From the start, it was obvious that Senate Republicans would not risk angering the beast that is the Trumpian base. But in making that craven short-term political calculation, they have done long-term damage to American democracy. They have paved the road to authoritarianism — and they have done it while a dangerous demagogue occupies the Oval Office.
The precedents they have set are alarming. Trump’s defense partly argued that a president must violate a specific crime in order to be impeached. But imagine the following scenario: This weekend, Trump tweets that he will pardon anyone who engages in blatant voter suppression or voter intimidation before the November election. Hundreds of henchmen take it upon themselves to act, helping ensure his reelection. Trump’s legal and constitutional authority to pardon them is unquestioned. It would be a corrupt abuse of presidential power, but not a crime. Now that Republicans have established their new standard, such behavior would not be an impeachable offense. Trump now has a blank check. We all know that he will try to cash it.
Moreover, Senate Republicans have also endorsed Trump’s refusal to hand over relevant documents to a legitimate impeachment investigation. They simultaneously affirmed that presidents can block key witnesses without consequence. In the next scandal — and there will be another scandal — Trump will again try to block key evidence and witnesses, all with the blessing of his pals in the Republican caucus. The Senate has neutered itself. That shift in power isn’t temporary — it sets a new orthodoxy of what presidents can get away with.
If Trump commits a crime (as he allegedly has, repeatedly), he cannot be indicted under guidelines from the Justice Department. And if he yet again abuses his power with corrupt intent, it’s up to his lackeys in the Senate to hold him accountable with an impeachment trial — and they just spectacularly failed to do so despite him committing the most egregious abuse of power in recent American history.
Perhaps most striking was the moment in which one of Trump’s defense lawyers, Alan Dershowitz, argued that “if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” That logic — that if the leader takes an action to win with corrupt intent but believes that his victory is ultimately good for the country, then it’s fine — is the logic of authoritarian despots. It is a logic that is poisonous to democracy. (Dershowitz has since tried to back away from his own words, but there’s no changing the fact he appears to have captured precisely the philosophy that currently informs thinking among Senate Republicans.)
All of this would be quite worrying indeed if the current president were someone who mimicked the behavior of autocrats. We would be right to panic if the man in the White House was someone who, for example, attacked the media with Stalinist rhetoric, scapegoated minority groups, called for the jailing of his political rivals, politicized the rule of law, hired cronies and family members for top jobs, called to ban an entire religion from entering the country, directly profited from his office, and had invited foreign adversaries to help him stay in power.
Okay, maybe it’s time to break the glass.
The day after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III testified before Congress, Trump felt exonerated. That’s when he made the now infamous phone call to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. The lesson is clear: When Trump feels that he has gotten away with something, he feels emboldened to test new limits. What will he test once he’s acquitted by the Senate? And if he tests those limits in ways that try to ensure his reelection bid — as he already has done with this latest abuse of power — will the 2020 election even be free and fair?
Democracy is fragile. It is built on a foundation of laws and norms that develop over decades. One of the most important norms in any democracy is the shared expectation that elected officials who abuse their official powers for personal or political gain must face severe consequences. Trump will face none. And American democracy, which has already withered under a president with severe authoritarian impulses, will continue to waste away.
America’s Founding Fathers anticipated the emergence of a corrupt demagogue. They simply didn’t anticipate that his rise would coincide with a complicit Congress that would gleefully establish a path to an authoritarian presidency.