The 43 Republican senators who blocked the conviction of Donald Trump for the high crime of inciting insurrection to overturn the results of the 2020 election refused—for reasons of ideological delusion and blind partisanship—to hold a guilty man to account.
Despite Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s pathetic attempt to suggest otherwise—in one of the most intellectually dishonest speeches ever delivered in a chamber that has considerable experience of intellectual dishonesty—the senators who sided with Trump are now every bit as guilty as the seditious former president to whom they sold their political souls.
And every bit as deserving of electoral rejection.
For that to happen, however, Democrats must recognize the genius of impeachment: that the impeaching of a president occurs on two levels. There is the formal process that occurs in the House and the Senate. And there is the informal process of indicting an errant president, and his defenders, in the eyes of the American people.
“An impeachment that stands for what’s right can actually build power, even if you don’t ultimately find the person guilty,” says the Rev. William Barber II. “We better know this history!”
History tells us that impeachments do not have to conclude with a conviction, or even a Senate trial, to matter. They can continue for so long as the people demand accountability. The fight simply moves from the Capitol to the polling place—as it did in 1974 when Richard Nixon quit the White House and avoided a House impeachment vote and a Senate trial, only to see Republicans lose four Senate seats and 48 House seats.
The 1974 election results remind us that one of the vital aspects of any meaningful impeachment is the extension of the indictment beyond the president who has committed specific high crimes to include those members of Congress who engage in the high crime of defending a guilty man. The key is to recognize that a process that may not bring accountability in the Capitol can do so at the ballot box.
An Electoral Reckoning
Voters in 2022, 2024, and 2026 can and should punish the 43 Republican senators who now make up the chamber’s sedition caucus. A few of the senators who protect Trump will avoid political justice by choosing not to run again. The rest must face an electoral reckoning.
In some states, the work has already begun. A billboard outside Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson’s hometown identifies the Trump-aligned Republican as “Treason Johnson” and stamps the word “Resign” across his face. It was erected by Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, one of a number of Democrats who are preparing to challenge the incumbent. “The trial may be over, but we won’t forget this,” Nelson said on Saturday. “The billboard I put up is a reminder that Ron Johnson should be held accountable for today’s vote and his traitorous actions. He should resign, and if he doesn’t, I’ll be the one to beat him in 2022.”
In Missouri, Democrat Scott Sifton launched his challenge to Senator Roy Blunt, the chair of the Republican Policy Committee, with a double-pronged assault on Blunt and the state’s most controversial Trump sycophant, Senator Josh Hawley. A former legislator, Sifton produced a powerful video that opens with an image of Hawley raising his fist in solidarity with the fascist mob that was preparing to storm the Capitol on January 6. “When he raised his fist and betrayed our democracy, Josh Hawley showed us who he really is. And when Senator Blunt was too weak to stand up to his party’s lies, he showed us who he is too,” says Sifton. “So next year when that Senate seat is on the ballot, we, the people of Missouri, need to show who we are.”
Nelson and Sifton are doing it right. So is the Florida Democratic Party, which ripped into Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who embarrassed himself during the trial by floating the delusional suggestion that if Trump were convicted as an immediately former president, then Hillary Clinton could be impeached as a distantly former secretary of state. Florida Democratic Party chair Manny Diaz argued that Rubio had “declared open season on our democracy by voting to condone an insurrectionist attack on our government, an attack unquestionably incited by Donald Trump.” Along with the state’s other Republican senator, Rick Scott, Diaz said that Rubio had “pledged loyalty to Trump above their duty to our country and the Constitutional oath they swore to uphold before God.”
That’s the proper stance. Democrats should not fall for McConnell’s empty talk of “unity” and “bipartisanship.” They should not “move on” from what happened on January 6. They should not “forgive and forget” the votes of senators who refused to convict an insurrectionist who cheered on an attack on the Senate itself. Historical memory is powerful, and it should be channeled toward a politics of accountability that can strengthen the hand of challengers to Trump’s Republicans.
As many as 15 Republican senators who sided with Trump may be on the ballot in 2022. Several of them were potentially vulnerable before the impeachment trial—including Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, and first-termers such as Indiana’s Todd Young. Their blind loyalty to Trump should make them even more vulnerable if they seek new terms.
Ron Johnson’s Conspiracy Theories
On the top of any list of vulnerable Republicans is Ron Johnson. Like Missouri Senator Hawley and Texas Senator Ted Cruz—both of whom are serving terms that run through the 2024 election—Johnson positioned himself during the impeachment trial as a belligerent Trump loyalist. On Saturday, the Wisconsinite yelled at a fellow Republican, Utah Senator Mitt Romney, for voting to hear witnesses. After the clash, Johnson complained that hearing the facts would only “inflame the situation” and screeched, “We never should have had this impeachment trial. It’s just like opening up a wound and just rubbing salt in it.”
On Monday, he tried to explain away his vote by questioning the seriousness of the attack on the Capitol, telling a Wisconsin right-wing radio host, “This didn’t seem like an armed insurrection to me.”
Why was Johnson so determined to downplay the violence that shocked the world on January 6? Why was he so aggressive in seeking to block witnesses and avert accountability? Because the senator knew that an honest examination of Trump’s guilt would shed light on his own culpability as an inciter of insurrection. In December, when he still chaired the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Johnson fed the hysteria that culminated in the attack on the Capitol by organizing a hearing that entertained the most outrageous of the lies Trump was promoting with regard to the election.
Since then, Johnson has continued to peddle conspiracy theories—speculating before the trial that Democrats were impeaching Trump in order to divert attention from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s supposed “blame” for the deadly riot. The senator offered no evidence to support his claim about the California Democrat, who was a target of the insurrectionists. Yet he asked, “Is this another diversionary operation? Is this meant to deflect away from potentially what the speaker knew and when she knew it?” A breathless Johnson concluded, “I don’t know, but I’m suspicious.”
What was suspicious was the senator’s ludicrous speculation. The same could be said of his claim that the Democrats were guilty of mounting a “vindictive and divisive political impeachment” that got in the way of “healing.” By Johnson’s standard, no political figure would ever be held to account—not even for inciting deadly violence.
The People Are What Count
Johnson and the other 42 Republicans who opposed accountability now want to “move on.”
But voters should never forget that these Republican senators refused to respect the essential calculus of the Constitution.
Lead impeachment manager Representative Jamie Raskin laid out that calculus: “Our Framers were so fearful of presidents becoming tyrants and wanting to become kings that they put the Oath of Office into the Constitution. They inscribed it into the Constitution to ‘preserve, protect and defend’ the Constitution of the United States.”
While the founders hoped that the oath would inspire honorable leaders to “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States,” Raskin explained, they were not so naive as to imagine a future in which only the honorable would occupy the Oval Office. So they awarded policing authority to the Congress.
“We’ve got the power to impeach the president, but the president doesn’t have the power to impeach us. Think about that. The popular branch of government has the power to impeach the president; the president does not have the power to impeach us,” said Raskin, continuing: “All of us who aspire [to] and attain a public office are nothing but the servants of the people. And the way the framers would have it is: The moment that we no longer act as servants of the people but as masters of the people, as violators of the people’s rights, that is the time to impeach, remove, convict, disqualify, start all over again. Because the interests of the people are so much greater than the interests of one person, any one person, even the greatest person in the country. The interests of the people are what count.”
Forty-three Republicans rejected this sacred equation in order to serve Donald Trump. They saved Trump from accountability. But accountability is still needed. And it is still possible—if the people’s votes count against Ron Johnson and the members of the Republican Sedition Caucus.