Even If He’s Acquitted, History Isn’t on Trump’s Side

When former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial wraps up in the coming days, it’s entirely possible that a large majority of Republican senators will vote to acquit him of inciting an insurrection.

If they do so, it will not be because of lack of evidence but because of a stunning lack of moral fortitude. They will acquit not because the House managers didn’t prove their case, but because by and large, GOP senators — with a few exceptions — regard their oath to deliver impartial justice about as flippantly as Trump regarded his oath to preserve, protect and defend the U.S. Constitution.

Over the course of three days, the nine House managers, led by constitutional law scholar Rep. Jamie Raskin, presented an entirely devastating picture of Trump and of Trumpism. They showed, through a meticulous use of Trump’s own quotes, film footage, and a variety of firsthand accounts from participants and victims, just how dangerous the January 6 mob attack was. They showed Trump egging on the enraged “Stop the Steal” crowds in Washington, D.C., that morning. They showed the mob actively hunting down Congress members, beating and attempting to crush police officers. And they showed — through social media posts, radio and TV interviews, and phone conversations — how many of the Trump loyalists believed that the former president had summoned them to D.C. with no aim other than to use brute force to stop Congress’s certification of the Electoral College vote.

The speech Trump gave to D.C. protesters that morning, as well as his tweets in the run-up to the protests and during the assault on the Capitol itself, were laid out in full, technicolor detail at the trial. Trump’s odious words contained no nuance, no subtlety. His “Stop the Steal” rhetoric was a lie pushed in plain view, and his attacks on political figures — including his own vice president — who dared to put the Constitution above fealty to Donald J. Trump were clearly aimed at cultivating a violent response from the MAGA mob.

But, at least as importantly as documenting the days immediately surrounding January 6, the House managers established years-long patterns that led up to that day. In a sense, they put Trump’s entire political modus operandi on trial in the court of U.S. and global public opinion. The presentations clearly showed that throughout his presidency, Trump was busy defending and cozying up to extremist groups — from calling the neo-Nazis of the Charlottesville riot “very fine people”to calling on militias to “liberate” Michigan and several other states from public health-mandated COVID restrictions in the spring of 2020 to telling the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” Trump was encouraging acts of violence against counterprotesters at his political rallies and elsewhere. He was glorifying former Rep. Greg Gianforte’s beating up of a Guardian newspaper reporter. (Gianforte is now the governor of Montana.) Trump was presiding over rallies in which his supporters, with his clear support, were calling for his opponents to be jailed and, in some instances, to be physically harmed.

The House managers gave a devastatingly thorough presentation that let Trump — for so long the star of his own show — speak for himself. In speaking for himself, he damned himself before the eyes of the world.

It’s impossible to imagine that an impartial juror could sit through the three days of presentations the House managers put together and not vote to convict Trump. It’s impossible to imagine, as Trump’s inept attorneys wanted their audiences to do, that Trump was simply exercising his free speech rights, with no ill intent, with no hope that his words would activate the mob to march on Congress and try to prevent a peaceful transfer of power.

Perhaps that’s why, by Thursday afternoon, as the Democrats prepared to wrap up their case, 15 GOP senators had simply absented themselves from the proceedings. For them, it would be easier to vote to acquit — a decision they had made before any of the evidence was even presented — if they weren’t forced to actually confront the overwhelming evidence of the culpability of the man they were readying themselves to exonerate.

But does GOP senators’ ostrich stance mean that the trial was a waste of time? Not in the slightest. The impeachment managers were, in part, playing for the history books, seeking to indelibly frame the Trump presidency in the public’s mind as one configured, from the get-go, to deliver violence and to whip up fanaticism. They were seeking to shape history’s understanding of Trump, to ensure that, generations from now, his name remains synonymous with insurrection, with demagoguery, with violence and with bloodlust. They succeeded.

As the proceedings continue, Trump’s lawyers won’t be able to effectively counter this effort; they seem to have realized this early on, providing a ludicrously flimsy, poorly prepared defense. Their opening arguments on Tuesday afternoon were the stuff of dime-store shills. “Mediocre” would be a charitable description of the legal arguments they delivered. There was, in their hurried, ill-argued presentations, simply no evidence of the top legal brains that one would expect an ex-president to be able to marshal in his defense. In fact, Trump didn’t really field a legal team at all; instead, he went from one rejection to the next, as top-tier law firms fled his toxic embrace and refused to represent him, until finally he found a couple of random lawyers who were willing to argue (albeit poorly and with minimal preparation) his case in public.

Yet in all likelihood, when the voting begins, more than a third of the Senate will move to acquit Trump.

That outcome will, I predict, be something of a pyrrhic victory for the GOP. In fact, it will likely hang like an albatross around the party’s neck for a long, long time to come — for a majority of Americans believe that Trump is guilty of inciting an insurrection and should, in consequence, forfeit the right to run for public office again. And, given the power of the House managers’ presentation this week, I’d guess that the needle of public opinion will shift further against Trump — and by extension, the Trumpified GOP — in the coming weeks.

Former U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill supposedly once noted that “history is written by the victors.” Trump, out of power, living in a gilded cage in Mar-a-Lago, is, at this point, most assuredly not a victor. He has lost the presidency and lost his previously vast social media platform, and after attempting to incite an insurrection, he has lost any last vestiges of credibility. Most importantly, he has lost much of the power to create his own narrative. Instead, the history of Trump and of Trumpism is largely being written by others. And it’s a narrative that, as the impeachment trial has so vividly shown, will not be kind to him.