On the evening of January 6, after a Trumpist mob had stormed the Capitol, Senator Lindsey Graham stood on the Senate floor and finally detached himself from the president he had so obediently served: “Count me out, enough is enough.”
But the thing about Lindsey Graham running away is that he always comes back. After his brief and apparently unpleasant experience with independence, Graham has returned to his familiar, comfortable place at Trump’s feet. “I think he’s going to be a viable leader of the Republican Party,” he gushes. “He’s very popular. And he’s going to get acquitted.”
Graham might be the most overtly comic illustration of his party’s turnabout on impeachment, but he is also perfectly representative of its dominant faction. The post-Trump GOP is split three ways. The party’s tiny, small-d democratic wing on its left has fully broken with the authoritarian former president (Representative Adam Kinzinger continues to urge conviction). The party’s far-right wing, with members like Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, is sinking deeper into the Trump personality cult. In the middle are the soft authoritarians, whose initial and genuine revulsion at the violent insurrection has given way to weary cynicism.
The purpose of impeaching Trump is to hold him accountable for his effort to undermine the election and secure a second, unelected term, essentially putting an end to the republican experiment. That scheme began months before the election with his efforts to discredit mail voting, continued with his blatant lies about the election outcome and attempts to pressure various state officials to disregard the vote, and finally culminated in summoning a mob to the Capitol and goading them to violence.
The soft authoritarians supported Trump’s plot until the end, when it exploded into disorder that threatened their own safety. But as their anger with Trump dissipated, and they realized the party’s voters did not share their disgust, they calculated that repudiating his autogolpe did not serve their interests.
As they have worked through their feelings, first rebelling against Trump and then suppressing their own rebellion, they have redirected their anger away from Trump and toward the Democrats. Trump’s actions may have been wrong, even impeachable, but it is also wrong for Democrats to try to impeach him.
“The whole thing is stupid,” complains Marco Rubio. “I know this: Nothing we do next week on that floor is going to help people get vaccines or more people keep their jobs. We should be focused on that instead.” Rubio himself does not seem to be focused on either goal. He did not join the ten Republicans trying to negotiate a bill to speed vaccinations and restore jobs. Nor has he developed any alternative efforts to do so. What he means is that he would rather be sending out tweets and press releases attacking Democratic plans to speed vaccinations and restore employment than have to take a position on Trump’s crimes.
Their curious reasoning is that, since Republicans won’t vote to convict Trump, impeachment won’t punish him. As the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which previously conceded that Trump’s actions were an impeachable offense, argues today, “Democrats say it will deter future impeachable acts late in a President’s term, but that is unlikely if Mr. Trump is acquitted, as he likely will be.”
This is true! If Republicans vote to acquit Trump, then future presidents will be encouraged to commit more Trump-like crimes. One might take this simple cause and effect relationship as a reason to convict Trump. Instead, the Journal uses it as an argument against holding a trial at all.
The soft authoritarian Republicans consider their unwillingness to break with Trump and offend his voters a fixed and nonnegotiable fact of political life. Forcing them to confront Trump’s crimes therefore serves no purpose other than embarrassing them.
As the very brief rebellion of the Republican elite recedes further into memory, Trump’s control over its rank and file has tightened. Trump’s inner circle is “confident both of his acquittal and that he’ll come out of the trial with his influence over the Republican party all but cemented,” reports Politico.
If Republicans decided to send a message that Trump’s plot against the republic was unacceptable, they could do so. Instead, they have reasoned tautologically that they’re going to vote against it because it is going to fail.
The Republicans obviously have reasons to acquit Trump deeper than the merely circular. But they and their voters don’t wish to repudiate his authoritarianism. While some of them might rue its final violent spasm, their main regret is not that he tried to steal the election, but that he failed.