Trump’s acquittal for his second impeachment sets a dangerous precedent for rising players in the GOP, who attempt to follow his lead. The main questions that arose from his historic second impeachment trial can be broken down into (1) the constitutional question–could you impeach a former, non-sitting President to bar him or her from holding future office?–and (2) the legal question–did Trump actually incite a riot on January 6th?
In regard to the legal question Trump’s second impeachment posed, there are two answers. Either, given the facts we know about that day such as the remarks the President made during his “Stop the Steal” rally speech before his supporters, Trump’s conduct actually did constitute inciting the riot. Calling on his supporters to “fight like hell,” reportedly withholding action to stop the escalation at the Capitol, and even calling the Vice President a “p*ssy” for deciding not to be a co-conspirator in, essentially, a coup attempt would all explicitly be against the rules; we won’t allow any future leader to get away with conduct like this, verifying many people’s take that Trump’s conduct was wrong. If everyone got behind this option, then we can at least be comfortable agreeing when a leader’s conduct is out of hand. This is the better option.
The second, scarier option, is that in lieu of everything we already know and are beginning to know from the January 6th committee hearings, Trump’s conduct was legal. Today, the GOP is split into traditional Republicans–like McConell, Romney, Cheney–and rising Trump Republicans–like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Josh Hawley. The growing influence of the second camp is worrying, since these junior Congresspeople understand the appeal of Trumpian rhetoric and know the political wins they can achieve by taking after the former President. Take Greene, who’s been the subject of ethics hearings on her “verbal assault” of AOC. Like the incendiary Trump uses regularly to fire up his crowds, Greene is comfortable calling her fellow colleague a “radical socialist,” and calls AOC a “terrorist” supporter for her stance on BLM.
You can even take how Trump Republicans are downplaying the severity and implications of the Capitol Riot. Greene, for example, allegedly asked the President to declare martial law to keep himself in power. This should be a red flag that should disqualify any person from holding public office–in fact, it probably would disqualify any person, if it weren’t for how desensitized politics has been with Trump at the head. Another infamous image, Josh Hawley raising his fist in support of the growing Capitol mob, points to the Senator’s comfort in fueling a tense crowd to at least gain their support. These Trump Republicans are fine in pushing illiberal democracy so long as it wins them immediate political ground.
These events point to how explicitly easy it is for toxic populism to infiltrate US politics. One Washington Post article, specifically, broke down Hawley’s conduct as “pursuing short-term gain for long-term chaos.” I think this accurately explains the motivations behind engaging in this kind of rhetoric. Trump Republicans always have the edge over more establishment colleagues within their own party; the strength of Trump Republicans comes from being able to defer and claim being anti-establishment, while simply being a mouthpiece “for the people.” This is reminiscent of the strategy of other populists in political history, who are strengthened by the weaknesses of the previous governments but are protected by claiming to act according to the public will. In truth, there is no definitive public will. The people that Trump claims to represent is less than half of voters, as he lost the popular vote in both his 2016 win and 2020 loss. By demonizing all opponents as a part of the elite class, Trump Republicans capitalize on people’s existing frustrations with the government; perpetuating the Q-Anon conspiracy is just one degenerate tactic that comes out of Trump’s example. The Trump strategy is concerning because it inspires politicians to engage in similar tactics. If leadership in this country cares about setting a solid precedent and protecting US democracy in the future, then the January 6 Committee needs to establish the misconduct of the White House during the riot. Applying populism to Trump has not been a new trend, but applying the spread of populist characters from the success of Trump is something we now need to turn our attention to. Populist ideals can revitalize democratic people power at the expense of maintaining decency and civil liberties. But one Newsweek article points to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as the next iteration of Trumpism and GOP success. Perhaps DeSantis is a more polished candidate than Trump, who won’t resort to indecency and will restore liberal democratic attitudes among voters in his party. The best case scenario is that the country moves on from this last populist era, and for the GOP to drain its own swamp of shady Trumpists.
Photo by Francis Chung / E&E News and Politico via AP Images.
Berman, Sheri. “The Pipe Dream Of Undemocratic Liberalism.” Journal of Democracy.
Muller, Jan-Werner. “What is Populism?” Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Farrell, Henry and Elizabeth Saunders. “A cynical ploy like Hawley and Cruz’s is harmless. Until it isn’t.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/a-cynical-ploy-like-hawley-and-cruzs-looks-harmless-until-it-isnt/2021/01/07/9ce6d10e-5091-11eb-b96e-0e54447b23a1_story.html.
Fung, Katherine. “Trumpism Is Moving Beyond Trump and That’s Good News for Ron DeSantis.” Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/trumpism-moving-beyond-trump-thats-good-news-ron-desantis-1707478.