It would be the Republicans sacrificing themselves for the sake of democracy itself. It is perhaps something they should have done before the stakes were so towering, but it is probably their last chance to do so.
During Trump’s presidential term, I never supported the idea of his impeachment. To remove Trump from office prematurely by non-democratic means seemed to me an obvious catastrophe that would have hurled America towards civil war. That was not an argument against accountability. It was an argument that only democratic accountability would do.
Only a scandal that was so truly seditious or autocratic that the democratic system itself was under grave threat could change that. Until January 6, that didn’t exist. Collusion with Russia to hack the 2016 election might have come closest, but it wasn’t sufficiently established.
And while it was fashionable from the moment of Trump’s election to call him an autocrat, it was never quite true. Sure, he had some autocratic traits: he attacked the media as the enemy of the people, he dismissed his political opponents as illegitimate, he fired independent bureaucrats whose job was to investigate him, demanding they be loyal to him rather than the law.
But the trademark of a true authoritarian is that they manufacture a crisis and use it to consolidate power. They might, say, declare their political opponents to be terrorists and implement a state of emergency, as we’ve seen in countless Latin American, Asian and Middle Eastern nations. But Trump didn’t even need to manufacture a crisis.
He was handed COVID-19 on a silver platter. And unlike, say Victor Orban in Hungary, he did the opposite of use it as a pretext for draconian power. Trump opted for denial and did nothing at all. He exercised almost no state power. His crime there was negligence, not autocracy.
All Trump’s anti-democratic excursions, from attacking judges to his baseless claims of electoral fraud, are better explained by his self-obsession than any broader political plan. Autocrats use the state to achieve something. Trump wanted to use the presidency to glorify himself. But the implications changed fundamentally when thousands of Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol on his behalf, and at his incitement.
But even here, some nuance is important. This may well have been an insurrection from the perspective of the US government, but the rioters were not anti-democrats. In their minds, they were rioting for democracy, not against it. They genuinely believed the lie of a stolen election, and were demanding the true will of the people be respected. In this, they share a world view with more than 70 per cent of Republican voters.
That is not organic. It has been learned. The Republican Party has taught them this, at best by acquiescing to Trump’s lying, at worst by endorsing it. This moment has only arrived because the Republican Party has allowed it.
American political history is full of figures like Trump. In fact, it’s full of much worse, often Democrats. Take Henry Ford, who was such a rabid anti-Semite that Hitler cited him approvingly in Mein Kampf. Or George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor with white nationalist politics and an explicit disdain for the constitution.
Both enjoyed considerable public support, possibly on par with Trump, and conceivably might have ridden a popular wave to power. But both amounted to nothing because senior figures in their parties simply refused to support them. Ford saw the writing on the wall and didn’t bother running, while Wallace was reduced to being an independent candidate with no hope of winning. The Democrats paid a price for this stand. Wallace took a remarkable 13.5 per cent of the vote and won five states. It probably cost the Democrats the election.
The thing that sets Trump apart is that he’s the only one the system has allowed to go so far. Noise of a “Never Trump” Republican movement never amounted to anything concrete. As Trump’s momentum built, the Republicans couldn’t resist the triumph on offer.
By the time the 2016 election arrived, no senior Republicans opposed him. Some, such as John McCain, refused to endorse him, but they didn’t endorse Hillary Clinton either. The only active Republican politicians who did were retiring anyway and faced no political risk. That pattern more or less remained throughout Trump’s presidency.
Now the Republicans face a truly awful choice. Acquit Trump and they license a seditious brand of politics in the name of their party. Convict and they rent themselves asunder.
But the Republicans must surely be custodians of democracy before they are custodians of their own political interests. Perhaps I’m wrong, but the fact that their voters believe they’re fighting for democracy leaves me the faintest hope that a Republican stand could still make a difference. They’ve been led into this place; perhaps some of them can be led out of it.
It will be costly, but a politician as contemptuous of democratic norms as Trump always exacts a price. Had Republicans paid it in 2016, it might have been less painful. Interest accrues viciously on such political malfeasance. Either way, it has fallen due.
Waleed Aly is co-host of Channel Ten’s The Project and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.