The choice ahead for the 50 Senate Republicans is stark. In the words of that old labor song, “Which side are you on?”
In their masterful and, at times, heartbreaking presentation, the House impeachment managers asked Senate Republicans a simple question: Will you side with Mike Pence, the Capitol Police, and Congress itself, or with Donald J. Trump?
There is no middle ground or split-the-difference option, even though most Republicans are desperate to find one.
Try as they might, GOP senators can’t take refuge in such familiar Trump-era defenses as, “What tweet? I don’t know anything about it.” And Jamie Raskin, who leads the House team, stressed Wednesday that the “constitutional issue is gone,” referring to the question of whether the Senate can try a former president after he was impeached by the House while still in office. As a result, GOP senators should no longer be able to use the excuse that the Constitution bars them from convicting Trump because he has been exiled to Mar-a-Lago.
We all know how the impeachment saga will end—with a spineless and cowardly “not guilty” verdict from all but maybe a half-dozen Republicans. The dearth of principle in the GOP was all too clear on Tuesday in the shocked, jaw-dropping response to Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy’s decision to break ranks and vote with the Democrats in affirming that the trial was indeed constitutional. For the temerity of his independence as a Senate juror, Cassidy, who was just reelected to a six-year term, was promptly denounced by his state Republican Party.
In truth, citizens of Paris in 1794 displayed more courage in risking the guillotine than Republican senators do in contemplating a Trump-backed primary challenge or being occasionally shunned at the country club.
We are watching an entire political party on trial, just one month after the failed putsch at the Capitol. Beyond Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz and their ilk, how can retiring Republicans with reasonable reputations like Ohio’s Rob Portman and North Carolina’s Richard Burr live with themselves as they ignore the evidence of Trump’s determined efforts to overturn a free election?
It would be fascinating to know the thoughts that were going through Mitch McConnell’s cynical brain as he watched the Democratic presentation in his standard tight-lipped fashion. What may resonate with McConnell is not principle (good luck ever finding that in his mental makeup) but pure political self-interest. The Senate minority leader can probably picture super-PAC dollars flying out the window as corporate America shuns a Republican Party that has become an authoritarian cult. McConnell is also smart enough to know that the GOP will never win back the suburban, college-educated voters who opted for Joe Biden if it chooses to be the party that is proud of the Proud Boys.
The Democratic impeachment managers should have convinced anyone watching the proceedings from outside the Fox News bubble—especially independent voters and wavering Republicans—that January 6 was the logical culmination of four years of Trumpian tantrums. As House manager Ted Lieu put it in a particularly compelling argument, the attack on the Capitol occurred because “President Donald J. Trump ran out of nonviolent options to maintain power.”
The never-before-seen security camera footage of the assault on the Capitol was harrowing. Many Americans who spent January 6 glued to their TV sets likely did not realize that what they witnessed that day was a sanitized version of events, filtered through TV cameras placed too far from the action to fully capture the madness in the eyes of the rioters. Seen through the startling camera footage screened Wednesday during the impeachment proceedings, the voices and the behavior of the insurrectionists brought to mind such horrible American traditions as lynching. The Democratic managers pointed out several times that a mock gallows had indeed been erected outside the Capitol, presumably with Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi as the first victims.
What was most memorable about the Democratic presentations was not just the raw material from January 6 but also the elusive element of context. The consistent theme all the way through was the abundance of evidence that Trump was preparing to undermine democracy from the moment the truth broke through his protective shield of sycophants and he realized that he could lose the election.
In naming the House impeachment managers, Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team learned an important lesson from the Democrats’ first failed effort to impeach Trump over his “perfect” phone call to the Ukrainian president: When the stakes are this high, abandon seniority, even if it is the organizing principle for how the House operates. The Democratic impeachment team is a true congressional meritocracy. The all-stars are all congressional newcomers or marginal figures: Raskin is just in his third term; Colorado’s Joe Neguse was first elected in 2018; and former Bronx prosecutor Stacey Plaskett, who is the delegate from the Virgin Islands, doesn’t even have a vote on the floor of the House.
But as powerful as their presentations were, it is difficult to decipher how much of the evidence broke through to voters still trying to take the measure of the Trump years. It is one thing for Democrats to be horrified at the destructive behavior of a tin-pot tyrant in the White House. But the fear is that too many voters, with weak party allegiances and no appetite for watching marathon congressional sessions, will dismiss most of the impeachment case as just another example of political skirmishing. So much depends on how much of the Democratic case breaks through to these voters who were not glued to their TV sets on Wednesday.
If the Democrats could call just one witness, it would ideally be Pence. The former vice president—whom the impeachment managers gushingly praised for his fidelity to the Constitution—would probably not condemn the president he so loyally served. But even if he simply described what he experienced on January 6, as the hang-him-high mob came dangerously close to where he and his family were hiding, his testimony would provide a constitutional lesson that even the most apolitical American could not brush off as rank partisan bickering.
In all likelihood, despite the eloquence of the House impeachment managers, they are playing mostly to the historical record. Maybe, just maybe, they might prick the conscience of another Senate Republican or two, the way that they reached Cassidy. But in the end, what we will likely witness with the impeachment vote is the death spasm of the Republican Party and the end of America’s run as a two-party democracy.