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The Senate Has Spoken: US Presidents Can Abuse Power Without Consequence

Trump’s acquittal has terrifying implications for U.S. democracy.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves the Senate floor during a recess in the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump on February 3, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

Trump was acquitted Wednesday on a largely party-line vote not because the Senate believes he didn’t conspire to withhold aid to Ukraine in exchange for political favors, but because the Republicans have now explicitly decided they don’t care that he did this. Having decided to block the testimony of any witnesses who might make it too politically uncomfortable for such a cavalier attitude to stand in the court of public opinion, Mitch McConnell’s senators decided to speedily wrap up the trial and vote to acquit in the face of overwhelming evidence of Trump’s wrong-doings. As a result, the “so what?” defense has won, and Trump has shed one of the last restraints on his tyrannical presidency. The consequences will ricochet through the body politic for years, perhaps generations, to come.

As a result, Donald Trump will head into the election knowing that he can call on foreign governments, private businesses and even criminal enterprises to help his re-election bid; that he can promise and trade favors at will; and that his party will do excruciatingly little to stop him. He will head into this election with a television and internet propaganda machine reminiscent of Joseph Goebbels’s in Nazi Germany, and with a quiescent Republican Party that has reinvented itself as a party not of ideas but of fealty to an individual. He will head into this election knowing the Senate has signed off on the vastly destructive legal doctrine that a president can do no wrong. Taken to an extreme, consider what terrifying, violent, corrupt acts such a doctrine would allow the president to engage in or encourage.

There is nothing remotely democratic about this reinvention. It brings to mind the rationale that justified the totalitarian nightmare systems that characterized the mid-20th century and caused vast suffering around the globe. We have, over the past week, witnessed the GOP openly convert itself into a pseudo-fascistic praetorian guard for a Mussolini-wannabe president.

This disgraceful incarnation of the GOP is now crowing that their man has been exonerated. That was, after all, always their goal, regardless of the evidence put forward before them. And, as a result, the trial verdict was pre-ordained. Trump was exonerated not on the weakness of the evidence against him, but because of a cold political calculation. For while McConnell and his colleagues may not love Trump the individual, they know that they need him there in the White House, backed up by his diehard base, so that they can continue to stack the courts with ideologues; so that they can continue to roll back environmental and workplace regulations that stand in the way of their big-business pals maximizing profits; so that they can continue to restrict reproductive rights and voting rights; so that they can stand in the way of gun controls; so that they can strip more poor people of their access to safety-net public assistance programs. So long as Trump sticks to this cruel, plutocratic program, and so long as he serves as a unifying force around which GOP voters can coalesce, he remains their man.

But the perils of this opportunistic course are immense. Trump himself, now that he has been acquitted, is likely to escalate the insults and threats he lobs at his political opponents. He is likely to target those he sees as his foes in law enforcement, in the State Department, maybe even in Congress. Like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, after the failed coup against him in 2016, Trump may feel authorized to purge government departments of anyone suspected of disloyalty to him. He may well go after the media, and aim his fire at any judicial figures who attempt to stand up to him and his increasingly toxic, nationalist policies. At his campaign rallies and in his tweets, he may well demand that Attorney General William Barr turn the investigative powers of the Justice Department against those “Deep State” actors who testified before Congress or otherwise were involved in the “plot,” the “witch hunt” to bring him down. And Barr, if recent history is any guide, may oblige.

If Trump’s election marked the beginning of the end of the U.S. republic, as I wrote for the British publication New Statesman in January 2017, this week’s abnegation of political responsibility by the GOP in the Senate marks the end of that beginning. This trajectory, this descent into post-constitutionalism was, from the get-go, entirely predictable. Trump has worked for three-plus years now to neutralize all institutions capable of standing up to him; he has broken or corrupted these institutions, and he has successfully pressured Republican legislators and cabinet members to support policies they must know to be morally wrong, to make themselves complicit in actions both illegal and fundamentally immoral. There’s nothing novel about such a technique. It’s straight out of the fascist playbook: Make people complicit and they know that they have no off-ramp; their fortunes are, from here on in, inextricably tied to the Great Leader.

The GOP — through its willing participation in a shameful cover-up and its coalescing around Alan Dershowitz’s dictatorial argument that anything the president does to further his own interests is definitionally in the public interest — has taken concrete steps to disempower Congress. No longer can it be seen as a co-equal branch of government capable of putting the brakes on a lawless presidency; it is, from here on in, simply a rubber stamp. The implications for constitutional governance are stark.

What will come next? In the short term, it seems that Trump would like to see a form of personalized autocracy that will resemble Vladimir Putin’s Russia far more than, say, the democracy of Canada or the U.K. or France. We will probably see increasingly brazen self-dealing by Trump and his advisers and cabinet members. An already corrupt administration may well, increasingly, morph into a corrupt regime — a political leadership unmoored from the constitutional history and limits that other administrations have abided by, concerned not with good governance but with the ruthless use of political power to advance personal interests. How brutal it will be is, of course, unknown. But regardless of its reach, Trump’s post-impeachment presidency — a presidency that has escaped all consequence for what was cooked up involving Ukraine — is a type of lawless beast.

In November, the U.S. faces a critical fork in the road as voters choose not only between political ideologies, but between entire systems of government. As a party, the GOP now stands for the ongoing erosion of the republic. Its elected officials have shown their eagerness to codify and make permanent cultist, irrationalist and brutal, almost royalist, leadership methods. What remains to be seen is whether the U.S. public will rise up to punish GOP legislators for their betrayal of the constitutional oath of office.

Republicans, in choosing to acquit Trump at all costs, have made their historical bed. The only question now is whether the electorate will choose to jump under the covers with them again come November. If they do, we should take seriously the danger that this multi-centuries-long experiment in democracy may be preparing to fade into history.

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