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The Price of Cowardice
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The Price of Cowardice

Three years later.

In this screenshot taken from a webcast, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell responds after the Senate voted 57-43 to acquit Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial on February 13, 2021. (Photo by via Getty Images)

My colleague John McCormack has a valuable piece on the site today marking the third anniversary of Donald Trump’s January 6 acquittal by the Senate that contains a bizarre bit of political trivia I’d forgotten.

The same conservative scholar who provided legal cover for Senate Republicans to save Trump at the time has since become the most strident proponent for disqualifying him from office under the 14th Amendment.

That would be former judge J. Michael Luttig, who declared in an op-ed published on January 12, 2021, that Trump couldn’t constitutionally be tried for the impeachment charges once he left office on January 20. The Senate ignored that and held a trial in early February anyway, but Luttig’s reasoning was the fig leaf that gave cowardly Republicans the pretext they needed to justify voting to acquit.

Three years later, Luttig spends his days howling into the void that Trump can’t serve again as president due to his insurrectionist past. He’s going to lose that argument in court. Badly.

I respect Luttig enough to assume that he arrived at those opinions in good faith, mistaken though they may be. But trying to disqualify Trump through a dubious, convoluted 14th Amendment process after discouraging the Senate from doing so via a quick, clean, legally sound conviction mirrors the eternal shortsightedness of the Republican establishment in dealing with Trump. 

There’s always some other institution, and some other time, that’s better suited to hold him accountable. 

Senate Republicans declined to end Trump’s political career after January 6 when they had the chance because they assumed the criminal courts would eventually do it for them. Now that the courts have taken up the matter, those same Republicans have been compelled by pressure from their voters to argue that Trump’s prosecutions are politicized and illegitimate. Only the voters themselves can properly issue a verdict on him, they insist.

But voters tried that in 2020 and you know how it ended. It’ll end the same way this year if Trump loses again, with the very same Republicans alleging that the American people couldn’t possibly have voted the way they appear to have voted.

Every opportunity to banish him from politics is a missed opportunity, by design.

Even so, I’m loath to place most of the blame for Trump’s ongoing political viability on Mitch McConnell and the Senate snivelers who refused to convict him. To do so is to exculpate the GOP base, however indirectly. It’s the base, not congressional Republicans, that preferred Trump to Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley this year. And it’s the base that’s created the electoral incentives for those congressional Republicans to slavishly follow Trump’s political whims.

There’s no “Trump problem” in this party, I’ve said before, only a “Trump voter problem.” Everything is downstream from that. More so than cowardice, Republican senators are guilty of naivete in having believed there was no need to convict him because their constituents would recoil from Trump organically after the full extent of his menace was revealed on January 6.

They had a failure of imagination. Perhaps Luttig did too, unable to conceive at the time that the voters of this country might ever elect Trump again after what he’d done. (One wonders if his recent frantic 14th Amendment advocacy is a matter of belatedly awakening to the truth.) No one imagined how deplorably Republican primary voters would behave, so their representatives in the Senate saw little downside to doing what those voters wanted of them in the moment by acquitting him. Which is how democracy tends to work.

The voters, not their nominal leaders, are most to blame for the right’s civic rot—but a little leadership at a decisive moment might have contained that rot considerably in time. On the third anniversary of Trump’s acquittal, the hard fact remains that his trial was the best opportunity sane Republicans have ever had or ever will have to rid American politics of him. And they blew it.

What if they hadn’t?

There are two scenarios in a world in which Trump is convicted by the Senate in 2021 and disqualified from holding future office. One is the “GOP crack-up” scenario, the other is the “MAGA sucks it up” scenario.

The “GOP crack-up” scenario is straightforward. After Trump is convicted and expelled from American politics, his diehard loyalists in the grassroots right revolt. Egged on by the man himself, they pledge never again to vote for an outfit led by such weak-willed “uniparty” RINOs. Some follow Trump as he goes off to found the “MAGA Party.” Some remain Republicans and mobilize to mount primary challenges to Senate Republicans who convicted their hero. Others, not given to voting regularly before Trump entered politics, revert to pre-Trump form and simply lose interest in the GOP. 

Desperate to mollify angry MAGA voters, McConnell and his conference resolve to obstruct Joe Biden’s agenda at every turn. There’s no infrastructure compromise or CHIPS bill or gun bill or any other bipartisan accomplishment during Biden’s first two years in this scenario. Senate Republicans opt to fight, fight, fight, hoping to appease the populist base by doing so and to reunite the party against the common Democratic enemy.

But it doesn’t work. The GOP suffers in the 2022 midterms. In solid red states, incumbents who voted to convict are successfully primaried and replaced in the Senate by devout Trumpists. In battleground states, Republicans lose a number of close races to Democrats due to poor turnout by its voters, poor quality in nominees, and/or the base splitting between Republican Party and MAGA Party candidates. The Senate GOP conference shrinks. Conservatives and disgruntled populists end up pointing fingers at each other over who’s to blame for the debacle.

Ron DeSantis runs for president in 2024 with heavy support from the Republican establishment, convinced that he alone can unite the two factions and bring Trump voters back into the fold. But Trump, consumed as always by revenge, has resolved to punish the GOP for the “disloyalty” it showed in disqualifying him. He sets out to split the Republican vote by running his own handpicked MAGA Party candidate for president, probably Donald Trump Jr. The right splinters again and Biden wins reelection.

The “MAGA sucks it up” scenario begins the same way the other one does, with Trump voters irate at their representatives in the Senate. But amid all the furious threats about primaries and new parties, most Trump voters quietly begin to get over it.

With Biden now in office and Republicans in Congress hellbent on thwarting him, the populist litmus test for proper behavior by GOP officials gradually shifts from defending Trump at all costs to opposing the new White House at all costs. Slowly, grassroots animosity toward the party establishment begins to cool. Trump keeps it on a simmer by screeching endlessly about how the GOP betrayed him but his political salience starts to fade now that he’s out of electoral politics.

Senate Republicans who voted to convict him are duly primaried in 2022, but not all of those challenges succeed. Galvanized by antipathy toward Biden, right-wing turnout in the midterms is better than anticipated, defying Trump’s demands that his supporters punish the party by boycotting the vote. Avenging him loses some of its juice as a rallying cry for populists as they grow more impressed with Ron DeSantis’ legislative victories in Florida.

DeSantis ends up winning the party’s nomination in 2024 over Trump’s objections and most of the right rallies behind him in the general election campaign. The “uniparty” Republicans betrayed the former president when they voted to disqualify him in 2021, most former Trump voters allow, but we can’t give Joe Biden another four years by splitting our votes between the GOP and the MAGA Party.

In hindsight, it becomes clear that Trump’s conviction in the Senate broke the cultish bond between him and most of his fans. Once he was no longer legally eligible to play the “national savior” role he cultivated, MAGA supporters lost the electoral incentive they had to reconcile themselves to his most depraved offenses. Conspiracy theories around January 6 and propaganda about the rioters being “political prisoners” lose ground outside the most feverish populist sewers. Because Republican voters no longer need to believe such things in order to psychologically justify their Trump support to themselves, they stop. In time, they recover a degree of moral clarity about how contemptible his coup plot was (although only a degree).

In this scenario, Trump’s criminal trials become little more than a sideshow during the presidential campaign—assuming they happen at all, which they might not. With Senate Republicans having already done their duty by disqualifying him from office, it’s an open question whether prosecutors would even proceed with the wrenching ordeal of putting a former president with no chance of returning to office on trial.

