The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Our institutions didn’t fail when Trump attacked them. Quite the opposite.

The U.S. Capitol in Washington as seen from the base of the Washington Monument on Monday, Presidents Day. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
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In the hours after the Senate rendered its final verdict in the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, enraged liberals rendered theirs: The institutions of government had failed us once again. The system no longer worked.

But that’s really not the story of Trump’s last, desperate months in office. If anything, the opposite is true.

I get the frustration. The case laid out by House impeachment managers was powerful enough to convince even skeptics of a trial — myself included — that Trump deserved a traitor’s fate.

Instead, in the end, even Democrats seemed to accept the inevitable triumph of partisanship over conscience on the other side of the aisle, abandoning a last-minute attempt to call witnesses.

Before you go around declaring the death of democratic institutions, though, let’s look at the end of the Trump era as historians will undoubtedly record it.

Trump spent most of his last year in office trying to discredit the results of an election that hadn’t even happened yet. He assailed the expansion of mail-in voting, predicting fraud and dysfunction.

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What happened? The U.S. electoral system, much maligned by both parties, performed almost flawlessly, under exceedingly difficult conditions. When all the votes were finally counted, Trump had lost by a clear and insurmountable margin — 74 votes in the electoral college and about 7 million votes.

Undaunted, Trump then did exactly what he had telegraphed he would do. He set out to toss the results aside and hold onto power at any cost, like the despot he always aspired to be.

He sent small armies of lawyers (well, they had law degrees, anyway) into state and federal courtrooms across the country, demanding that votes be thrown out.

He bullied Republican election officials, insisting that one of them “find” more votes, and sympathetic state legislators, summoning some to the White House for a personal working-over.

He installed new leadership at the Pentagon in an ominous reminder that he still controlled the military apparatus and could deploy it at any time.

He pressured Republicans in Congress to derail the certification of the vote and ordered his own vice president — a man who had basically lain prostrate at the president’s feet for the previous four years — to negate the results if they were certified anyway.

Then, finally, he unleashed a violent mob on the Capitol itself, sitting around and tweeting while cops were savagely beaten in the building that had long symbolized rule of law for much of the planet.

And yet, in every instance, it wasn’t the institutions of government that crumbled. It was Trump.

Every judge, whether appointed by Democrats or Republicans, threw Trump’s pleadings out. Trump couldn’t even get his specious claims before the conservative-leaning Supreme Court, which never seemed sympathetic in any event.

Republican election officials and legislatures withstood Trump’s pressure and declined to intervene. The military stayed out of politics, as it always had.

And even after a riot that left five people dead and put members and their staffs in harm’s way, Congress certified the election results with only scattered opposition and minor delay. Mike Pence did his constitutional duty without hesitation.

Last summer, when Trump was not so subtly laying the groundwork for his siege on self-rule, I argued that it would be redemptive for the country if he tested the resilience of our institutions. I believed they would hold.

That’s exactly what happened. Battered by four years of degradation, politicization and constant assault, the most trusted pillars of government refused to fall.

Sure, all but seven Republicans senators gave Trump a pass in the end. A lot of them are simply weak and unfit for office. (In comments after the verdict, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina proved once and for all that he donated his spine to science sometime during the 2010s.)

But I also don’t discount the reasoning of several Republicans — Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) among them — who said they concluded that impeachment shouldn’t apply to a former president, but who made clear their support for criminal charges instead.

Just because most Republicans voted to acquit doesn’t actually mean they abandoned all principle, whether you agree with the principle or not.

And here’s the problem with declaring the Senate to be fatally compromised just because you don’t get the final result you want: It plays directly into the argument Trump himself has been making for years now.

When you decry the death of our institutions, you’re only echoing his point that the system is rigged, that the republic is skewed by self-interest and cowardice, that government can’t be trusted to do the right thing anymore. It’s not true, and it’s not a winning case.

Just ask Trump, who tried to topple every institution in his path, and who will be remembered as a loser for all time.

Read more:

George F. Will: Now begins McConnell’s project to shrink Trump’s GOP influence

Eugene Robinson: Let’s leave the 45th president behind and focus on what’s ahead

Jennifer Rubin: This is how bad McConnell really is

E.J. Dionne Jr.: The beginning of the end of Trumpism

The Post’s View: 57 senators got it right. But the Senate has more work to do.

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