“Brokeback” Republicans and Trump

Will they ever be able to quit each other?

by Michael Janofsky 

National Guard at Logan Circle during the inauguration | Photo: Ted Eytan

In his January inaugural address, President Joe Biden called for healing a fractured country. Eight times he used the word “unity”, urging Americans to move beyond the rancour and political divisions of the last four years.

A nation listened. It was unclear if Republicans heard.

While it takes more than a few months to stitch the country together after any presidential election, recent events showed how Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, even out-of-office and banned from Twitter, remains the true leader of the Republican party – and the biggest impediment to national unity. It’s as if Republicans and Trump are the cinematic cowboys from Brokeback Mountain. They just can’t quit each other.

As a result, the United States feels as raw and riven as ever in the wake of Trump’s second impeachment trial in a year. Only seven of 50 Republicans in the evenly-divided Senate voted him guilty, leaving the chamber ten votes short of the two-thirds required for conviction.

Cult-like servitude to a former president is a rare phenomenon in American politics. Especially one who is reviled by so many other Americans – some in his own party – for his years of lies and outrageous behavior. His loyal followers revere him. And knowing his power to destroy or elect a candidate with a tweet, most Republican lawmakers fear him.

One might have thought Trump’s influence would dissipate after he lost the November election. Biden, after all, is a 36-year veteran of the Senate, a Democrat known as a good collaborator. He vowed to be president “for all Americans,” the antithesis of Trump who saw enemies everywhere.

Despite evidence showing the savagery of perpetrators boasting they came at Trump’s behest, most Republicans used the venue issue as a rationale to acquit

But Trump was perfect for a party moving steadily and angrily away from centrist conservatism. He nurtured those forces and fuelled their resentments through months of pushing his biggest lie ever – “The election was stolen” – highlighted by his fiery 6 January speech that ignited the assault on the US Capitol to stop the certification of Biden’s victory. The siege left five dead, the building vandalised and
America horrified.

In short order, the House of Representatives, led by Democrats, impeached him for inciting an insurrection, putting him on trial in the Senate with House Democrats as prosecutors and all 100 senators as jurors. From the start, it seemed to make little difference that Trump was gone. Just 10 of the 211 House Republicans voted to impeach; all but six senate Republicans voted against the Senate as the legitimate venue to try a president no longer in office, arguing it violated the Constitution.

The final demonstration of Republican fealty came in the vote to convict. Despite evidence showing the savagery of the attack with the perpetrators boasting they came at Trump’s behest and Trump taking no action to stop them, most Republicans used the venue issue as a rationale to acquit.

And so, Trump was off the hook again, free to run in 2024 if he’s not tied up in legal cases awaiting him in New York, Washington and Georgia. But the big question for Republicans is not so much whether he intends a comeback. It’s what his enduring hold on the party means for Republicans at a time they need just one more Senate seat and seven more in the House to regain control of both chambers in next year’s mid-term elections. Even without Twitter, Trump can wield enormous influence with rallies, campaign contributions and fundraisers. He can help a candidate who reveres him, or seek revenge against one who crossed him. There’s also speculation he might split off to form his own party.

The impeachment vote also showed that some Republicans want a clean break from Trump, a step toward closing the chasm within the party. But they worry about the popularity of politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene, a House freshman from rural Georgia who burst into view as a dedicated QAnon follower and conspiracist with assertions that amused, amazed and appalled. She held that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats should be executed, that school shootings were staged so Democrats can pass stronger gun control laws, that Jews ignited California wildfires with space lasers, and — praise the leader! — that the 2020 election was stolen.

“The party is his,” she said. “It doesn’t belong to anyone else.”

Of course, Trump loves her. Establishment Republicans like Mitch McConnell, party leader in the Senate, don’t. After the House stripped Greene of her committee assignments over her nutty views, a rare and stinging rebuke for a federal lawmaker, McConnell alluded to her “loony lies and conspiracy theories” as “a cancer” on the party.

