The second trial of Donald Trump is over. Trump has been acquitted of betraying his oath and his country. He was guilty of these charges, and so is the Republican Party, despite a handful of exceptions in a 57-43 vote that allowed Trump to escape conviction and a permanent ban on holding federal office.
The Democratic House managers did a magnificent job, marshaling elegant rhetoric and ironclad logic far beyond what Trump’s obvious guilt required. Their case will stand for years as an example of civic virtue. Trump’s defense team, composed of a personal injury lawyer and a few other nonentities, was incompetent and whined like Trump himself about “Democrat managers” and “cancel culture.” They managed to make ambulance chasing seem noble by comparison.
And none of it mattered. The outcome was foreordained. On a weekend we once reserved for honoring the births of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, so-called “constitutionalists” like Sen. Mike Lee of Utah gleefully betrayed everything for which Lincoln lived and for which he was murdered in cold blood. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, barely able to contain his smirking, made the case within minutes of Trump’s acquittal that the former president was probably guilty anyway, but hey, maybe someone else can take him to court — just somewhere other than the Senate.
Bending a knee to the Cult of Trump
It is long past time to put aside rationalizations about ideology and party loyalty and tribalism. The voters back home in these Republican states and districts might be drunk on the vile moonshine brewed by Fox and OAN and other right-wing outfits, but McConnell and the Republican members of Congress are — with the obvious exception of kooks like Reps. Lauren Boebert or Marjorie Taylor Greene — educated men and women who know better. They know exactly what they are doing and why.
The acquittal of Donald Trump proved, with final certainty, that the Republicans are driven only by ambition and comfort and self-interest — and the Constitution be damned.
For all of their complaints about “The Swamp,” these GOP careerists are creatures of Washington. No matter where they were born, they are now the squires of Northern Virginia and Georgetown and they are not going back. For all their populist bravado about how the “elites” hate the Real Americans, no one is more elitist and hates Real America — including their own constituents — as much as the Republicans who will do anything rather than risk being sent home to live among them.
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and the House’s dreadful Elise Stefanik, from New York’s Adirondacks, did not both go to Harvard just to end up as the mayor of Fayetteville or relegated to a city council in Plattsburgh. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley didn’t make it to Stanford and Yale just to hang out a shingle probating wills and handling divorces in Sedalia.
These opportunists will never do anything that might incur even so much as the remote risk of a primary challenge. They have made it and they are staying where they are. Exile from the District of Columbia is not for them. If bending the knee yet one more time to the Cult of Donald Trump keeps them motoring along the Rock Creek Parkway while taking in the vista of the Potomac, it is a price they will gladly pay. And so will all of us pay, too, as democracy settles into trench warfare between a shrinking but powerful claque of ruthless frauds and the rest of America.
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There are a few noble exceptions among the Republicans, but not enough to matter. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, for one, has said point-blank that he is willing to lose his job if that is the price of telling the truth, and that if it happens, he will be at peace.
But others, such as Sens. Rand Paul (himself the son of a long-serving congressman) or Ted Cruz — a man known for his legendary and insufferable ambition since college, and who probably ran for class leader in his newborn ward in the hospital — will risk no such sacrifice. They, you see, were bred for better things far from Kentucky and Texas, and if that means allying themselves with the worst and most partisan elements in America rather than with the Constitution, so be it.
Selfish and cynical in the face of history
The Republicans have repeatedly betrayed both Lincoln and the Union. The party founded by the man who died as a martyr at the hands of an insurrectionist is now controlled by empty, hollow people who rolled their eyes and lazed their way through the trial of a president who was manifestly guilty of inciting an insurrection.
If nothing else, perhaps this disgusting dishonoring of the memory of our 16th president should convince the rest of us to bring back the actual Feb. 12 and Feb. 22 birthdays of presidents Lincoln and Washington as national holidays, so that we do not confuse their heroism and nobility with the cult of personality practiced by modern Republicans.
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“Presidents Day” was always a sham. Americans once knew that we should not worship an abstract office — we honor the best among us who have sat in that office. It was never sensible to allow, say, both Warren Harding and Franklin Roosevelt to be feted on the same day. But this final obscenity, this last rebuke to the memory of Lincoln, should inspire us never to allow the chance that Donald Trump is remembered on the same day as the man who saved the Union.
The Republicans who voted to acquit Trump acted with selfishness, cynicism, and even malice. They have smeared their betrayal of the Constitution all over their careers the same way the January insurrectionists smeared excrement on the walls of the Congress itself.
At least human waste can be washed away. What the Republicans did on February 13, 2021, will never be expunged from the history of the United States.
Tom Nichols, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is the author of “Our Own Worst Enemy,” coming in August. Follow him on Twitter: @RadioFreeTom