A Senate Republican who voted to acquit him might answer all of that by noting how, in either scenario, there would have been an immense near-term political price in convicting him. One poll taken in the days after January 6 found Trump’s job approval within the party at 87 percent, statistically indistinguishable from where it stood months earlier. Millions of MAGA supporters would have resented their senators for finding him guilty and would have expressed their fury in various ways. There’s no question that party unity would have suffered; the questions are only how much pain there would have been and how long it would have taken to subside.

There would have been a price, no doubt. But what was the price of cowardice?

On Monday night, almost three years to the day after he was acquitted, news broke that Trump had endorsed new leadership for the Republican National Committee. Of his two picks for co-chair, one pushed claims of “massive” voter fraud in 2020 and the other is his own daughter-in-law, who coat-tailed her way into politics in 2016 after working as a producer for Inside Edition. If, like Caligula, Trump owned a horse, doubtless the horse would be lined up for a plum position somewhere too. In this monarchy, as in any other, those beloved by the king wield enormous power whether they’re qualified or not. Insofar as there was any separation between the RNC’s money and Trump’s own, it will soon be gone.

Meanwhile, the Senate was voting on a new foreign aid bill to fund Ukraine, Israel, and the Indo-Pacific. It passed overwhelmingly, 70-29, but most of the votes in favor came from Democrats. A majority of the GOP, including erstwhile hawks like Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, preferred to abandon the Ukrainians to Russia’s wrath because their king is skeptical of further support. And although there were enough Republicans in the Senate willing to defy him, the same might not be true in the House: The bill has been declared dead on arrival by the new speaker, Trump courtier Mike Johnson.

In fact, the past week has been one lesson after another about the immense—and still rising—cost of acquittal three years ago.

The best chance Congress has had in ages to improve immigration enforcement was immediately abandoned by Republicans lest a more secure border end up complicating Trump’s electoral chances this fall. Unfit cronies whom he’s promoted despite their poor electoral track records were endorsed anew by “serious” party leaders because that’s what Trump and his base demand. And Trump himself has never been more erratic lately, declaring that he’d encourage Russia to attack NATO allies who don’t pull their own weight, warning a pop singer not to be “disloyal” by endorsing Biden, and firing off one of his occasional musings about his political enemies that sounds like it came straight from 1930s Europe.

The price of cowardice in February 2021 is a political party in 2024 that’s no longer recognizable as a political party. Never more so than right now, the GOP is an autocracy run by a belligerent narcissistic halfwit and it concerns itself more with said halfwit’s personal glorification than with enacting any policy agenda. It will take years to undo this, assuming it can be undone.

That’s a steep price. And if Trump is reelected this fall, it may get much steeper.

Gutless conservatives in the Senate made it all possible by choosing the path of least resistance at a decisive moment, preferring to let their voters deal with Trump eventually. Now those voters—or rather, the conservative rump among them that’s troubled by all of this—will have to take them up on it.

Watching Nikki Haley on the campaign trail the last few weeks, I wonder if more are prepared to do so than we might assume.

Haley began taking a posture toward Trump after the Iowa caucuses that I’ve described as “the half Liz.” She’s gone further than most Republicans by questioning his age and even touting the verdict against him in his civil trial for defamation, but she’s largely steered clear of Cheney-esque attacks about his moral fitness for office. Lately, however, she’s begun to cross that latter line too. When Trump wondered at a rally why her husband wasn’t with her on the campaign trail (never mind Melania Trump’s conspicuous absence from his own events over the past 14 months), Haley seemed to take sincere offense. Her husband isn’t avoiding her because he’s embarrassed by her also-ran status; he’s in the military and is currently deployed in Africa.

“The reality is, the closest [Trump] has come to harm’s way is a golf ball hitting him on a golf cart,” Haley told Fox News on Monday, alluding to Trump’s curious, er, luck in having avoided military service in Vietnam. But impugning his manhood was just the start.