McConnell had broken with Trump weeks earlier for perpetuating the Big Lie. After the acquittal, he denounced Trump for his “disgraceful dereliction of duty” inciting the siege. But shrewd tactician that he is, and mindful of Trump’s loyal base, he voted to acquit using the venue issue as cover.

Not that Trump cared. He fired back at McConnell three days after the trial, saying, “Mitch is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again.” He added, “Where necessary and appropriate, I will back primary rivals who espouse Making America Great Again and our policy of America First.”

Loyalty to Trump extends to the state level, as well. The Arizona party censured its own governor, Doug Ducey, for implementing coronavirus lockdown rules. The Wyoming party censured Liz Cheney, the third-highest-ranking Republican in the House, for voting to impeach. Hours after the acquittal, Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy’s state party censured him for voting guilty.

But it’s unclear how long Republican fealty can last. Corporate giants like General Electric, KPMG and Honeywell announced they would cut off campaign donations to any of the 147 House Republicans who voted not to certify Biden’s victory. In the weeks after the election, nearly 140,000 Republicans in 25 states changed their party affiliation, according to a report cited in The New York Times.

The trial gave Republicans one final chance to rid themselves of Trump. Certain that they wouldn’t, the prosecutors played to the wider audience of everyday Americans, calculating that the overwhelming evidence would shape his political legacy once and for all, even if he ran for office again. By then, they figured, most Republicans would finally quit him.


“A Bridle in the Hands”

So, just how did the impeachment protocols get into the U.S. Constitution, allowing the House of Representatives to charge a president and the Senate to convene the trial? The question came up during the second impeachment of former President Donald Trump.

The answer: England, by way of Federalist Paper No. 65, one of 85 articles and essays written by three of America’s founding fathers — Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay — to build support for the ratification of the Constitution. This one was written by Hamilton, published on March 7, 1788.

“In Great Britain it is the province of the House of Commons to prefer the impeachment, and of the House of Lords to decide upon it,” he wrote. “Several of the State constitutions have followed the example. As well the latter, as the former, seem to have regarded the practice of impeachments as a bridle in the hands of the legislative body upon the executive servants of the government. Is not this the true light in which it ought to be regarded?”


About that UK-US trade deal…

Since the Biden administration took over and restarted daily press briefings, reporters have asked about coronaviruses, vaccinations, national security, Burma, school re-openings, minimum wage, white supremacists, Space Force, Olympics, immigration policy, China, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE tariffs, 2024 primaries, and Alexei Navalny. A US-UK trade deal? Not so much.

One British reporter did inquire early on whether such a deal was “months away or next year or the year after?” Spokeswoman Jen Psaki’s response?

Don’t hold your breath.

“I can’t give you any timeline,” she said, adding: “At this point in time we’re working to get the pandemic under control, provide economic relief to the American public. We, of course, can do multiple things at the same time, but those are our primary priorities at this point.”


California blues

As the most populous state in the country, California is also the Bluest. Democrats hold every statewide office, including governor, as well as majorities in both houses of the legislature. Why, then, is Governor Gavin Newsom facing a recall?

It could be because of the state’s most pressing problems — rising homelessness and an uneven management of the Covid-19 response. They have angered enough people that a group is circulating a petition to drive him out of office. With 1.5 million verified signatures by 17 March, recall organizers can force an election later this year, asking voters if they support the recall and who should replace him. Newsom became governor in 2018, winning 62 per cent of the vote.

Already, two Republicans — former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the businessman Newsom defeated, John Cox — have announced their candidacies along with an independent, Mike Cernovich, a conspiracy theorist who said the lockdowns imposed by Newsom because of the virus amounted to war crimes and human rights violations. “There’s no chance in hell that I can win in California,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Zero per cent.”


Correction of the year

“In a story on December 15, 2020, about the Mexican and Brazilian presidents congratulating U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, The Associated Press erroneously reported that Biden’s first name is Jose. His name is Joe.”

 


 

Michael Janofsky is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. He previously spent 24 years as a correspondent for The New York Times


 

 

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