There was something poignant on Saturday about the lengths gone to by some media organisations in the US to try to make the result less appalling. “Most bipartisan support for conviction in history,” declared the New York Times, clutching at the pitiful seven Republicans who voted in favour of impeaching Donald Trump, well short of the 17 needed to uphold a conviction. Four years ago, at a campaign stop in Iowa, Trump famously declared: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Here we were, a month after five people died during the storming of the Capitol, living some version of that promise.
It should have helped, perhaps, that the result was anticipated before the trial even got under way. There was no suspense, no surprise; the votes needed to convict were never there. Nor, seemingly, was the appetite for investigation: both sides agreed at the 11th hour not to call witnesses and draw this thing out, a lassitude mirrored across the electorate. What was the point of even watching the proceedings, stoking one’s outrage or being moved by the closing arguments of Congressman Jamie Raskin, the lead impeachment manager, when it was apparent that Trump would get off scot-free? Better to avoid and move on.
There is a point, of course, which is to enter into public record a detailed, forensic account of what happened at the Capitol on 6 January, even if it didn’t result in conviction. This hurried process and hasty conclusion – the impeachment hearings took all of five days – instead felt like a shrug, an afterthought, leaving us with little more than a flat sense of disgust and latent fury with nowhere to go.
What to be angry about most? Perhaps it was the absurdity of Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader who led a blistering attack on Trump minutes after voting to acquit him. This vote, said McConnell, was a result of what he labelled a period of “intense reflection”, which is certainly one way to describe political cowardice. On the other hand, he said: “There’s no question – none – that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”
Or perhaps the most galling figure was Mitt Romney, who has never been able fully to commit to his self-image as a man of high morals. He was one of the seven Republicans voting against Trump, a stance less evident four years ago when he sucked up to him for a place in the cabinet, or more recently, when he voted to rush through confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the supreme court. If anything, the Republicans who voted with the Democrats on Saturday seemed worse than their Trump-supporting counterparts: these were the people who, one understood, had always had the measure of the man, but while it suited them had gone happily along with him.
For the rest of us, the spectacle of Trump and his sons crowing about acquittal was just one more breach of normality. “It is a sad commentary on our times,” wrote Trump in a statement after the verdict, “that one political party in America is given a free pass to denigrate the rule of law, defame law enforcement, cheer mobs, excuse rioters and transform justice into a tool of political vengeance.” It was one, final expression of his role as America’s gaslighting spouse, fighting any accusation with the counter: “No, you did it.” Only Trump would hail surviving a second impeachment trial as a victory: the kind of behaviour that we have learned to understand does nothing to penetrate the reality of his base. The hurried trial and acquittal, designed to allow us to move on, will in all likelihood contribute to the survival of Trumpism.
There isn’t much scope for closure or relief. In a political culture in which Twitter, Trump’s enabler, has taken more strident action against him than the US government, we are left only with the consolation of personal belief. When news of the acquittal came in on Saturday, I found myself defaulting to a childish form of vindictive speculation reserved for those who escape official censure. Look at Trump and his progeny, I thought, holed up at Mar-a-Lago, threats of bankruptcy on the horizon, imprisoned by their various delusions. How unhappy they must be.