In a 1994 episode of The Simpsons, the bumbling patriarch Homer tries to shirk jury duty by wearing trick glasses that make it look like he’s wide awake during the trial while he’s in fact enjoying a nap. Homer is meant to be an oaf, albeit a sometimes lovable one. But even in his buffoonery, Homer still took his responsibilities as a juror more seriously than many Republican senators, who are being singularly cavalier about the solemn duty of weighing whether to convict an impeached president.
At least Homer Simpson showed up for his jury duty—even if he didn’t stay conscious. But 15 Republican senators failed to be present in either mind or body for substantial parts of the third day of the impeachment, as members of the House of Representatives painstakingly laid out the case that Trump riled up a mob that attacked the Capitol on January 6. “Thom Tillis was visible in the GOP cloakroom reading his phone,” reported Manu Raju of CNN. Another CNN reporter, Jeremy Herb, noted that Senator Rick Scott “had a blank map of Asia on his desk and was writing on it like he was filling in the names of the countries.” According to Forbes, “Many within the chamber were preoccupied with other activities: Senators Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) were reading papers”
Some Republicans weren’t just disengaged from the proceedings but were trying to help the former president whose guilt they were supposedly to judge. Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and Mike Lee all met with Trump’s defense team to discuss legal strategy.
Impeachment is, of course, a political rather than a legal process, so senators have wide leeway for what rules they can set for their own conduct. Still, jurors meeting in private with a defense team is highly unusual. It highlights a core problem: How can political figures who are completely complicit with Trump’s actions sit in judgment of him?
The Republicans who were paying attention did give credit to the Democratic managers for the cogent, forceful, well-documented case they are presenting. Texas Senator John Coryn told reporters, “I have to compliment the impeachment managers just in terms of their presentation preparation. I thought it was excellent.”
The Democratic managers are going out of their way to present a case that is bipartisan, clearing a path that would allow Republicans to vote for impeachment without feeling they have abandoned their party. In his presentation on Thursday, Representative Ted Lieu noted that “former members and long-standing Republicans also made clear that President Trump incited this insurrection and it went against our democracy.” Lieu quote Republican governors Spencer Cox, Charlie Baker, Mike DeWine, and Phil Scott. He also quoted many quondam Trump officials such as former secretary of defense James Mattis, former chief of staff John Kelly, and former national security adviser John Bolton. Lieu concluded by drawing attention to all the Republican White House officials who resigned after January 6.
Lieu’s message was clear: What Trump did was a violation of principles Republicans and Democrats hold in common. This is not a partisan impeachment but one Republicans should be able to participate in with the knowledge that they are condemning acts opposed across the political spectrum.
The clarion call of bipartisan civic-mindedness has had little success in recent decades, nor is it likely to heeded this year. As Susan B. Glasser pointed out in The New Yorker,
A year ago, when Trump faced his first trial, Mitt Romney was the only Senate Republican to vote for his conviction. This time, despite the trial taking place at the actual scene of the crime, Romney was joined by only five other Republicans in voting to allow the trial to proceed. Whether or not those six ultimately vote to convict, the final number of Republicans is sure to be well below the two-thirds majority required for conviction.
We won’t know the actual votes until the trial wraps up in a few days, but every indication is that there will be, as Glasser suggests, a handful of Republican votes to convict: possibly four, maybe five, with luck six, in the best possible scenario a few more than six. But still almost certainly well short of needed 17 Republican votes.
Why have most Republican senators resolutely shut their ears to the case for convicting Trump? Some do so out of ideological conviction. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley were egging on the insurrection as much as Trump was, so to condemn the former president would be to admit their own guilt.
But a wider swath of Republican senators are surely motivated by fear. They have good reason to worry about their personal safety and their political future. Trump has shown he can excite the mob and they would be likely victims of future attacks, just as Republican officeholders in Georgia faced death threats after resisting Trump’s pressure to alter election results.
In electoral terms, convicting Trump is almost certainly a sure loser for Republicans. As Axios reports, “State and county Republican apparatuses throughout the country are punishing those in their own party who want to hold the former president accountable, signaling that Trump’s grasp on the GOP remains unfaded.”
Defending his opposition to Trump’s trial, Senator Josh Hawley said, “The Republican Party—if it belongs to anybody—it belongs to the voters, the people who sent us here. That’s who I’m accountable to.”
These words reflect a profound misunderstanding of democracy. Senators are responsible not just to their voters but to the entire country and to the constitution. Hawley doesn’t seem to recognize that he’s elected to represent not just those who voted for him but all Missourians. Which means he has to think beyond the dictates of party at least on occasion. There are few more pressing times for abandoning partisanship than during an impeachment.
As Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, articulated in his classic speech to the electors of Bristol in 1774, the job of the elected official is not just to mirror his constituents but to exercise his ability to debate and reason in pursuit of the common good. As Burke insisted, “Your Representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Even in the 18th century, when democracy was much more rudimentary, few voters wanted to hear that their elected officials would sometimes have to go against their preferences. Burke’s pill is even harder to swallow in our more populist epoch. Still, the fundamental principle is sound: Elected officials are often just mouthpieces for popular grievances—and in normal run-of-the-mill politics, that’s fine. But on a few momentous occasions, political leaders have to look beyond their base to the greater interest of the nation.
With the second impeachment of Donald Trump, it looks like almost all congressional Republicans will have failed to live up to their civic duty. This failure of democracy can only be redressed by the more vigorous pursuit of democracy. If the Republicans fail to convict Trump, then Democrats have both the opportunity and the duty to remind voters in future elections that the shame of January 6 belongs not just to Trump but also to his party.