Donald Trump might have avoided becoming the only U.S. president to be twice impeached by the House of Representatives had he just been capable of showing remorse and denouncing the extremist elements within his own base. Instead, after hundreds of them stormed the U.S. Capitol last week in what was widely seen as an insurrection, he called them “very special.”
After four years of watching Mr. Trump operate, I have often cringed at his recklessness, at his seeming insouciance toward the monster he had unleashed upon the American body politic. As a man who appreciates the value of nothing, he has never cared about the damage his words and actions might inflict on democratic institutions. But I always believed those institutions to be stronger than his critics implied. The events of recent days have reinforced that view.
Indeed, I always considered Mr. Trump to lack the intellectual wherewithal of a strongman. He is as undisciplined as he is unread – a fatal combination for any aspiring caudillo. Real strongmen typically come from military backgrounds. They are dangerous precisely because they work methodically and insidiously to entrench their grip on the state and civil society alike. Mr. Trump has never been that strategic. His behaviour has often left even his own supporters confused.
To be sure, a president unable to control his own impulses has the potential to be quite dangerous. But Mr. Trump’s impulsiveness has invariably served to weaken him. It has made him look desperate, childish and, frankly, as if he is short of a full deck. And the checks and balances within the U.S. political system always seemed to serve as a brake on his power.
Or at least, they did until Jan. 6. Only Mr. Trump knows whether he intended to cause an insurrection with his comments to supporters gathered in Washington for a “stop the steal” protest. Did he just want them to put on a show, one that would take the spotlight off president-elect Joe Biden as Congress prepared to certify the Electoral College vote that day? In the end, it does not matter.
Mr. Trump “willfully made statements that, in context, encouraged – and foreseeably resulted in – lawless action at the Capitol, such as: ‘If you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore,’” reads this week’s House resolution to impeach Mr. Trump, which passed 232 votes to 197 and was supported by all Democrats and 10 Republicans.
Mr. Trump could have avoided this ignominy had he reacted to the violence at the Capitol as any decent human being would have. Had he moved to finally concede defeat and denounced the white supremacists who seized on his accusations of a stolen election to seed an uprising, he might have been allowed to leave office with a shred of dignity. But his own smallness prevented him from seizing that opportunity.
It will be up to the Senate to convict Mr. Trump once the House formally forwards the articles of impeachment. It is unlikely a Senate trial and vote could be concluded before Mr. Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday. But while convicting a president after he leaves office might seem futile to some, it would be a necessary step to prohibit Mr. Trump from running again in 2024. And the country cannot afford to go through four years of uncertainty in that regard.
Mr. Trump’s departure will not mean the end of Trumpism, of course. As long as elites in the media, business and academia – not to mention the Democratic Party – continue to treat Mr. Trump’s supporters with contempt, other populist politicians will seek to harness their anger. More than 74 million Americans voted for Mr. Trump in November, five million more than voted for Barack Obama in 2008.
It would be a grave mistake to euphemistically dismiss the majority of Mr. Trump’s supporters as “low information” voters who just need to be educated. Most of them voted for him out of disgust with comfortable elites who they believe sold out their interests in the name of globalization.
Former GOP House speaker Newt Gingrich planted the seeds for Trumpism with his 1994 Contract with America, a populist manifesto aimed at overthrowing entrenched (and, in Mr. Gingrich’s telling, corrupt) elites in Congress. The Tea Party movement that emerged during Mr. Obama’s presidency further presaged Mr. Trump’s 2016 election, which could have been avoided had leaders within both parties sought to address the alienation of the white working-class Americans who had felt betrayed by the governing classes. Instead, they either stoked that alienation for political purposes or heaped disdain on the “deplorables.”
Mr. Trump may be toast, but the hurt that brought him to office lives on.
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