1. Impeachment has always been a weak and partisan tool
Political scientists often describe institutions as the rules and practices that structure our politics and constrain politicians. But those involved in politics don’t always follow the rules. We only know an institution’s strength when it is tested against those who do everything in their power to escape being bound by the rules of the game.
The Watergate investigations led President Richard M. Nixon to resign rather than be the first president impeached by the House in more than a century. That led many to believe that impeachment could combat and deter corrupt presidential behavior. However, Nixon resigned before the impeachment process faced its toughest test to date: Republican senators having to choose between party and Constitution.
Trump has consistently attempted to evade every institutional constraint he has faced, including unfavorable federal court rulings and legal restrictions to prevent presidents from unilaterally launching wars. Impeachment has been no different. One of his team’s lawyers, Alan Dershowitz, argued that almost nothing a president does to get reelected is impeachable, if that president believes his reelection is in the national interest. That suggests that no president could ever be impeached.
Rather than fight to establish his innocence, Trump has chosen to fight the institutional constraint itself.
2. Republicans are confident about their advantage in the November elections
The way that Senate Republicans have handled impeachment appears risky, at least at first glance. As many commentators point out, Republicans are potentially opening the door for Democrats to behave in similar ways when they are in the majority. It’s risky to change the rules to favor the incumbent if there’s a chance that another party can take over and gain these benefits. But Republicans have worked to reduce that risk.
Trump’s legal team has made arguments that seriously change previous interpretations of the Constitution — but the text remains intact. When defending the president, Republicans have been quick to accuse Democrats of impeaching solely because of “partisan rage,” while suggesting ways in which Democratic politicians could behave that would be grounds for impeachment.
These novel constitutional interpretations favor Republicans right now, giving them their best chance at maintaining power after 2020. When Democrats take power in the future, Republicans can simply revert to older constitutional interpretations, turning to impeachment if they feel it necessary. The Republican message that this impeachment is unique and unusually partisan attempts to limit how Trump’s acquittal may offer advantages for future Democratic leaders.
3. You only need enough support to get elected
Republicans appear to think that their best chance for maintaining power — both for their individual reelections and for holding the presidency — is to allow Trump even more unscrutinized authority. Their decision to not call impeachment witnesses — even though nearly 70 percent of Americans support doing so — suggests that Republicans see the president and his loyal base as the only constituencies that matter.
Republicans appear to be betting that they can again take the White House by winning the electoral college without the popular vote. The only polls that might have influenced the impeachment trial actions were polls of their targeted base across the less-populous, Republican-leaning states and deep-red voting districts. Republicans feel safe bending constitutional norms because as recent polling shows, that base still approves — and is almost completely aligned with Trump. This echoes research showing how political leaders with sufficient popular support will work to change constitutional limitations in their favor.
4. And yet U.S. democracy isn’t dead
Trump’s acquittal is not the end of the republic. Institutional decay and authoritarian creep typically take several years or more to overrun democratic institutions. In some countries, leaders have used democratic institutions to accomplish authoritarian goals, but there is no evidence that’s yet a systemic problem in the United States. We don’t yet know whether recent Republican challenges to constitutional norms will remain entrenched over time, especially if Democrats win in November.
But it’s important now to watch what Republicans say about the acquittal. Some observers think the Senate trial was little more than a pretense at deliberation. Republican senators still have the opportunity to disavow some of the more extreme legal arguments put forward to support the president’s actions. They could narrowly tailor their acquittal arguments to apply only to this impeachment. If the senators choose to overlook the president’s defense arguments — or change their scope by adding their own interpretations — they risk further constitutional fallout. Republican acquittal messaging will demonstrate how much senators are willing to challenge constitutional norms to protect their party and the president.
Tyler P. Yates (@ryattgear) is a University of North Texas PhD candidate in political science and a researcher at the Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland.