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In this handout provided by congress.gov webcast, lead impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) speaks on the third day of former President Donald Trump's second impeachment trial at the U.S. Capitol on February 11, 2021 in Washington, DC. House impeachment managers will make the case that Trump was singularly responsible for the January 6th attack at the U.S. Capitol and he should be convicted and barred from ever holding public office again. (Photo by congress.gov via Getty Images)

In this handout provided by congress.gov webcast, lead impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) speaks on the third day of former President Donald Trump's second impeachment trial at the U.S. Capitol on February 11, 2021 in Washington, DC. House impeachment managers will make the case that Trump was singularly responsible for the January 6th attack at the U.S. Capitol and he should be convicted and barred from ever holding public office again. (Photo by congress.gov via Getty Images)

Trump's Guilt Clearly Demonstrated During Senate Trial

The Democrats are now presenting a "slam dunk" impeachment case in the Senate. And it will almost certainly "lose" in "court." What's next?

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Over the past two days the House impeachment managers, under the leadership of Jamie Raskin, have done a masterful job of presenting the case against Donald Trump. While Wednesday’s presentation was breathtaking—even for those, like me, who have followed every turn in the Trump saga for months and years—Thursday’s presentation was more plodding and a bit less compelling. But Wednesday was hard to beat, and today was powerful in its own way, especially in its denoument.

If Wednesday’s presentation meticulously and powerfully demonstrated that Trump summoned, promoted, and then incited the January 6 assault on Congress, vividly showing how this incitement culminated in the very dangerous and life-threatening assault, Thursday’s presentation focused broadly on what might be called the “meanings” and consequences of the assault.

Iron-clad evidence was presented to demonstrate that Trump knew what he was doing when he incited the mob and had done it before (against Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer); that the mob had perfect “uptake” of Trump’s meaning, and did exactly as it rightly understood him to command; that as events unfolded, everyone involved—from the attackers to Chris Christie and other Republicans begging Trump to call off his dogs—knew that Trump was responsible for the violence and that he alone could halt it; and that Trump did nothing to stop it for hours, watching gleefully as the assault unfolded and using his Twitter feed to enlarge the target on Mike Pence’s back.

The Democratic presentation has been riveting and uplifting in its defense of the basic norms of constitutional democracy.

The presentation left no doubt that Trump attacked the Constitution, and betrayed his oath, when he first incited the attack and then knowingly let it proceed in utter dereliction of his duty.

The managers then went on to show that this episode has had devastating consequences, on foreign policy, national security, and on the kind of law and order all citizens have a right to expect—freedom from fear of attack from the armed, right-wing racist fanatics that Trump has consistently inspired and incited.

Finally, they left no doubt that Trump is unrepentant, and that if given the chance, he would do the same things again.

The coup de gras was delivered by Raskin in his closing argument. Raskin delivered a bravura public mini-lecture on democratic theory and on the “true” democratic meaning of the founding documents of the U.S. republic. His powerful soliloquy drove home three fundamental points:

(1)  that a constitutional democracy requires that public officials be responsible for upholding the law and maintaining the rights of citizens, and these are public duties that officials voluntarily assume when they decide to seek and take office and take their oath, and officials must be held accountable for their performance of their duties;

(2)  that the attempt by a public official, and especially the President, to overthrow a democratic election, is an attack on the Constitution and the rights of citizens, and the ultimate violation of the oath to “protect and defend the Constitution”; and

(3)  that impeachment of any public official who attacks the Constitution and the rights of citizens, is a necessary means whereby the public can be protected from predatory and tyrannical leaders, by removing those leaders from power and preventing them from again holding office—forms of constitutional self-defense that have nothing to do with criminal law or the First Amendment rights of public officials in their private capacity as individuals.

In short, Raskin argued incontrovertibly that impeachment is the public disqualification from public office of individuals whose exercise of public power has proven to be dangerous to the public. In doing so, he utterly shredded any possible “First Amendment defense” of Trump.

For good measure, Raskin embedded this set of arguments in a rhetorically compelling narrative about the American political tradition, drawing especially on Lincoln, and Paine, to call his audience to their “patriotic” duty.

As someone who regularly teaches undergraduates about the themes of Raskin’s lecture, I was both impressed and deeply moved by his narrative. The “story” of the U.S. political tradition is obviously more complicated than Raskin allowed in his short morality tale—as he well knows (one small sign that he knows was his deliberate “fixing” of gendered language about “rights of man”). And it is crucial that the story be told in all of its complexity—in classrooms, in public writings and presentations, and even in most political settings. But in this setting, with this purpose, and at this moment, Raskin struck exactly the right chord, appealing so plainly to “American common sense” and Lincolnian sentimentality that he was able simultaneously to put Senate Republicans in an awkward position and to touch the hearts of many in the broader public who are watching, listening, and perhaps even learning.

The Democratic presentation has been riveting and uplifting in its defense of the basic norms of constitutional democracy.

At the same time, I still worry about the political effects of this terrific presentation and whether they will be as beneficial as many hope.

It is certain that the Trump defense team will spend the next days throwing shade, changing the subject, demonizing “the left,” and furnishing Senate Republicans with the bullshit cover they need.

And it is virtually certain that most Senate Republicans will ignore the unimpeachable case made by the House managers, do the wrong thing, and vote to acquit Trump and to “move on.”

And it is striking, and concerning, that throughout this entire process news commentators repeatedly refer to Trump as “the president,” while Joe Biden is almost all but forgotten . . . . And in certain ways it feels this week like we are still in the “interregnum” before a full transfer of power, and this is both predictable and problematic . . .

And so this entire impeachment trial hinges, in the end, not on questions of rightness, which are beyond any reasonable doubt, but on questions of political power.

Will House impeachment managers be able to really reach out to the broad public with their case, and is the Democratic party using every communicative means at its disposal to ensure this, so that some real public learning takes place, and at least some “hearts and minds” are changed as a result (as I indicated yesterday, I am skeptical here)?

Will the entire process at least motivate and mobilize Democrats in and out of Congress to move forward from this trial to do the real political work of passing legislation, rebuilding the party from below, and building support for 2022 and 2024?

If the answers to these questions is not “yes,” then we are in for trouble. For even if you want to believe that “history will judge” rightly, Keynes’s much-quoted dictum remains true—in the long run we are all dead. And we have little time to waste, now, if we wish to really strengthen democracy in the face of inevitable assaults from the right.

There is no doubt that the Republican party is now in the hands of Trumpists, and that if this party is able to gain national power in the next four years—in the Senate, the House, or the White House—then it will use that power with the same disdain toward democracy that it has displayed thus far. For the Republican party is now an “anti-system” party.

The Democrats are now presenting a “slam dunk” impeachment case in the Senate.  And it will almost certainly "lose" in "court."

What next? Is the Democratic party leadership ready to pivot from the trial to the real work ahead, and does it understand that this work involves not just the necessary passing of laws but also the cultivation and expansion of a dedicated political base of activists and voters?

Questions . . . .


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: "Democracy in Dark Times"(1998); "The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline" (2003), and "Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion" (1994).

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