By Bob Buzzanco
Five Dead. Lighting-fast trial. Dems rely on Republicans to “have spine.” No witnesses called. GOP on the ropes but given new life.
Donald Trump incited a violent crowd to storm the capitol, with dozens of police injured and five people killed. Large majorities of Americans believed he was responsible for the assault and the damages. He was quickly impeached and now he’s been, predictably, acquitted by Senate Republicans who really didn’t even need to try to make up any good reasons for their vote.
Everyone has seen this played out before, several times. Trump commits some heinous deed and gets off the hook. Liberals and the Left ramp up their outrage and hatred of Trump, and he doubles down, ultimately to the point of inspiring people to violently attack the Capitol and the “blue lives” they claim to cherish.
Perhaps instead of always blaming Trump, the Democrats should look elsewhere, like inward, to analyze these situations.
Trump did incite violence. And he had been for 4+ years already, with insane claims of a stolen election and on the heels of “Liberate Michigan,” or “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” or his constant instructions to “be strong” or to “fight.” His rally on January 6th was nothing but a provocation to violence with Mo Brooks, Rudy Giuliani and others joining him that day in throwing gasoline on the fire he’d lit long ago.
But, and this has been the case for 4+ years, all of Trump’s detestable, violent deeds have been facilitated by a terribly weak and craven opposition, the Democrats. People who commit crimes, who are “evildoers” (per George W. Bush’s line) should be held accountable and punished, but people who have the power to challenge or stop them but don’t are to blame as well. Martin Luther King’s observation that “after we’ve forgotten the hatred of our enemies, we’ll remember the silence of our friends” is a great way to judge people.
From the days Goldwater and Nixon, from the Southern Strategy to gerrymandering to stealing presidential elections and Supreme Court seats, before Trump, whose own list of dirty deeds is too well-known to bear repeating, the GOP has played total hardball.
And amid all that the Democratic, and Liberal, and often-Progressive, response to that has been to move further to the right, to not be just put on the defensive, but to embrace the defensive.
And the impeachment was the clearest example of that strategy. To begin, Trump should have been impeached—that was an easy call. He incited violence, a claim that even most of his supporters acknowledge in some degree, and people died.
The Democrats made Trump “singularly” responsible, let GOP off the hook. But the Democrats, while appropriately impeaching Trump, stopped there. Their only goal was to impeach and try Trump. Despite he horrors of January 6th, played out live on every media in the world, there was NO POSSIBLE CHANCE, ever, of a conviction. If the Democrats really thought they’d get 17 GOP senators to switch sides and convict Trump, there’s swamp land for sale all over the country they can buy for cheap.
But that was their mission, and their fatal mistake—focusing so overwhelmingly, if not solely, on a conviction and ignoring so many other potential benefits of a national hearing on the events of January 6th.
The point should have been to impeach Trump and go after the entire GOP, with the latter being more important. But the articles of impeachment the Democrats charged that Trump was “singularly responsible” for the riots, violence, death, and destruction that day. In terms of tagging Trump with responsibility for the events of January 6th, Jamie Raskin and the house impeachment team did an outstanding job, especially with their video presentations of the bloody images of the day. Big majorities of Americans held Trump accountable and denounced the violent mobs that invaded the Capitol.
Democrats aren’t good at politics. But that mattered little. Because by making Trump not just THE issue, but the ONLY issue, they’d already lost. They were looking at the impeachment from a position of law and the constitution, not politics. Democrats never seem to analyze what they do politically, whereas the GOP always does. Democrats even when in the majority tread gingerly and aim small, while the GOP can be in the minority and force through unpopular and outrageous policies. The Democrats are Wile E. Coyote; the Republicans are the Road Runner.
Donald Trump is the easiest target in political history. He doesn’t do things surreptitiously. He tweets them out and if he does something on the sly, he cops to it, calls it “perfect,” and moves on. And he was fully enabled for 4 years by the entire GOP—even so-called critics like Romney, Flake, and Sasse had nearly 100 percent voting agreement with Trump. So pointing out Trump’s role in January 6th was essential, but it was not enough, because the goal should not have been conviction, which was not possible, but to create division and make the entire GOP accountable for the destruction and death of January 6th, and the Democrats, again, let them off the hook. Again, they stole defeat from political victory.
While the entire GOP apparatus in creating the conditions for January 6th was obvious, it was never put on display. It was “singularly” about Trump. So the role of Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz were never turned into an issue in inciting the violent mobs. The incendiary rhetoric of Mo Brooks never came up. The roles played by the likes of Paul Gosar and other GOP representatives in planning the January 6th events were not discussed. The roles of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, among others, weren’t emphasized, even though Roger Stone wasn’t hiding his association with them and may likely have been coordinating between the president and those groupos. The White House couldn’t even find lawyers to represent them until they came up with a couple barristers who were more ambulance-chasers than legal experts.
The speeches made by Brooks and Rudy Giuliani that immediately preceded storming the capitol weren’t part of the evidence. Most crucially, Trump’s tweets putting pressure on Pence, made after he knew that Pence had been hustled out of the Capitol because the crowds were specifically looking for him, did not become an issue.
The Democrats called no witnesses. Well, that’s not really true. A Republican representative from Washington, Jaime Herrera Beutler, the closest thing to a profile in courage in the sewers of Congress during this sordid episode, went public during the trial to reveal that she’d had a conversation with GOP Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who told Trump to call the rioters off and had the president simply mock him, saying that “these people are more upset about the election than you are.” A furious McCarthy responded to Trump—as rioters were breaking into his office—“who the fuck do you think you are talking to?”
Yet, McCarthy, who’d recanted his claim that the riots were all Trump’s fault and had become his myrmidon again a week later, was never called to witness. Herrera Beutler’s statement was put into the record. That was it—essentially it became a hearsay statement on the most explosive charge; that was the Democrats’ response.
But that shouldn’t have been a surprise because they called no witnesses. During the first, far-less-riveting, impeachment, the Democrats were apoplectic that the GOP refused to call witnesses. In 2021, the Democrats had control of the senate, and had a 55-45 vote already in the books to call witnesses and could have compelled it…..so what did they do? They’re the Democrats, so everyone knows what they did. When you’re what I long ago coined “The Washington Generals of Politics,” you do nothing, you lose. Invariably. All the time. As if it’s your job to fail.
The focus was on convicting Trump, which wasn’t a possibility, rather than larger objectives to damage the GOP. The Democratic excuses for excluding witnesses, despite Raskin’s apparent desire for them, were pretty hapless too. For the most part, they argued that it was pointless because it was clear Trump would be acquitted (because……singularly responsible). The failure to call witnesses was probably the most visible manifestation of their idea that the point of impeachment (maybe not the only point, but close to it) was to convict Trump. In fact, V.I. Del. Stacey Plaskett explicitly said that they didn’t need witnesses, they needed GOP senators to have spines, an explanation which shows that the Dems really did believe they could get a conviction and that an appeal to conscience might work with the GOP. Indeed, there’s no evidence that anyone in the Democrat leadership saw any purpose other than a conviction–no fringe benefits from conducting the trial differently, calling out other GOP politicians, introducing more evidence, or especially calling witnesses.
Other Democrats said it would drag out the trial while Republicans would fight subpoenas. To some, the impeachment was detracting from Joe Biden’s first weeks as president (because….Biden was at the trial)? Chris Coons, a senator from Delaware, a state that has a famous ex-senator in government, said that everyone wanted to get home for Valentine’s Day and so it was time to wrap the trial up.
It was as if the Democrats’ plan was to capitulate, no matter how much lipstick they put on it. But they had options well beyond the ones they publicly rejected. There were surely witnesses who would have complied, like Herrera Buetler. Even if symbolic, subpoenaing Cruz, Hawley, McCarthy, Brooks, Gosar, and others, would have incited anxiety and alarm, and division. The Democrats could have discussed Lindsey Graham’s shrieks of terror as the Capitol was invaded or the abject fear that many GOP representatives were expressing that day. And what about the Republicans who seemed to have been giving tours of the inner sanctum of the Capitol the day before?
And what about the real victims? The people injured or killed on January 6th? If Blue Lives mattered, then the Democrats could have called in police who were on duty and were attacked to describe the events that the Democrats had already displayed on video, with their own personal narratives of the fear and pain they experienced that day. AOC is absolutely correct on this one–the riots, the violence, the deaths, and the GOP long-term role in it should be talked about every day.
The GOP got away with another one. But none of that happened. And again, the GOP slipped the posse and is as unrepentant as ever, with Lindsey Graham now promising vengeance in the form of an impeachment of Kamala Harris for tweeting out bail support information during last summer’s uprisings if the GOP wins the House in 2022 (which is pretty much a chalk bet at this point). Trump’s incitement and the events of January 6th, could have/should have seriously damaged the Republicans. Now the Democrats are left with boasting that they got 7 Republican votes for conviction, and attacking the GOP for being spineless. That’s not even a pyrrhic victory. They might get lucky because Trump and McConnell are having their own battles which could mitigate the Democratic failure a bit, but waiting on the Republicans to immolate is hardly a strong political strategy.
At this point, the GOP is not looking much different than it did before January 6th—a party that lost the elections but was unrepentant, holding on to views that most Americans don’t accept, and making up lies about everything they do, and getting away with it, largely because the Democrats aren’t much different than they were before January 6th—weak, unwilling to fight, emphasizing some fantasy of unity and reconciliation over defending the interests of the people voting for them, bringing, as Scott Parkin says, an NPR tote bag to a gun fight.
The Democratic Party had a huge political gift handed to it. Trump’s long-term crusade to violently attack the election had come to fruition in horrific ways and in the immediate aftermath his own party had turned on him….because Trump had tried to get them killed. When that mob entered the Capitol, it was out to do damage to members of congress, and while the Democrats were clearly more hated, Pence and McConnell were likely their prime targets.
The Republicans were ready to have a civil war over the events of January 6th, but the Democrats let up on the gas, once more. Instead of pressing the issue, they kept talking about unity and reconciliation and getting beyond this, and holding Trump “singularly” responsible for the attacks.
If Cruz, Hawley, Brooks and the rest of the thugs involved in inciting the mobs had been held accountable, even if they weren’t going to be convicted, that would have set off a massive internal feud, and they would have been turning on each other like the cheap snitches they surely are. But they were never forced to do that. After a few days of intense anxiety after January 6th, they realized the Democrats weren’t going to do anything to them (hopefully, the various DAs and courts will take a more serious approach) and just went back to the old GOP playbook—no apologizing, doubling down on their worst instincts, blaming the Democrats, and knowing that they’d suffer little, of any, consequence for their fatal inciting of violence because they’d never suffered any consequences…..They never took the Democrats seriously, and never needed to.
There is still a chance that GOP divisions will fester and become a problem. Ben Sasse and now Nikki Haley, reactionary and opportunist, have decided that the future of the GOP may be anti-Trump and have staked out their positions (which is a good example of why the Democrats should have been daily pitting the likes of Sasse and Romney and Toomey against the Trump apologists).
But Rafael Cruz is as insufferable and ignorant and dangerous as ever, and surely doesn’t expect any comeuppance. Hawley remains the obnoxious frat boy who wants to pretend he’s from the streets. Meantime, with no oppositional narrative, the forces of Trumpism were able to retreat and return to their original positions. Now they can continue their “both sides” arguments by invoking BLM, fight against giving relief to people suffering from a Pandemic, job losses and evictions, and enact voter-suppression laws in states where they lost by small numbers in 2020.
The Democrats aren’t going to save you. The Democrats seem to make all issues about morality and civility and constitutionality and appearances–we’re classy, they’re gauche. They don’t pay much mind to anticipating the political fallout of what they do. They could have really put the pressure on the entire GOP, made issues out of Cruz, Hawley, Brooks and the others, called witnesses, especially witnesses who’d been attacked that day, and forced GOP senators to look at them, in real life, in flesh and bone. Instead of “singularly” making it about Trump, they could have collectively made it about his entire party. Instead of holding out for the fantasy of a conviction, they could have put the whole Republican Party on trial and made them explain their actions, turn on each other like Sasse and others already had, and own, as one, the blood shed on January 6th.
But they didn’t. They weren’t the 2016 Chicago Cubs. They remain the 2016 Cleveland Indians.
And this is a good reason why electoral strategies, electoralism itself, is a dead end. Even when handed a saber to finish off a divided, frightened, unpopular and wounded GOP, the Democrats walked away from it. They had to get home for Valentines Day.
It’s fine to loathe Trump and his minions—they are the most loathsome crew in American politics. But Pelosi, Schumer, Manchin, Cardin, Coons, and so many other Democratic leaders are culpable as well. Continuing to hate on Trump and attack the GOP may feel good, and isn’t without any purpose, but it’s probably important to really analyze the weak “resistance” to the Republicans that enabled Trump for 4 years. The Democrats had a chance to have a huge, national public hearing on the role of Trump and his party and right-wing violence. They could have gone big. Instead they went home.
The Democrats won’t save you. So Organize! Organize! Organize!