As former US President Donald Trump faces his second impeachment trial there are already questions about the possible aftermath. The ways in which the two sides of America’s sharply divided electorate respond during and after the impeachment process may or may not ignite his base and supporters.
There is more on trial here than Trump the individual; it is also about the office that he held, abuse of power, and the unprecedented behavior of an elected official.
Whatever strategy the defense adopts, the 100 Democratic and Republican senators who will serve as jurors anticipate a trial that might last only a few days — much shorter than Trump’s first impeachment, which took three weeks to play out.
The House alleges that Trump incited insurrection, with the charge accusing him of “willfully inciting violence against the Government of the United States.” If convicted, it seems likely he would be barred from ever again holding federal office, which means he would not be allowed to stand for election in future.
However, the very real possibility that he is not convicted must be considered too. For the Senate to convict Trump a two-third-majority vote will be required. Given that the Senate is essentially split 50/50 between Republicans and Democrats, a significant number of Republicans would have to vote with the Democrats.
As the political power games continue, one thing is clear: When these politicians should be following political norms and their civic duty to serve the interests of the US and its people, they instead serve their own agendas, ignorant or uncaring of the ramifications of their behavior and actions, and the snowballing effects they are having on society.
As we have seen in the past four years in particular, bad behavior by politicians can be contagious among their supporters and is one of the reasons why there is such a great political divide in the US — and perhaps why it increasingly leads to violence.
The need to identify and label some individuals or groups as terrorists is warranted given the requirement to prevent violent attacks such as the bombing in Nashville on Christmas Day. It is notable that Canadian authorities this week designated the far-right Proud Boys group as a terrorist organization. It is thought to be the first country to do so.
To be sure, a rise in violent behavior or inflammatory comments needs to be countered. While a thorough, in-depth investigation into all the circumstances will be required to fully understand the implications of the insurrection in the Capitol on Jan. 6, the factors that drove it and the causes of the failures of security, there is perhaps a more pressing need to consider how we view those who support Trump and his movement.
The impeachment is an important step as it seeks accountability and justice for a violent insurrection that left several people dead and exposed a growing weakness within the American political system. The trial, regardless of whether Trump is convicted or not, is an important marker in the early days of the Biden administration. It might set the pace and tone of domestic programs this year that address issues not only of inequality but also race, justice and domestic terrorism.
In addition, there is a need for a blue ribbon standard for the US presidency that can be locked in place so that the electoral system remains robust and protected from partisan interference and manipulation.
In America’s two-party system, it is not only the Democrats who want to prevent Trump from running again. It is important to remember that in the immediate aftermath of insurrection on Capitol Hill, many stunned Republicans struggled over how to respond to Trump’s role in it and his failure to quell the violence as it unfolded.
Some Republicans are angry and want to kick Trump out of the party. His supporters might see this as a sign that their “populist hero” is being victimized and respond in ways that are cause for concern. The experience of the past four years in what is left of traditional American politics suggests that if he is found guilty by the impeachment process, it might only empower his base to act out.
It is important to note that House Democrats will prosecute the case in the Senate, and plan to call witnesses. Any argument that the speech Trump gave on the morning of the insurrection is protected under the First Amendment’s freedom of speech provisions is not likely to stand. Moreover, witness testimonies will shape the responses and reactions as the impeachment proceeds. They could ignite powerful and emotional responses that are likely to feed into the information maelstrom the event will produce.
If he is found innocent, Trump will be free to go ahead and form his new political party if he wants. His far-right backers are already drumming up support on social media for the idea of a “Patriot Party.”
The lack of a conviction is likely to set off an unthinkable process of confrontation in which the two sides see two distinct versions of reality. The impeachment trial might further divide the people of the United States. The Biden administration, along with federal and state authorities, could have their hands full dealing with this on top of vaccine distribution in the months ahead.