Donald Trump is running for president again. The left is looking on with amazement and horror while bracing itself for the possibility of another Trump term. Many on the establishment right are frustrated that Trump could sabotage their party’s chance at winning elections and further radicalize their base around an unpredictable cult leader.
In this calm before the storm, let us not forget something important: This was entirely preventable. We are not just victims of Trump’s unquenchable thirst for attention and power, but also of the Republican Party’s limitless capacity for political cowardice.
Impeachment was not just an opportunity to deem Trump’s coup attempt unacceptable; it was the simplest chance for Republicans to oust him from electoral politics.
Shortly after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Republican congressional leaders condemned Trump’s behavior, and privately expressed a desire to finally get rid of their party’s leader once and for all. “I’ve had it with this guy,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Republican leaders. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly told Republican donors he was through with Trump and pledged to associates that he would drive the insurrectionist out of politics. Yet both of them caved, as did the colleagues they were meant to be leading. Only 10 Republicans voted for Trump’s second impeachment in the House, not including McCarthy, while seven Republicans voted to convict him in the Senate, not including McConnell.
Remember, impeachment was not just an opportunity to deem Trump’s coup attempt unacceptable; it was the simplest chance for Republicans to oust him from electoral politics. Under the Constitution, the Senate could’ve voted to permanently bar Trump from holding “any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States” if Republicans had rallied together and convicted Trump for his role in Jan. 6.
The most immediate reason the GOP didn’t use an easy opportunity to bar Trump from office was predicated on a fear of his enduring power in conservative politics. There was a cold calculation that it might be worth it to allow Trump to stick around as a player in the party if it meant keeping the party united around the projects of white nationalism, capitalist exploitation, social traditionalism and Christian extremism. Republicans were willing to roll the dice on the possibility of him entering office again for those goals — the same guy who had, you know, tried to overthrow the government, spoken highly of neo-Nazis and recklessly played chicken with insecure nuclear powers.
If there were any situation in which a party could’ve been moved to eject one of its members with a permanent ban from politics, it should have been this one. Trump openly showed disdain for the foundational principles of democracy with his lies about the 2020 election and calls for a violent assault to overturn the results. If things had shaken out a little differently that day — and closer to the way he envisioned it — Trump could’ve easily been complicit in the killing of lawmakers from both parties. If that doesn’t rise to the threshold of being exiled from politics, what the hell does?
Moreover, it would’ve made strategic sense for the GOP to foreclose the possibility of a third presidential bid from a Republican who clearly had the appetite for more time in office, and lacked the discipline to execute his party’s collective policy vision effectively.
But even when it would have been exceptionally easy to excise the political cancer that is Trump, the GOP failed. Part of that failure was fear of backlash, as members of the party knew that the base loved Trump and that he was capable of destroying the reputation of someone on the right with just a few tweets.
But another part of the Republican failure to pull the trigger during impeachment was something darker than expediency-induced myopia. There was acceptance of the possibility of the future degradation — or outright demise — of American democracy if it served the goal of a reactionary political agenda.
Mostly so far it seems the Republicans placed a bad bet. Trump is already a big part of the reason that Republicans fumbled the ball in the 2022 midterm elections, with many of his candidates in competitive states flopping and concern about democracy-under-siege fueling GOP defections. Going forward, the real possibility of yet another Trump presidential nomination will create even more chaos within the party, and could easily result in another failed general election if the midterms accurately reflect Trump’s waning influence.
The American people should be repelled by any party so willing to forfeit democratic principles to realize its political vision. The fact that the GOP establishment has made it clear that it’s willing to do that should put to rest any lingering hopes among some on the left that there is a moderate Republican establishment.