Trump’s failed impeachment is a reflection of the nation’s civil standards
Why is Mike Pence not now the President of the United States? The immediate answer is, of course, that there weren’t 67 members of the Senate willing to vote to convict him of the charges brought by the House. But to get to the deeper answers we have to ask: why not?
It was not for lack of evidence – though of course the Republican senators went out of their way to ensure there was as little evidence brought as possible. Trump provided more than enough evidence out of his own mouth to justify the obstruction charge. Nor is it that it is innately impossible to persuade senators to vote against their own president. Leaving Romney aside in this trial, the impeachment process against Nixon was far less partisan. The question “what did the president know and when did he know it?” was asked by a Republican (it didn’t do him any harm: three years later he was Senate Minority Leader); by the time Nixon resigned, around two-thirds of his own senators were against him.
So why did Republican senators line up so emphatically behind Trump? Perhaps it’s best to look at the exception: why did Romney break ranks?
There might be many answers to that, the first of which is that we should take him at the words of his very powerful speech when he announced that he would vote to convict, and that as a very religious man he judged his oath before God to be so binding as to demand of him whatever sacrifice it might take to deliver justice. Cynics in less religious countries should not dismiss such sentiments as hokey.
That said, if we are to let play our cynical side, we might also note that Romney has five years to run on his term, having won his primary by 71-29 and the general election by 63-31 last year; that he’s a multimillionaire septuagenarian and that even if the issue does defeat him in 2024 – which is of itself unlikely – he won’t be left wanting. Put simply, there is little that Trump can do to threaten him. This is not true of many other Republicans.
But why not? After all, if Trump had been convicted and barred from future office then he couldn’t have used the powers of his office, now or in the future, against them – so what were they scared of in the light of Trump’s evident wrongdoing?
The simple answer is “the public”. Far from disapproving, Trump’s ratings have improved markedly in recent weeks, even before the bounce in the last few days, which have left him around net zero – by far his best ratings since his earliest days. If the public is not willing to condemn his behaviour, and may well be set to reward it with a second term, why should the public’s representatives act any differently?
Trump’s comments – that impeachment “should never happen to another president” and undermined the election – is the voice of an elected dictatorship: keep the people onside with bread and circuses and you can do whatever you want.
In democracies, we cannot rely on elected politicians or impartial bodies to hold those in power to a decent standard if the voters themselves are not willing to do the same. Ultimately, ownership of those standards must lie not in legislation or courts or parliaments or commissions but with the people. Indeed, it can only lie there.
Trump’s power lies in the fact that he believes he’ll be re-elected, many others believe he could be re-elected, and that whether or not he is re-elected, they also believe that he has sufficiently strong backing among Republican voters. And he does: the latest Gallup survey, for example, gives him a net +89 rating among Republicans and a net -13 among independents. He could therefore no doubt make merry hell for any senator voting against him who faces a primary challenge this year.
Is there a way out? I don’t honestly know. I certainly expect Trump to be re-elected in November. The president is looking stronger and has solid positive messages to sell on the economy, defence, trade, The Wall and strong leadership. The Democrats, by contrast, are not only in a mess but have another weak field, any of which Trump can turn his negative campaign tactics against. And if he is re-elected, that vindicates – for him certainly but also for all his many supporters – everything he’s done.