In the wake of great political tragedies and crimes, history tends to remember the leaders of villainy, but not their accomplices. People have heard of Joseph Stalin, but his right-hand man, Lazar Kaganovitch, is a trivia question for those interested in Soviet history. Kaganovitch was ousted at Stalin’s death in 1953, but he lived until 1991 and received a fairly sanitized obituary in The New York Times. The bureaucrats and enablers of great evil often escape real-time consequences for their actions and the retribution of history.
In modern history, only Adolf Hitler’s enablers received anything like accountability for their furtherance of the Nazi agenda. A post–World War II West was determined to punish the purveyors of atrocity. But those days are long over. Oh, if you’re an African despot, the International Criminal Court will come for you, but if you’re committing war crimes on behalf of a Western country, they call you “Dick Cheney” and pretend they can’t see you.
The enablers of President Donald Trump are likely well aware of how history gets made. The record of these times will show that Donald Trump, and Donald Trump alone, was impeached for abuse of power and obstruction of justice. It will show that Donald Trump was a liar, a bigot, and a sexual predator. It will show that Donald Trump presided over the failure of America, if there even is an America left when he’s done with it.
Nobody is going to punish Sean Hannity, despite his leading role over at the ministry of propaganda. Nobody is even going to remember Kellyanne Conway. One day, Mick Mulvaney is going to write a book, We Do This All The Time, and laugh in complicity all the way to the bank. Trump exists because a whole bunch of people allow him to exist, and those people will almost uniformly die free in their comfortable beds.
We cannot hope to hold all of the people responsible for Trump to any kind of criminal accountability. And, unless you strongly believe in Hell, we can’t count on true moral justice to ever be visited upon these people. But we can hold Trump’s enablers politically accountable, at least those enablers who are accountable to the people.
Towards that end, Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham must lose their 2020 reelection bids. They must pay a political price for their shameless debasement in service of Trump. Defeating McConnell and Graham in 2020 is every bit as important as defeating Donald Trump in 2020, if “Trumpism” is what you want to defeat. If you don’t take out all three, the lesson of the Trump era will be that refusing to put your country over your party is the politically savvy move. Should Trump lose his job, but McConnell and Graham keep theirs, then these men who embarrass the nation will have won.
To be clear, these people are vulnerable in 2020. The legal world reacted with horror last week when McConnell went on Hannity’s show to express his smirking pride in stealing a Supreme Court seat and remaking the federal judiciary for a generation. The political world reacted in horror when, in the same interview, McConnell vowed intimate coordination with Trump’s lawyers in preparation for a Senate impeachment trial where the senators are supposed to be “impartial.”
To me, McConnell’s Hannity interview was a sign of embarrassing weakness. A November poll put McConnell’s approval rating at 18 percent—in Kentucky. I do not doubt that McConnell will do everything in his power to see Trump acquitted. But the fact that McConnell wants people to know that he will be doing everything in his power to free Donald Trump, when even mere lip-service to the idea of impartiality would have made things easier for the Republican senators, tells me that McConnell needs Trump’s base to be rabidly mobilized if he wants to stand any chance at reelection. McConnell’s pivot towards the Supreme Court is a reminder that he thinks Kentucky voters want illegitimate justices and alleged attempted rapists in charge of the judiciary. For McConnell, that Hannity hit counts as a charm offensive, and he doesn’t do that unless he knows he’s in trouble.
Lindsey Graham is probably in even more trouble. A new poll shows Graham’s challenger, Jamie Harrison, within two points of Graham in South Carolina. South Carolina has the third highest percentage of African Americans by population of any state in the union. That alone is clearly not enough to put a state in play—Mississippi and Louisiana are the first and second, respectively—but Harrison is a well-funded, African American challenger. Graham has been the most public sycophant for Trump. If there is any softness among white independents and moderates because of Graham’s complete embrace of Trumpism (or because of Graham’s total hypocrisy from the last time he was up for election, six years ago), and African Americans are sufficiently motivated to overcome voter suppression to defeat one of Trump’s core spokespeople, Harrison could absolutely pull out a victory.
Defeating McConnell and Graham would not merely be the karmic victory we so richly deserve; it could also quake elected Republicans out of their shameful complicity. If McConnell and Graham go down in Kentucky and South Carolina, it’s very possible that Democratic Senate candidates in more purple states like Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina could also win. That would mean the Democrats take back the Senate. Taking back the Senate, not just the White House, is the critical step for any Democratic president, both moderate and progressive, to have any chance to reverse the policies of the Trump era, and not merely the rhetoric. Taking back the Senate is the only way to stop further Trump appointments to the courts, should he eke out an Electoral College victory.
Even more important than all that is the fact that, if Trump loses in 2020 but these Senate enablers remain, it will make it more likely that Trump will refuse to leave office after a defeat. Or that Republicans put up another Trumpesque candidate in 2024. It’s essential to understand that the operating theory in the Republican Party right now is that Trumpism is the only way for them to win national and statewide elections. Republican policies are wildly unpopular. Overwhelming majorities of voters reject tax cuts for the wealthy, unending mass shootings, and climate-change denialism. Trump has shown Republicans that the only way to win is to pair those unpopular policy aims with explicit bigotry, unapologetic misogyny, and cartoonish xenophobia. If Trump loses, but the Republican senators who helped him remain, their lesson will be to do the same thing in 2024, just with a candidate who can speak in complete sentences and doesn’t solicit bribes.
If people like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham get away with what they’re doing, without even losing an election, then there’s really no chance at restoring a bipartisan consensus about America. McConnell and Graham have to lose. Other politicians have to see them lose. They must be made an example of.
History will not long remember what those two jokers say during impeachment, but it will remember what we did about it.