; by environmentalists when a road is planned to cut through ancient woodland or public green space to protest and prevent; by civil rights activists when a discriminatory law is voted through to protest and prevent it; by the local community when a beloved pub or theatre or pool or playground is scheduled for demolition and development. While all perpetrators of vandalism and violence must be made accountable for their actions, do we want to risk criminalising leaders in the above examples, who do not commit these infractions, for the rhetorical passion of their words?
And because a trial by Senators is by definition a political one rather than an independent judicial process, with half of the jury being representatives of the President’s own party and the other half representatives of the opposition party, public buy-in of any verdict would be partial at best.
Trump is a bad person, Trump was a bad President. To much relief he has been legitimately defeated at the ballot box and is President no more. His own Party is turning against him and he now holds no public office whatsoever. Richard Nixon also contaminated the body politic with his abuse of power but when he resigned as President, the ongoing impeachment proceedings against him were dropped. Nixon’s legacy has rightly not been rehabilitated and to a generation he remains the punchline to several caustic jokes. Rather than prolong and dramatize Trump’s departure, hopefully this result will let him exit into irrelevance and politicians, activists and the media can focus instead on the root causes of his rise to prominence. So that nobody like him rises again.