On Saturday afternoon, the Senate voted to acquit former President Donald Trump of inciting an insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. For most, this comes as little surprise. Most purely legal minds agreed that Trump didn’t use language that met the criteria for criminal incitement. The challenge for Democrats over the past week, as evidenced by their impeachment strategy, was not proving that Trump legally incited an insurrection; it was provoking an emotional response in the public, linking existing negative sentiment toward Trump with fear and outrage about the riot, and then sticking the entirety of the Republican Party with the blowback.
This was made clear as the trial progressed throughout the week. Senate Democrats replayed footage of the Capitol siege to force Americans to relive the ugliness of the day. As well, they released new video in an effort to persuade the public that the siege was even more terrifying than initially thought. In all this, they weren’t looking to test the explicit content of Trump’s speech against the standard for incitement established in Brandenburg v. Ohio. Instead, they selectively edited, excluding the portion in which Trump told the crowd to make its demonstration peaceful. Unfortunately for Republicans, the defense mainly pursued a strategy of questioning the constitutionality of convicting a former president, allowing Democrats to take it as a given that Trump deserved to be impeached in the House in the first place.
As has often been the case historically, this impeachment was used as leverage for future politicking rather than holding corrupt public officials accountable. The result was that Democrats dragged Trump through the mud by dishonestly linking him to violence which he didn’t call for. Republicans did a poor job refuting the central question of the impeachment at the outset of the trial (whether Trump’s bad behavior was actually criminal). The Biden administration, which is in hock to the public teachers unions and has been lying about its vaccine rollout, was afforded cover from public scrutiny. And Trump was rightly acquitted, but at the expense of Republicans’ standing in the immediate future.
There is a substantial rift in the Republican Party right now. Of the competing factions, first, there are those who want to expel Trump and his influence from the party. These are the Republicans who Trump would risk splitting the party to punish for weakness and disloyalty. Second, there are those likely disillusioned with Trump but who recognize the danger of throwing him to the wolves. After all, Democrats don’t particularly want the destruction of Trump; they want that for his party and his supporters. Whatever Republicans concede to Democrats on Trump, Democrats will use against them. And, third, there are those who recognize the trouble with both extremes. But instead of properly maintaining that Trump’s behavior was imperfect but not criminal, they punted on the question of his conduct, instead focusing on constitutional technicalities and precedents.
For Democrats, the hope has to be that Trump will immediately turn on his Republican defectors, wielding his political influence to undermine them and launching primaries from the right. This would force Republicans to either stand with Trump totally (serving Democrats well after they linked him to violence) or denounce Trump entirely to avoid being conflated with the violence and public outrage, thus splitting the party. Further, Trump primary challengers would likely weaken seated Republicans, leaving their positions vulnerable against Democrats in general elections.
This past week, Democrats have made use of – and further facilitated – the rift inside the Republican Party. Arguably, their goal was not to convict Trump but to force Republicans to choose between personal loyalty to Trump and the future competitiveness of the party, if they can’t have both. At present, Democrats’ strategy is clear: continue forcing the issue with Republicans by keeping Trump the center of attention and by associating the worst of his political persona with the worst of the fringe groups that engaged in violence.
If Democrats want to aggravate the existing split in the party, then Republicans should simply refuse to choose between Trump and no Trump. They can run on the Trump platform, even if Trump himself isn’t the candidate. The problem is that Trump will be active again soon and he’s a vindictive fellow. The question is, does he more want revenge against dissenting Republicans or to defeat Democrats and enact his agenda?
Ultimately, Republicans can thwart Democrats’ post-impeachment strategy. But, in conjunction with Trump, they’ll need to decide whether loyalty to a persona eclipses loyalty to party and country, in the event that both cannot exist at once.
Kevin Catapano is a political science student at the University of Connecticut and a contributor for Lone Conservative. He has written columns for the student newspaper and served as a staff writer for the UConn Undergraduate Political Review.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of Heroes Media Group