Republican rush to defend Trump reveals a party in thrall to its leader

Republican rush to defend Trump reveals a party in thrall to its leaderThe GOP has become the prisoner of an erratic leader known for demanding loyalty but not famous for repaying itAs the action wound to a climax on the floor of the House of Representatives on Wednesday night, Republicans warned the impeachment of Donald Trump was “tearing this country apart”.Then, just to be sure, they put the crowbar in and pulled at the breach, declaring that by impeaching Trump in 2019, Democrats were seeking to “disenfranchise” everyone who had voted for the president in 2016.Republican Bill Johnson of Ohio went so far as to use his 90 seconds of speaking time to call for a moment of silence to “remember the voices of the 63 million American voters the Democrats today are wanting to silence”.If there is a political price to be paid by Democrats for taking on Trump, Republicans were determined to exact it. But in the process, they revealed themselves to be prisoners of a wounded, erratic leader known for demanding loyalty but not famous for repaying it. As the impeachment unfolded, it led to a party heading into the 2020 election never more obedient to Trump.Trump, Republican politicians insisted, embodies everyone who once voted for him, while the Democratic House majority – installed just one year ago in an election with record turnout – stood for no one, or at best for a disembodied elite, or politically irrelevant classes who live in parts of the country that somehow don’t count.“This lawless partisan impeachment is a political suicide march for the Democrat party,” Trump said on stage at a campaign rally in Michigan, where he spoke to a cheering crowd as impeachment unfolded.But is it? If one of America’s major political parties is marching toward its political doom, it might just be the one that saw, in any allegation of wrongdoing by its leader, an existential threat to millions of voters – the party that under Trump has been steadily shrinking, ageing and being drained of all color.The anxiety of the Republican position was palpable during the impeachment investigation in their efforts to present their minority case as the majority case, and in their strenuous sales pitch of untouchable executive power as a form of populism.The Democratic House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, laid the dissembling bare in his speech on the brink of the impeachment vote.“There’s been a lot of talk about the 63 million people who voted for Mr Trump,” Hoyer said. “Little talk about the 65 million people who voted for Hillary Clinton.”> The Republican captivity was such that no Republican member was able to entertain the idea that Trump might have done anything wrongThe line brought a short outburst of applause in the chamber.As impeachment was announced, Trump was on stage insulting a deceased and beloved former member of Congress from Michigan. Much was made of the Republican calls that followed for Trump to apologize, underscoring how alien the spectacle was, of a Republican daring to reproach the president.“One day in the not too distant future,” former Republican senator Jeff Flake tweeted, “Republicans will wake up and say, “We did this for this man?”For the duration of impeachment, the Republican captivity under Trump was such that no Republican member was able to entertain the idea that Trump might have done anything wrong, much less something so wrong as to warrant impeachment.Instead, Republicans demanded standards of evidence that were impressively high while setting the bar on Trump’s conduct vanishingly low.If Democrats could not produce a witness who directly quoted Trump as saying “no aid for Ukraine till they take out Joe Biden”, it was case closed, no matter what the surrounding universe of evidence, including Trump’s own words, showed. The refusal by Trump to admit any witness who might be able to testify to what he said in private was somehow the fault of the other side.No fact that threatened Trump could be true, while any theory that exculpated him, no matter how wild, must be true.Early in the impeachment process, when Republicans were struggling mightily to get their defense straight, the conventional wisdom was that the party would eventually land on some version of, “what Trump did was wrong, but did not warrant impeachment.”They never got there, instead collecting around the argument that his conduct had been perfect in every way, and that to suggest otherwise was heresy.It was unclear how impeachment had moved the electoral needle, if at all, for upcoming elections. In the must-win state of Pennsylvania, impeachment did not seem to be garnering a lot of attention among potential swing voters, said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, before the vote.“For most folks, impeachment doesn’t make a dime’s worth of difference,” Borick said. “Especially for those in the middle, I think the saliency of the issue is pretty low. These are folks that I don’t think spend a ton of time thinking about this issue.”While support for impeachment has grown radically since the impeachment inquiry was opened, Republicans were right about the country being divided. On the morning after impeachment, support for the process was about +1, on average, while approval of Trump is near the top of the narrow band in which it fluctuates, in the low-40s.“This impeachment has divided this nation without any concern for the repercussions,” said the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, the last Republican to speak before Trump was impeached.The division predated the impeachment. But the repercussions have yet to fall.

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