Amid the backdrop of ex-President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, the Republican Party is putting party interests above the well-being of its people.
Last week, both sides at the impeachment trial submitted their arguments to the Senate, with Democrats calling Trump’s alleged sedition “a betrayal of historic proportions.” They say the former president was fully responsible for the deadly attack on the nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6, and by his actions and words endangered the lives of congressional members, the peaceful transition of power and national security. However, collective wisdom points to Republican politicians voting against convicting Trump and, thus, against attempts to ban him from holding any government position in the future.
A Marriage of Convenience
“We need each other. We certainly need him and his input and his voters,” said Jonathan Barnett, an Arkansas Republican National Committee member, in a Politico article published days before the Senate arguments.
From a purely pragmatic point of view, it’s hard to argue with this statement.
According to polls taken before Joe Biden’s inauguration, only 17% of the party’s voters supported Trump’s removal from office. Despite speculation that he might become essentially a government-funded squatter in the White House, Trump begrudgingly departed on his own when President Biden moved in. Trump’s base, including Russian-American Trump supporters, branded fellow party members traitors, like Vice President Mike Pence who refused to support Trump’s claims about election fraud, saying that “the party has outlived itself and people are disillusioned with it.”
Not to be outdone, Trump threatened to create a new political party. Apparently, he did not actually intend to do so. Trump seemed to realize that without the GOP umbrella it would be much easier for his opponents to bring him to justice, including potential criminal prosecution. In essence, however, Trump’s blackmail was a success. The party, fearing it was losing its electorate, preferred to rally around its candidate once again.
The GOP — “Grand Old Party” — was faced with the exit of dozens of representatives of the old establishment. In turn, the composition of the party shifted toward the prevalence of “Trumpists,” thereby strengthening its alliance with Trump.
The Costs of the Cult of Personality
There is more at stake in the impeachment effort than the desire to remove Trump from the political field. It’s a matter of passing a legal assessment of all the actions the 45th president committed during his tenure. The paradox is that such an assessment, while at first dealing a serious blow to the Republican Party, in the long run could allow conservatives to return to the space of constructive dialogue and even protect them from social obstruction.
The difficulty of the situation is that the reasons which led many people to vote for Trump are in some cases seemingly innocuous. Some liked his economic agenda; some saw him as a defender of traditional patriarchal values; some were terrified by the Black Live Matters protests, a troubling reaction to the ongoing struggle for racial equality.
Trump, positioning himself as the representative and protector of these people, in fact, turned their movement into his personal cult, mixing their real problems and aspirations with destructive conspiracy theories and agendas.
Some anti-Semitic Trump followers claimed that Democratic elites are globalists funded by George Soros — the liberal billionaire that CBS labeled “the world’s biggest boogeyman” for the political far right. Some believe that the courts are involved in conspiracy and corruption. Many believe the mainstream media is corrupt and deceitful, and that freedom, law and order will be buried forever by the Biden administration.
Toss into this toxic brew the extreme right-wing groups with their inherent nationalism, COVID-19 dissidence and fears of vaccinations. And of course, the Big Lie that the results of the presidential election were massively rigged. Not all Republicans, of course, support these fringe beliefs. But they are all tainted by association.
The mixture of classical moderate conservatism and Trumpism effectively takes his followers beyond the range of constructive dialogue and prevents them from influencing the discussion of real rather than invented problems. Indeed, dialogue with people who consider the other side “occupiers” and enemies of the country, who do not accept the slightest criticism of their leader, is simply impossible. Such a position does not allow for compromise, and, without it, no new consensus is achievable in principle.
Trump’s actions as president may not receive the legal reckoning on a national scale sought by his detractors. The criteria for truth, lies, the illegal and the unacceptable remain extremely blurred. Many of those who fervently clung to Trump even during his moral and ethical death spiral continue to do so, confident in the absolute legitimacy of his actions. Any attacks on their views are regarded as political repression, which radicalizes them even more.
The GOP’s official repudiation of Trump would allow everyday party members to legitimately defend their genuine economic and political interests, divorced from the lingering specter of an unhinged commander-in-chief and the radical groups supporting him.
That seems unlikely at this moment in history. But, perhaps, time, along with level-headedness, will provide a healing salve.
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