The Future of Democracy After the Impeachment Verdict

5 mins read

It’s over. The second impeachment trial of Donald Trump ended with an acquittal. The House of Representatives stated in the article of impeachment that “Donald John Trump engaged in high Crimes and Misdemeanors by inciting violence against the Government of the United States.” The impeachment managers convincingly laid out the evidence, and all who watched the entire trial, as I did, would have to conclude that Donald J. Trump is guilty as charged. That is, if they were rational, thinking people, which 43 senators apparently are not. The 57-43 vote is the most bipartisan support for conviction in any presidential impeachment in U.S. history, and it is a solid majority. The minority of senators that voted for acquittal are so afraid of upsetting Trump’s base (or are part of it) that they voted not for their country, not for the future of democracy, but for their own selfish need to stay in power.

For almost a year before the election, Trump stated, “The only way I can lose is if the election is rigged.” His words started the “Big Lie” that Trump won the election and the election was stolen. The lie, in one form or another, was repeated over and over for months and continued after the election. To what effect? “Repeat a lie often enough and people will eventually come to believe it” is a law of propaganda often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels, though probably falsely. Psychologists call this the “illusory truth” effect.

The illusory truth effect, first described in a 1977 study and verified many times since, occurs when repeating a statement increases the belief that it’s true even when the statement is false. The use of the illusory effect is not new. It has been used as a propaganda device by authoritarians and dictators many times because it is effective. How effective? Just look back to Nazi Germany. 

Trump’s Big Lie has been repeated so often for so long that even today 66% of Republicans believe that Biden did not legitimately win the election, according to an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) survey. It is no wonder that the insurrection of the Capitol occurred. Those people believe that Trump was robbed of the election and should still be president. The illusory truth led to violence and that appears to be OK with many Republicans.

The same AEI survey found that 39% of Republicans agreed that “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.” Daniel Cox, the director of the survey said, “…under the right circumstances, if you have this worldview, then you are more inclined to act in a certain [violent] way if you are presented with that option.” Trump presented his followers with that option; they acted.

I fear for the future of democracy. By acquitting Trump, the Senate has endorsed violent behavior as acceptable if you disagree with the outcome of legitimate elections. According to Danya Perry, a former federal prosecutor, the message is that a lame-duck president is immune from prosecution and “will be the most dangerous person on the planet.” 

I hope it is not too late to reverse our course to the future. But, in the meantime, I am afraid of more violence from the likes of the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers, and other self-described neo-Nazis and white supremacists. We need to stop them.

We must listen to President Biden:

“This sad chapter in our history has reminded us that democracy is fragile. That it must always be defended… That violence and extremism have no place in America. And that each of us has a duty and responsibility as Americans, and especially as leaders, to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.”

Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock

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Dr. Hank Cetola is a Professor Emeritus at Adrian College, Adrian, MI, and the founder of Lenawee Indivisible. He can be reached at

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