OP-ED: Why Trump’s impeachment trial makes Senate Republicans squirm

Francis Wilkinson
Bloomberg News (TNS)
From left, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts arrive to the Senate chamber for impeachment proceedings at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)

As the impeachment of President Donald Trump moves to what Republicans are calling a trial in the Senate, members of his party are poised to bury evidence of his corruption and acquit him. This is not because they are personally loyal to the president; several GOP senators have previously acknowledged that he is unfit for office. It is because they are afraid of his, or rather their, voters.

The fear is genuine: Much like Trump himself, many Republicans have a distorted view of reality. In a Quinnipiac University poll released this week, roughly two thirds of voters, 64%, say they would oppose the U.S. going to war against Iran. If you’re wondering who the minority is that thinks it’s a good idea for a reckless and unstable commander in chief with vacancies in many crucial national-security posts to attack a Muslim nation with a population of more than 80 million and dangerous proxy forces throughout the region, the answer is … Republicans. By a 24-point margin, 55% to 31%, they support another Middle East war.

Much of Republican officials’ anti-democratic behavior — norm busting, extreme gerrymandering, voter suppression, nonchalance about Russian manipulation of U.S. politics — can be explained as a reaction to shrinking Republican electoral prospects under fair election conditions. In other words, these efforts may be venal and destructive, but they are also rational from the perspective of short-term political self-interest.

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An itch for war with Iran, by contrast, is not a manifestation of the GOP’s mad pursuit of electoral supremacy at any cost. It’s just mad.

Republicans increasingly see things as they are not. This is not simply a matter of values shaping vision. Belief in God, questions of whether the U.S. should prioritize maintaining its superpower status and a host of other issues rely on value judgments. Individual mileage may vary. However, 37% of Republicans saying there is no solid evidence that the Earth is getting warmer, and another 18% saying they are unsure, is not a value judgment. It’s a war on thermometers.

Republicans also say that evangelical Christians face as much discrimination in the U.S. as Muslims do. Large numbers of Republicans contend that whites face as much or more discrimination than blacks. (A much smaller percentage of Democrats think so.) These beliefs bear no relationship to the social, political, cultural or economic realities in the U.S. — now or at any moment in history.

As long as Republicans maintain institutional political power, and a thriving right-wing propagandaplex, there is little reason to believe the party or its base will make accommodations to reality or the rule of law. Only defeats at the polls (Russia willing), a painstaking demographic makeover or a sustained show of leadership by Republican elites (most of whom know better) is likely to have a corrective influence. Despite occasional professions of unease, the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will continue to fund the insanity. Not even a trade war, never mind corruption and incompetence, has managed to divert them from their pursuit of tax cuts and deregulation.

In 2012, political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein published their instant-classic summation of the GOP as “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

The party’s descent has since accelerated rapidly. The Senate trial of Trump, provided Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell allows something worthy of the name to proceed, is an opportunity to slow the degradation. Maybe, just maybe, a handful of Republicans will rise to meet the moral and political challenge posed by this president. More likely, however, is that the party will use Trump’s trial as it used his tainted election: To lower itself, and the country, still closer to the bottom.

— Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.