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The second impeachment trial of Donald Trump may be the last chance for the Democrats to finally recognize that the clear and present danger to American democracy and the rule of law is not Donald Trump but the Republican Party under the sway of Trumpism. 

This has been clear for years now, as the GOP has transformed itself, embracing political disinformation and conspiracy theories, fomenting racial and ethnic resentments, relying on militant nationalists and white supremacists as part of its political base, and supporting a President whose lies, corrupt dealings, and abuse of executive powers are unprecedented in modern history.

While many Congressional Democrats have confronted Trump, the party has repeatedly failed to campaign against the Republican Party as fundamentally corrupt and a danger to American democracy.

Instead, the Biden campaign and (more scandalously) the Democratic National Committee, have focused on the empathy and integrity of its candidates (assuming that the contrast with Trump would be enough sway a sizable swath of Republican supporters) and policy issues (as if there was an opposition party capable of informed political argumentation). 

We will never know what might have happened had the Democratic Party, instead of leaving the job to the Lincoln Project, run a comprehensive campaign to destroy the credibility of the Republican brand simply by telling the truth is easily digestible terms (a party supporting “soviet style purges” of government officials, “voter suppression,” “abusing office to benefit oneself and one’s family,” and “compromising national security by attacking intelligence agencies and befriending dictators”).

What is clear from the events since the election is that this long-delayed effort must be undertaken now. 

Consider what we have learned since Biden’s victory:

  • After four years of lies, racism, and abuse of power 47% of Americans wanted four more years.
  • 75% of Republicans believe that widespread fraud resulted in a stolen election.
  • 138 Republican members of the House of Representatives (60%) voted to overturn election results as certified by the State of Pennsylvania, after local Republican officials, relevant courts, and federal intelligence agencies found no evidence of fraud. 17 Republican state attorney’s general filed suit to challenge the ballots cast in the election, despite offering no evidence of fraud.
  • Despite Trump’s attack on American elections and efforts to manipulate local election officials, his incitement of the Capitol insurrection, his inaction as the violence continued, and his expression of thanks and affection for the rioters, 197 (95%) of 207 Republican legislators voted against impeachment. Currently 45 of 50 (90%) of Republican Senators plan to vote against convicting Trump on the impeachment charge.
  • Republicans who have voted for impeachment are receiving numerous death threats and Trump and his supporters are pledging to make sure all are defeated in 2020. (For example, the South Carolina Republican Party has formally censured Rep. Tom Rice for his impeachment vote.)
  • In the wake of the storming of the Capitol 70% of Republicans still approve of Donald Trump’s performance as President.

The authoritarian neo-fascism at the heart of Trumpism is alive and well and being protected and nurtured by the Republican party. Even the most horrified holdovers from what used to be Republican conservatism grant that it is the dominant force in the party, a force so fueled by disinformation, conspiracy theories, the demonization of liberals as Godless communists, and so hostile to American institutions and processes, that overturning the results of an election is seen as a noble patriotic calling.

This is, at a minimum, 40-45% of the American electorate. Almost any event or unforeseen development could turn 45% into 52% support or more.  A foreign terrorist attack in the wake of lifting the Muslim ban, domestic violence perpetrated by black and brown people, or an international provocation designed to further discredit the American political system that Biden meets with diplomacy rather than brute military force.

If there is one thing the Democrats should have learned is that the facts in each case won’t matter. There won’t need to be evidence that removing the Muslim ban was linked to the attack. If there aren’t real connections between leftist violence and Democratic officials that evidence will be manufactured and repeated until the half of the country in the Republican leaning information bubble believes it.  The Republicans can turn any diplomatic response to violence into an attack on globalism and “blame America firsters.”  Just look at the years of damage done to the Democrats over Benghazi—which wouldn’t crack the top 25 of disastrous Trump administration actions.

And yet, there are those who continue to think that to meet this moment in history it is sufficient to stress unity, (a strategy that left state legislatures in Republican hands and was less than 80,000 swing state votes away from re-electing Trump), try to build bridges to moderate Republican legislators (the impeachment vote indicates we are talking about building a strategy around 10 members of the House and 5 in the Senate) and deliver policy wins that benefit working Americans.  

It’s as if the Democrats were shuffling across crossing a lake, wide and deep, only partially covered with a thin layer of ice, with temperatures rising–their attention focused on the blueprints for the home they will build on the distant shore. Falling through the ice won’t merely wreck the blueprint but re-energize the country’s slide into division, political violence, and authoritarian populism.

It makes perfect sense for the Biden campaign to attend to the early phases of home construction and play the “long policy game” but this will make only a marginal contribution to thickening the ice. Even major policy victories do not reliably produce outcomes that voters will notice, appreciate, and credit to the Democrats (who consistently do a better job of fostering economic growth while controlling deficits but are incapable of overcoming Republican propaganda to the contrary).  And, when they do, it takes a very long time (witness the slow appreciation for the Affordable Care Act).  Given the Democrats’ lack of a filibuster proof majority, the rural bias of Senate representation, and the voter suppression and gerrymandering that Democratic losses in state legislatures and Trump court appointees will make possible, it will take a string of electoral victories over the next 8 to 10 years to reach that distant shore.

The only way to string together electoral victories (beginning with the all-important 2022 midterms) needed to produce better and more humane policies and simultaneously confront the clear and immediate authoritarian threat to American democracy, is to make the Senate impeachment proceeding the beginning of a four-year process of putting the Republican Party on trial. A vote to convict Trump is likely impossible but Democrats can take a step towards discrediting the party serving as host to the political virus of Trumpism.

Moreover, it can be done by the Democratic Party even as the Biden administration touts unity. It is frightening to think that Democratic leaders, with democracy hanging in the balance, would avoid confronting the danger of Trumpism because they fear Republican accusations that it is “inconsistent” with calls for unity.  By this logic, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should avoid trying to pressure Patrick Mahomes for fear that it would risk a roughing the passer penalty.  I think we know how that would turn out. In fact, we do know how it turned out. Years of Democratic accomodation and compromise, the political equalivalent of dropping back into a defense designed to prevent the big play, has helped the GOP to dominate the game and left the Democratic party whining to the referees. Time to change the playbook.

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