To Lindsey Graham, who said Donald Trump could “count me out” after the Capitol attack on January 6 but has spent the last month scurrying back to him, is apparently offended by the impeachment case presented by the House managers. “I think most Republicans found the presentation by the House Managers offensive and absurd,” he tweeted. And he’s probably right: Reporters in the Senate chamber are saying that some Republicans are engaging in performative disinterest, reading books or refusing to look at the videos of the violence, like they’re a bunch of Judd Nelsons who are too cool for school. Some are even refusing to sit in the chamber, as they are required to do.
I understand why they take offense. The House managers have laid out a case for Trump’s incitement of insurrection that spans far beyond his speech on the day of the violence. The case against Trump spans the 77 days between Election Day and January 6, when Trump advanced the Big Lie that the election was stolen from him. The case spans the entire presidential campaign during which Trump repeatedly and falsely claimed that the only way he could lose would be if the election were “rigged.” Indeed, the case against Trump goes back through his entire time on the political stage, during which he has consistently and repeatedly primed his supporters for violence, including “dry runs” in Charlottesville and Michigan.
Of course Graham is offended, because he is implicated. He, along with many other Republicans who now sit as jurors, were complicit in the very crime they’re now asked to judge.
It is a flaw in our Constitution that senators from the president’s own party can sit as jurors in their president’s impeachment. Theoretically, that flaw could be overcome by electing senators who have some ability to put the interests of their country over their own political interests. But we haven’t done that. The people, in their infinite wisdom, regularly elect senators who are political cowards and consistently reward their cowardice with reelection. We get the government we deserve.
Here, however, the structural flaw is deeper. In this trial, senators who are guilty of the very same high crime for which the former president has been impeached must now decide whether to hold their leader accountable. Asking people like Graham, Josh Hawley, or Ted Cruz to convict Trump is a little bit like asking Robert E. Lee to convict Jefferson Davis for treason. They’re all part of the same insurrection.
At some level, by trying to get Republicans to convict Trump, the Democrats are asking at least 17 Republicans to hold themselves accountable. And we know that Republicans shrink from accountability like a child presented with a plate of vegetables. Every reasonable person knows that the violent attack on the Capitol would not have happened “but for” Trump: The Democrats have shown that, in addition to encouraging the attack, Trump was the only person who could have stopped it. The insurrectionists were reading out Trump tweets during the siege of the Capitol. They thought they were doing Trump’s bidding—they testified to that belief in their own homemade documentaries of their crimes—and Trump never told them “Stop.”
The legal case against Trump is strong and relatively easy to make. The difficulty is that the entire GOP is the “but for” cause of Trump. It’s the Republicans who created the conditions for Trumpism; Trump merely took advantage of those conditions for his own selfish ends. How many Republicans are ready to reckon with their own complicity in the attack on our democracy?
A great example of this conundrum is Senator Marco Rubio. Rubio, onetime rival and now sycophant to the Trump regime, did not vote to overturn the results of the election on January 6. In the end, he did the right thing. But it was only at the very end. During the 77 days that Trump was selling the Big Lie, Rubio remained silent. It was only after the attack on the Capitol that the senator from Florida said that the people were being lied to.
Rubio denounced the attacks on the Capitol, but he has been supportive of other forms of violence done in the name of Trump. As part of their prosecution, the House managers brought up the incident just before the election during which a group of Trump supporters tried to run a Biden-Harris bus off the road in Texas. Their point was to show how Trump had endorsed that event (retweeting it and such), but they left out the fact that Rubio also endorsed the attack. At a rally in Miami, Rubio said,“I saw yesterday a video of these people in Texas.… Did you see it? All the cars on the road, we love what they did.”
How does Rubio turn around now and convict Trump for inciting violence, when he himself encouraged the very same violent behavior during the campaign? How do most of these Republicans, who have made excuse after excuse for Trump’s exhortations to violence, and even joined in with them, now hold Trump accountable for the very thing they all let him do?
For Republicans, even those who were not in the sedition caucus alongside Cruz and Hawley, convicting Trump involves more than crossing the leader of their party and risking the rebuke of his (violent) base of voters. It involves admitting that they themselves were wrong. That they should not have indulged Trump for as long as they did. That they should have taken his tweets seriously and his rallies seriously and stood up against the violent president who incited a coup attempt long before the attempt was made. It would, counterintuitively, be easier for Republicans to convict Trump if his calls to violence on January 6 had come out of left field, if they were the result of an overwhelmed loser’s having some kind of public breakdown. But they weren’t. Trump on January 6 was the linear, logical conclusion of Trump every day before January 6. And Republicans let it happen.
Most Republican senators simply do not have the strength of character to hold themselves accountable, which means they can never hold Trump accountable. They can’t admit to their own sins or ask forgiveness, which means they have to pretend Trump’s sins didn’t happen.
It’s pathetic. But this is who Republicans are. This is who Trump has exposed Republicans to be. Trump incited a mob that came to their offices to kill them. And for the most part, Republicans are offended not by their attacker but by the people trying to hold their attacker accountable.
I guess I get it. The mob just tried to take their lives. The House managers are showing how Trump took their dignity a long time ago.