The fate of political movements comes down to a simple adage: Either you master history or history masters you. In the case of the recently mighty Republican Party, we are about to see if it can truly get beyond the obsessive roller-coaster ride that has been the Trump era.
The current impeachment saga highlights the two dueling political narratives as to how to do this. In a test vote initiated by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, calling for dismissal of the second impeachment of former President Donald Trump as unconstitutional, 45 Republican senators voted to dismiss the charges, with only five of their colleagues siding with the Democrats to continue the trial. Given that fully 17 Republican senators would have to side with the 50 Democrats to convict Trump, it is highly likely that — while the former president is the first president in American history to be impeached twice — he will again escape conviction.
The five Republican dissenters and the 50 Democrats have a view of how to get beyond Trump that goes something like this: First, a failure to hold Trump accountable for lighting the fuse that set the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill insurrection into motion would be a gross dereliction of duty, giving the ex-president the veneer of total immunity for his disastrous actions. Second, there is historical precedent in impeaching a former official: In 1876, the Senate failed to convict former Secretary of War William Belknap in a financial scandal after he had already resigned his office. Third, the penalty for conviction — disallowing him from running for office again — fits the crime of which Trump stands accused. The fourth argument, this one advanced by Republicans only, is that the only way to begin to lessen and limit Trump’s extraordinary popularity within the GOP is to tar him with the stigma of an impeachment conviction. Hard as it is for non-Trump supporters to fathom, the ex-president is by far the most popular Republican chief executive with the Republican base since modern polling began in the 1920s.
A CNN poll, taken this month, found that 80 percent of Republicans still supported Trump, even after the insurrection. As rabid Trump supporter Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene bluntly put it: “The vast majority of Republican voters, volunteers, and donors are no longer loyal to the GOP, Republican Party, and candidates just because they have an ‘R’ by their name. Their loyalty now lies with Trump.”
Whether this is true or not (and former Republican mega-donors have been deserting the party in droves because of Trump’s actions), this is the great fear of the wing of the party that sees the president as an extra-constitutional millstone, doomed to drown the Republicans in his excesses. For those holding this view, Trump’s conviction would amount to a seminal moment when the GOP comes back to its senses, with Trump’s stranglehold on the party finally lessening.
The majority Republican view to this is almost diametrically opposed. First, horribly irresponsible as it was, Trump cannot be tried for free speech; he is allowed (and is not alone in American political history) to tell his supporters to “fight like hell” for his political cause, never expecting them to take him literally.
A form of Trumpism without Trump must be adopted by the party, whether its members are specifically enamored with the former president himself or not.
Dr. John C. Hulsman
Second, the Senate has no business hounding a former government official, with the whole impeachment process merely making Trump a martyr to his followers, the worst course of action there could be. As his former National Security Adviser (now turned enemy) John Bolton noted as to why he was against Trump’s conviction: “Attention is what Trump lives for. If they (the Senate) really want to punish him, if they wanted to inflict the most terrible fate possible, they would simply ignore him.”
So how should the Republican Party proceed following the insurrection of Jan. 6, an epoch-altering event that has the dangerous potential to toxify the GOP for a generation? First, Trump must be held accountable for his extra-constitutional actions. I would advocate a Senate censure of Trump, which would be a significant stain on his name, but a lesser one to conviction. Any Republican not agreeing to this — to the basic, irrefutable fact that Trump did something very wrong — is merely serving as an apologist for such behavior.
However, trying to forget that Trump ever existed doesn’t seem a viable way for the party to move forward. A form of Trumpism without Trump — based on his hawkish China views, deregulatory instincts, concern for the working people of the country, support for the nomination of originalist judges, and belief in tax cuts — must be adopted by the party at large, whether its members are specifically enamoured with the former president himself or not.
But, likewise, the Republican Party must explicitly refute the aspects of political life where Trump went off the rails: His flirtation with extra-constitutionalism, crude trashing of political norms, and selfish disparagement of objective facts. It is this strange intellectual fusion of what Trumpism has brought to the party and where it must be entirely repudiated that is the only way for the Republicans to move on and survive. The GOP must master Trump if it is to master history.
- Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via chartwellspeakers.com.