Don’t be surprised by the impeachment falling through

February 17, 2021 06:00
Photo: Reuters

Trump was acquitted by the US Senate on February 13, 2021, by a margin of 57-43. A two-third majority was needed for the impeachment to pass.

Colour me (un)surprised. For all the fanfare about “holding Trump to account”, and the valiant rhetoric associated with putting “country before party”, as well as the part-triumphant, part-desperate plea for Republican senators to “find their conscience”, we’d seen it coming – there was no way the Republican party, or whatever is left of the ‘Grand Old Party’ in the Senate, would have opted for the risky option that could well be career-ending. On one hand is the leap of faith, a leap that would place the senators plausibly at loggerheads with voters that would fickly defect to supporting the infant-tyranny. On the other was the safe option – one that grants them plausible deniability; one that permits them to court and consolidate their existing support, even at the expense of what is right.

It is easy to think of Burr, Cassidy, Collins, Romney, Murkowski, Sasse, and Toomey as martyrs, or as political hacks. It is equally convenient to paint the rest of the party as decrepit, morally bankrupt traitors – especially if you are, like yours truly, someone with rather strong Democratic leanings. Yet realpolitik, unlike fairytales, is often unpleasantly illogical, with raucous and capricious betrayal and lies the norm – as opposed to the enemy.

Republican senators have indeed come under increasing pressure to renounce the acts of Trump, to side with “the right side” – especially in the aftermath of the Capitol Hill riots. Yet media discourses, especially ones propagated by those who sustain and bankroll the Democratic party machine, seldom make for accurate indicators of the Republican base’s views. Recent nation-wide polls – in the run-up to the acquittal – had shown the pro-conviction and anti-conviction crowds as roughly on par: a slim though clear majority of 56% of Americans would want the Senate to vote to convict him, according to a CBS news poll, though once the party label is slapped onto the figures, only less than one in five rank-and-rile Republican voters would support Trump’s conviction – which would ban the man from ever running from office again, as well as seal the records of an ignominious presidency marred by corruption, scandals, and blatant ineptitude.

Let’s face it – the Republican Party. Sizeable millions. Tens of millions of folks in the party. These folks do not want Trump gone. They may dislike him for his antics; they may find him partially irritating – yet they remain fundamentally devoted to a man whose tenure of legalistic and moral transgressions would have landed him on the front pages of American press as “Dictator awaiting trial” had he presided over any other country than the United States. And this poses a fundamental problem for the party’s senators – who are, as they should well be, rational human beings with human needs. The logic is simple: if they want to keep their jobs, they must placate their base. If their base remains obstinate, then no amount of higher-order moralising and unctuous preaching could change their minds.

Yes – the Senate allows for conscience-based voting. Yes – the Senate encourages, within reason, open and unfettered discourses. And yes – America remains, at its core, a largely extant and instantiated democracy with democratic institutions. Yet none of these caveats or safeguarding measures could suffice in ensuring that America is substantively democratic and representative of the public’s interests – the public’s interests being notably divergent from what the public may seemingly want or desire. It is at moments like these that we must inevitably rethink the extent to which public and popular will can be entrusted as a proxy for the wellbeing of the entire country.

I am not, for one, advocating an overhaul to the American democratic system. Autocracy and authoritarian centralisation do not, and cannot suit a nation whose constitutive principles and values comprise liberal freedoms – liberalism with a small L, and certainly not in the way that Hollywood stars construe it. American politics is undergirded by a fundamental skepticism of the state, and democracy ostensibly supplies the people with the correct volume of power and endowments to counteract the potent state.

Yet as it stands, the current form of American democracy cannot sufficiently rule out or account for the malaise that plagues the US today. America is deeply divided, polarised, and segmented – media spaces are proliferate with discourses that seek to inflame, to demonise, and to identify and reinforce the ostracisation of the Other, in order to preserve dominant power structures. The elites have turned the masses into pawns, as the endowed and privileged battle one another in a perennial struggle for power, and not progress. Most damningly, the volume of trust and level of social synergy are at an unprecedented low – and indeed, how can we possibly expect the consumers of completely divergent news sources and echo chambers, to think critically and rationalise beyond their own lived experiences?

So don’t be surprised by Trump’s impeachment not going through. There’s a long way to go before America can find its footing again – and, unlike many others, I am unconvinced that it can indeed do so. We can only hope that the beacon of democracy finds a new modus operandi, at an age where the mere name of ‘Democracy’ no longer can speak for itself. In the absence of further rationalisation or justification sensitive to the needs and demands of the particular polity, democracy may appear no more convincing than its antithesis. And that’s something to think about.

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Assistant Professor, HKU