The Other Train Wreck That America Only Narrowly Avoided

Republican Senators’ unwillingness to impeach Trump for “incitement of insurrection” belies what their priorities would’ve been, had they kept control of the chamber

Final result of Trump’s 2nd impeachment trial: not a big enough margin to convict

Without fully rehashing Trump’s 2nd Senate trial, in which only 7 Republican Senators joined all Democrats voting to convict, let’s start by very quickly taking a step back and asking, first of all, why weren’t most Republicans in the House and Senate willing to impeach and convict Trump?

January 6th remains about the clearest point A to point B line possible ever between Trump and a naked attempt to undermine the U.S. Constitution and overthrow the U.S. government. The culmination of a nakedly premeditated effort to mass his most flammable supporters within shouting distance of the Capitol and then lighting a match. Just because he’s a sore loser. No “witch hunt”.

And on top of all that, Trump lost the White House, lost Republicans the House 2-years ago, and lost them the Senate this January by focusing on his own lies and desperation, and not what it was his party needed to succeed. In fact, he betrayed his party in favor of a repetition of his own grievances.

And a good thing too. Because what the impeachment trial has shown us, is one of the biggest reasons most Republicans will not be moved even though they themselves were under attack, and Trump expressly threatened the life of Vice President Mike Pence in the interest of nothing but his own vanity, which I’ve also been saying for weeks is one of the most important and until recently, most under-covered pieces of this story, is that Republicans want and feel they need to perpetuate Trump’s lies about election fraud, at least to some degree, in some form, in order to continue to win elections in the future. And that’s what a lot of this is about.

Perhaps even more so than placating Trump’s base. Because if they lose those voters, they won’t be going and voting for Democrats in most cases, they just won’t be voting. So yeah, it gives a base layer of support, maybe. But even that’s not as powerful—they apparently perceive—as perpetuating some form of what everybody’s calling Trump’s “big lie”.

How does the composition of the Senate fit into this? Well, had Republicans held onto even one of the Senate seats they lost both of in the January runoff in Georgia, they would still have a majority in the Senate.

There’s your train wreck.

And whatever you think about the way the impeachment trial proceeded, and whether Democrats, because they had more leverage in the Senate than during Trump’s 1st impeachment, could’ve done more with that leverage: like call witnesses, which they absolutely should’ve done—especially since during Trump’s 1st impeachment trial Republicans blocked that, but couldn’t have this time—one thing’s crystal clear: Had Republicans been in control of the Senate, the major business of the Senate for the next couple of years really would’ve been a sudden and urgent prioritization of “election integrity”. Forget about any of President Biden’s priorities. Even if Republicans were willing to give lip service to some. Even if they were willing to say “yes, things like getting COVID-19 relief to Americans is important”. Because delving deep into “election integrity” would’ve been oh-so-much-more important. And if Democrats objected to that priority-setting, it would’ve only fed suspicions, maybe not that maybe Trump was right and he actually won, but at least Democrats didn’t want this emphasis because they have impure motives, if not something to hide. 

So what value is there now in Republican Senators perpetuating this myth now, since they can’t set the agenda for the Senate and the hearings of its various committees? They still have some power to steer the agenda for the nation, in a couple of ways, in a couple of places:

  1. State legislatures. There are still a ton more Republican controlled state legislatures than Democrat. Since there was a census in 2020, they’ll all be redrawing voting districts soon. And although most state legislatures have barely had time to meet yet this year, already according to the Brennan Center, those state legislatures have introduced “165 restrictive bills”. That’s way more than normal. In fact, 400% more than last year. For instance, Georgia has allowed no excuse absentee voting for more than a decade—not just last year! But think that’ll continue?
  2. Courts. Trump’s legal efforts following the election were slipshod and slapdash. On top of that, many of Trump’s challenges could’ve been made weeks or months or even years before Election Day, yet he didn’t make them until after he lost. That’s not kosher. And that counts for a lot with judges. And courts don’t like to mess with election where there’s already been a clear outcome, not should they. But that doesn’t mean those same courts and judges won’t hear challenges before the next federal elections, which are the mid-terms in a couple of years, and maybe a couple of special elections before then.
  3. Combination of both. One of the interesting phenomena in American political makeup these days is the number of swing states that because of gerrymandering have solidly Republican controlled legislatures, but Democratic governors. Since of course a gubernatorial election is state wide. So it won’t be enough in many cases for Republicans to just make it harder to vote in many states, which benefits them, because Democratic governors will just veto such legislation. So then they’ve got to take it to the courts. This is going to be an incredibly active area for litigation in the next couple of years and you can bet at least a few of the voting rule cases will make it to the Supreme Court. And while the Court didn’t interfere with the couple of ludicrous cases that came up during Trump’s desperate grasping-at-straws hour, they will very likely be very likely to be willing to hear voting related cases that are presented in a more regular manner. And some Justices, most notably Justices Alito and Kavanaugh have strongly indicated they are strongly inclined to intervene in various ways. None of which would make voting easier.

Compounding that is the fact that more “moderate” or old-school Republicans continue leaving public service. Like Alabama’s senior Senator Richard Shelby, who is 86. (It’s also worth keeping in mind that the only one of the Republican Senators who voted to convict Trump and is running for re-election next year is Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski.)

And the extremists aren’t leaving, nor are they being driven out. Recent events might even demonstrate they’re growing in number if not yet in strength enough to really wrestle Democracy to the ground. The prevailing wisdom these days is they never will. That there’s going to be a backlash and the party will move way away from Trump. But with a few notable exceptions: Trump’s former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, for instance, who probably wants to run for president, and is a canny political operator, most of those voicing that opinion are Liberals. So in some ways it seems more of a wish than a reality in fact.

So what can Liberals and Democrats do? That’s more concrete? That’s more definite than a wish? That’s tougher. Work really hard to register new voters and convince people to vote, even if Republican led legislatures make it much harder, which they will. Pass a new Voting Rights Act. Soon. While Democrats in Congress have the votes to do it. There’s common sense reasons for this too, which transcend the assaults individual Republican state legislatures will mount against voting rights. But of course, Republicans will litigate the hell out of that too.

Still, in the next months and couple of years at least, any time President Biden gets one of his priorities passed, please stop for a second, and think but for those two astonishing victories for Democratic Senators Ossoff and Warnock in Georgia, this would not be happening.

And more than that—as the impeachment trial just showed us—virtually all Republican efforts would be focused on the all important to the exclusion of anything else issue of “election integrity” and/or “voting irregularities”, or whatever else they might’ve wanted to call it.

And that’s pretty much all the majority of Republican Senators would’ve been doing in endless hearing after endless hearing. All.