Donald Trump was the first person to become president who had not previously held public office or served in the military. Without that experience or any desire to learn, he proved to be a president who had no understanding of how democracy works or the public trust he held, or of the Constitution he swore an oath to uphold.
Which is why Trump failed in the presidency. But he still had the merciless cunning to suck the blood out of his opponents – son-in-law Jared Kushner said Trump’s 2016 nomination was a successful hostile takeover of the Republican Party – and the oxygen of every TV studio in which he found himself, and could still survive many foes. Until this election.
It is also why he was impeached for actions that many historians believe were the most heinous of any president: encouragement of a murderous assault on Congress to disrupt the constitutional process for the peaceful transfer of power to president-elect Joe Biden. If Trump had not called for that rally, the Capitol would not have been attacked.
The searing ABC Four Corners documentary on Trump’s downfall illustrates in the most harrowing terms the horror and desecration of democracy Trump unleashed against members of Congress in the Capitol. And to reflect the impeachment trial brief documenting the charge of incitement to insurrection, it is the intent of the House prosecutors to project those terrifying images, to try to convince a sufficient number of Republicans to join with Democrats – all sitting in the scene of the crime, at the very desks the mob violated just five weeks ago – to convict Trump.
Just as Trump dodged testifying at his trial – he would have been his own damning, incriminating witness – Republican senators will dodge the issue of Trump’s guilt by relying on a bogus process argument about convicting a former president. Trump’s expected acquittal will come because of his continuing hold over a potent share of Republican voters, about 75 per cent of whom believe Trump was cheated. Because of Trump, there is now a surge of nihilist conspiracists throughout grassroots Republican ranks.
Trump is determined, just as he was with those who prosecuted his first impeachment in the Ukraine affair, to punish his enemies for their treason. Last year he purged the government of the witnesses to his crimes. He now wants to end the careers of those Republicans who had the temerity to accept the election result and support his second impeachment. And the Republican members of the House and Senate know it.
Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, as blood-red a Republican as can be, was the target of a rally convened in her Wyoming electorate by a Trumpist Republican congressman seeking to oust her in 2022. At least the Australian Prime Minister dealt directly with Craig Kelly – the House Republican leader in the US will not denounce the QAnon in his ranks. Bob Woodward didn’t call his first book on Trump in the White House Fear for nothing.
This civil war that Trump has instigated in the Republican party carries sharp risks. As the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal editorialised last week: “If bowing before all things Trump is the litmus test for being a loyal Republican, the party should get used to continued losses in the suburbs. The main goal of the House minority is to become the majority, and in 2022 Republicans should have an excellent chance. But they’ll squander it if they purge serious Members like Liz Cheney and let themselves be defined by conspiracy theorists”.
This is why Biden’s presidency is on trial too. If he fails to deliver on the vaccination program this year and fails to jump-start the economy and deliver jobs to the millions who are unemployed, he will be crippled for the duration of his term in office. And the Republicans know it – and therefore feel no need to back off their headlong embrace of extremism. The midterm elections next year traditionally punish the party holding the White House. The Republicans need a net gain of only six seats in the House, and just one in the Senate, to win control of Congress. What is the incentive for them to be truly bipartisan on Biden programs that voters will reward him for?
This is why Biden is determined to go big and go now – however, he can get there – to get the vaccine and economic stimulus in place, without Republican votes should they diddle with him. Even as the defeated Trump, whether he is acquitted or convicted, becomes a martyr to the Republican base, Biden knows that if he fails on vaccines and making America healthy his presidency is lost too – he will be unable to leverage the votes in Congress to do the other big things on racial justice, climate change, and immigration.
This is the lesson Biden draws from Barack Obama’s setbacks in living with a too-tepid recovery program during the financial crisis of 2009. Republicans refused to go with what the economy needed. And Obama and the Democrats acceded to them and took a huge political hit. Biden has no intention of being guilty of repeating that mistake.