On Friday, January 31st, 2020, at approximately 4pm, the Democrats finally exhausted the list of institutions that could save them from Trump. Through weeks of arguments, Majority Leader McConnell held his caucus together, ultimately denying Democrats the ability to call witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial.
The vote on witnesses was 51-49, with Susan Collins and Mitt Romney splitting from the Republican majority. The announcement of the deciding no vote, from retiring Republican Lamar Alexander, came yesterday after hours of public speculation. Alexander was seen reading “Impeachment: An American History” in the Senate chamber, before he announced his opposition to a trial procedure that has taken place in every impeachment in American history.
The primary mechanism of impeachment is a nonpartisan trail. From the beginning, we knew this was not going to happen. Lamar finally confirmed it, and then he felt confident enough to tell reporters he did it because he preferred Trump to Elizabeth Warren.
Trump’s misconduct at the center of the impeachment trail is clear and obvious. His now-inevitable acquittal, then, is another dispiriting loss for Democrats, the final capstone in a long campaign of surveying and inevitably exhausting institutional processes.
The shock of Trump’s earth-shattering victory four years ago sent many in the liberal mainstream into the wilderness, desperately grasping for something that could save themselves from the menace of Trump. Green Party kook (and my close personal friend) Jill Stein briefly became a resistance hero when she raised seven million dollars to pay for swing state recounts in the weeks following the election; the movement fizzled after recounts failed to find any decisive changes. Ditto with a brief campaign to to deny Trump the Presidency through the electoral college.
Who could forget the Russia investigation, a muddled and overhyped media exercise that revealed numerous examples of misconduct but never produced a decisive broadside against the White House. MSNBC’s ratings soared as liberals practiced their Robert Mueller themed Christmas carols, believing that the independent investigative body of the United States law enforcement could remove this obviously corrupt buffoon! There was reason to be confident: the drip feed of press stories with increasingly damning evidence, the historic significance of an independent special counsel, or even the observation that Trump’s public statements and actions seemed to bely some measure of guilt!
Nothing really came of this circus. The Mueller report found significant evidence of obstruction of justice and correspondence between the Trump campaign and Russia, yet Trump’s Justice Department stifled the report’s findings and follow up investigations flamed out in Congress.
Trump’s litany of controversies would sink any other politician. Through his lack of shame, his broad base of support, and his willingness to lie and deny inquiry, he has withstood a stunning number of calamities.
The ultimate blame for this rests with elected Republicans, who have treated each new Trump atrocity with ambivalence, out of fear of reprisal or begrudging acceptance that the Trump style of politics gets results.
However, it is also the elected Democrats who have rammed themselves repeatedly into the brick wall, hoping against all hope that old systems of justice will still be applicable. They create a tapestry of reasonable and factual requests—witnesses, documents for investigations, accountability based on historic precedent—and are greeted with nothing but stonewalling. At some point, you must move on.
But move on to what? Amidst these endless years of stitlted drama, Trump and his allies have slowly bent the conservative electorate to their duplicitous, far-right will. It is likely that we will never have a Conservative government with values embodied by the late John McCain, a irredeemably flawed politician who nevertheless was guided by a spirit of open-minded duty and contemplation. Most concerningly, the federal courts are slowly being remade in Trump’s image, his lifetime appointments giving a judicial legitimacy to his most racist and deprived policies. Unless Democrats act quickly, Trump’s destructive chaos will become the institutional norm in American politics.
The failure of impeachment, the last and most critical institutional check on the presidency, should tell Democrats one thing: no one is coming to save them. To defeat Trump, they need to build a campaign that can counter him in November. They will do it while fighting a nonsensical, reactionary opposition, in the shadow of the mangled and broken system of America government.