“He showed that with that kind of disrespect for the military, he’s not qualified to be the president of the United States, because I don’t trust him to protect them,” Haley said of Trump on Monday. “Not qualified” is unusually strong language for a Republican eyeing a future in the party to use against the leader. Yet over and over and over in the last week she’s doubled down on it by asserting that he doesn’t “deserve” to be, or has no business being, commander-in-chief after mocking her husband’s service.

That’s a moral argument. And moral arguments against Trump are, supposedly, only to be made by Democrats.

She’s even alluded to an infamous story in The Atlantic from 2020 that alleged Trump once called fallen American soldiers “suckers” and “losers.” For years, populists have scoffed that their hero would never say such a thing—not because they sincerely doubt it, I suspect, but because it’s indefensible and therefore can only be denied, not spun. The fact that The Atlantic reliably takes a left-wing editorial line was all the evidence they needed that the claim was a smear. For Haley to promote it, taking the side of the accuser in a left-right credibility dispute with Trump, is a meaningful transgression against GOP orthodoxy, more “full Liz” than “half Liz.”

Haley surely knows that this line of attack won’t peel off many voters in South Carolina who are supporting him. Trump’s first “major” controversy on the campaign trail in 2015, after all, came when he mocked war hero John McCain for—one gulps even now when recalling it—being captured and imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton. But that episode did him no damage with Republican voters; in hindsight it was early proof of his thesis that the right would indulge him in any behavior, no matter how disgusting, for the sake of sticking it to their political enemies.

You don’t attack his moral fitness the way Haley has lately because you think it’ll win you the primary. You attack him on those grounds because you’ve come to realize that you have no future in this party-that’s-no-longer-a-party—and, perhaps, that you don’t much want one, given what it’s come to.

Notably, she’s begun to lash out not just at Trump but at the various party organs he’s coopted. She sneered at the RNC for paying his legal bills and savaged congressional Republicans for dismissing the new border compromise out of hand. The prospect of aid to Ukraine being blocked in the House on his say-so has also set her off, and that wound will fester all this year if the money remains bottled up and Russia begins to advance.

Suddenly, Nikki Haley sounds a lot like someone who’s as done with a Republican Party led by Donald Trump as it appears to be done with her.

Not long ago I thought there was no chance that she’d refuse to endorse Trump once this primary was over, but between her claiming that he’s not morally “qualified” to lead and tearing into him for sabotaging initiatives like the border bill and Ukraine funding that Joe Biden happens to support (which isn’t the first time their messaging has aligned lately), she sounds like she’s talking herself into neutrality in the general election.

And maybe talking grassroots conservatives who are dismayed by what the party’s become into the same thing.

The more prominent refugees from the pre-Trump GOP are willing to set an example by boycotting the general election on moral grounds, the more those grassroots conservatives will have to think about. When Chris Christie, for instance, was asked this past weekend how he’ll vote in November, he said he couldn’t see himself voting for Biden—but that he definitely couldn’t vote for Trump. Haley herself was asked recently how she felt about “weakening” the all-but-certain Republican nominee by attacking him repeatedly during a hopeless primary campaign, and essentially shrugged in response. “I’m weakening Trump because of who Trump is,” she said. “Telling the truth in a primary is very important, so that’s what I’m doing.”

The price of Senate Republicans’ cowardice in refusing to convict Trump three years ago was missing their best opportunity to end the GOP’s “hostage crisis.” To all appearances, figures like Nikki Haley and Chris Christie are preparing to try to end it themselves this fall—assuming they have a sizable enough following to do so.

And why not try? Remade in the image of its leader, the party that populists took hostage in 2016 has become so loathsome as to no longer be worth saving on either moral grounds or policy grounds. A traditional conservative like Haley who’s spent eight years pleading with MAGA types not to shoot that hostage might reasonably look at what it’s come to, reckon frankly with the fact that it has nothing left to offer her, and opt to pull the trigger herself.

Here’s hoping she has more courage to do what’s right when the time comes than her former friends in the Senate had. America needs civic leadership desperately. And it won’t get any from the elected Republican “leadership” class.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.