Now that the vast majority of Senate Republicans voted to acquit former president Donald Trump of inciting violent insurrection, as we all knew they would, Democrats should immediately respond as follows:
3. Get the package into law as quickly as possible.
Those are the House and Senate bills that would expand voting rights, make voting easier in numerous ways and place limits on counter-majoritarian tactics such as voter suppression and gerrymandering, which Republicans are cheerfully escalating in numerous states.
Here’s what the moment requires, above all: Democrats must accept the full implications of the GOP’s ongoing and intensifying radicalization. And they must be prepared to act upon them.
We just saw all but seven Senate Republicans acquit Trump after he waged an unprecedented effort to overturn U.S. democracy that included incitement of mob violence to disrupt the constitutional processes governing how we conclude our elections. That’s more Republicans voting to convict than expected, but it’s still a dark outcome — and an ominous one.
What’s more, that came after Trump spent months trying to subvert the results through all manner of corrupt means, including egging on the terrorizing of vote counters and bullying election officials to manufacture votes to overturn certified results.
Much of the GOP went all in with many of those efforts. Large swaths of the party supported an effort to cancel millions of votes in four states based on fictions, and even voted to invalidate President Biden’s electors in Congress — after the assault on the Capitol.
Even relatively “responsible” Republicans displayed this ongoing radicalization. GOP congressional leaders — such as Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) — refused to recognize Biden’s win for weeks. Then, after mouthing noises of disapproval about Trump’s election lies, they meekly backed off, all to keep Trump voters in the GOP coalition.
Trump’s acquittal only confirms what many observers had long pointed out: In some fundamental sense, much of the GOP is no longer functioning as an actor in a democracy. Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann called this way back in 2012:
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
Ornstein and Mann couldn’t possibly have realized how prescient this would prove. Consider the larger story arc of the past year: A spectacularly malevolent botching of a pandemic; a horrific economic collapse; and, now, a months-long effort to subvert the verdict of the majority of Americans who chose a new direction of robust government action to deal with these challenges, which Trump, backed by Republicans, did so much to inflict upon us.
We’re now looking at a GOP that is simply not part of the conversation about how to address two of our country’s biggest crises of the modern era. And, even as the party will opt for this path, Republicans are in a position to recapture the House in two years largely via extreme gerrymanders, as they themselves have boasted.
In short, the Republican Party will do all it can to grind the Biden agenda to a halt, crippling our ability to act in the face of these major crises, not to mention other longer-term ones, such as stagnant wages, skyrocketing inequality and our warming planet.
And then, to remain competitive in national elections, Republicans will redouble their commitment to making it harder to vote and to rigging electoral maps to maximize their share of power relative to the proportion of actual votes they win.
This means Democrats must be willing to exercise power while they have it to go big on covid relief and the economy — and mercifully, they don’t appear to be chasing bipartisan support for its own sake. But it also means being willing to deploy power to prevent a quick return to national power for Republicans via minority rule, and the dysfunction, disillusionment and resurgence of authoritarianism that this would bring.
Democrats have a responsibility to do all they can to avoid consigning the country to that fate.
One might think this means a future in which each party goes all out to do what it can on its own while in power, followed by sinking back into brutal guerrilla resistance when they lose it.
But that future is already upon us. That was made clear by the GOP’s 2017 headlong rush into a purely partisan effort to throw 20 million people off health insurance and pass massively regressive tax cuts for the rich, busting the deficit and constraining possibilities for future government action.
For Democrats to act boldly out of a forthright appreciation of these circumstances does not rule out all bipartisan cooperation. One can see Democrats working with a handful of GOP senators on things such as an expanded child tax credit or infrastructure repair. But it does mean accepting the need to act forcefully to neutralize the GOP’s reliance on anti-democratic tactics, which will only get worse.
As dark as Trump’s acquittal might feel, this moment still offers real prospects for civic renewal. The decisive majority defeat of Trump and his movement in an extraordinarily high turnout election was a real success, particularly in that it was so heavily driven by intense civic engagement.
It’s also inspiring that the election went relatively smoothly, due to the heroic diligence of countless election workers across the country — including many Republicans who bucked their party’s lurch into authoritarianism — amid brutal and unpredictable pandemic conditions and a hyper-charged atmosphere of violent civil conflict.
But Trump’s acquittal by so many Republicans after an unprecedented effort to overthrow U.S. democracy also hints at the fragility of those gains. Fully realizing the potential of civic renewal embedded in this moment will require Democrats to accept the full implications of this ongoing radicalization — and to act upon them.