Donald Trump’s Impeachment Legacy: Violent Extremism

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Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

It was an extraordinary moment.

As a mob of rioters stormed its way down the halls of the Senate, Officer Eugene Goodman of the Capitol Police ran past Senator Mitt Romney, frantically directing him to seek cover. The former Republican presidential nominee broke into a sprint, taking off in the other direction. He most likely had reason to run: The day before, Trump supporters had heckled Mr. Romney on his way to Washington, chanting “traitor, traitor, traitor” on a crowded plane.

The world has seen so much footage from that painful day. But nearly all of it has focused on the attackers themselves. In the Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump, we saw a new angle: Members of Congress running for their lives.

I heard nearly every moment of the trial, moving through my apartment as the hours passed. First in the living room, I watched it on television. Then from the kitchen, I listened to the radio while I made more coffee. And later on my computer in the bedroom once the kids came home, so I could avoid explaining why, exactly, those people were breaking windows with flagpoles and all the other questions that — despite the detailed presentation — I still couldn’t answer with much confidence. Questions like, whether they will all go to jail and if everyone is really safe now.

It’s that last question that lingers. Mr. Trump seems poised to be acquitted. But does this unprecedented moment in American history mark the beginning of the end of a particularly violent era? Or the end of the beginning?

In the trial, the House managers tried to show how things that once seemed extraordinary became standard political combat. Like chants of “Lock her up” and violence at political protests — yes, on both the right and the left.

“In 2017, it was unfathomable to many of us to think that Charlottesville could happen,” Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado, one of the Democratic House managers, told senators, arguing that acquitting Mr. Trump could encourage more violence. “Frankly, what unfathomable horrors could await us if we do not stand up and say, ‘No this is not America’?”

But what if that question has already been answered? Whether or not Mr. Trump is convicted, the extremism that flourished under his administration has embedded itself in our politics.

Robert Pape, a specialist in political violence at the University of Chicago, analyzed the backgrounds and statements of nearly 200 Capitol attackers. His analysis found that most were middle-aged and middle class or wealthier. Many had good jobs. Nearly all — 89 percent — had no apparent affiliation with any known militant organization.

“The Capitol riot revealed a new force in American politics — not merely a mix of right-wing organizations, but a broader mass political movement that has violence at its core and draws strength even from places where Trump supporters are in the minority,” he wrote in The Atlantic.

That force shows little sign of backing down: Two weeks ago, the Homeland Security Department issued a rare terrorism alert warning that violent extremists were emboldened by the attack and motivated by “the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives.”

There is some indication that such violent acts have support among some Americans, particularly within the Republican Party. A survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute this week found that 55 percent of Republicans back the use of force as a way to “arrest the decline of the traditional American way of life,” as compared with 35 percent of independents and 22 percent of Democrats.

In their impeachment defense, lawyers for Mr. Trump didn’t focus on the attackers but the former president, arguing that he didn’t intend to incite a violent attack. The parts of his rhetoric cited by the House impeachment managers were “selectively edited” and the video was manipulated, they said. The Trump team showed video montages of Democrats using the word “fight” — further torturing an already worn piece of political rhetoric. (Of course, none of those politicians, it’s worth noting, were being tried for inciting a riot.)

And they used Mr. Trump’s comments in 2017 after the events in Charlottesville, Va. — that there were “very fine people on both sides” — to argue that his words have long been misconstrued. Former homeland security officials have cited those remarks as a defining moment that emboldened extremists.

Many Republicans in Congress are likely to seize upon this question of intent. Even with Mr. Trump out of office, crossing the former president would mean alienating a significant part of their base. Those, like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who promoted Mr. Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud leading up to the ransacking at the Capitol, show no signs of changing their minds. It’s quite likely that the final number of Republicans who vote for conviction will be well below the two-thirds majority required.

Eventually, the debate over Mr. Trump’s culpability will be left to the history books. What will remain indisputable, however, is that his words mattered. Extremist violence flourished under his watch. And uprooting that will be a far more difficult national undertaking than a few long days in the Senate.


Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter at @llerer.


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Is Senator Bill Cassidy a Republican Party unicorn?

Earlier this week, the Louisianian captured headlines after he became the only Senate Republican to switch his position and vote to proceed with the impeachment trial.

Mr. Cassidy said he was swayed by the poor performance of Mr. Trump’s lawyers in their opening arguments.

“It was disorganized, random — they talked about many things, but they didn’t talk about the issue at hand,” he said.

The question for Democrats is whether there could be more Cassidys to come.

It doesn’t seem likely. Including Mr. Cassidy, just six Republicans voted with Democrats this week to reject Mr. Trump’s constitutional objection to trying a former president. At least 17 Republican senators would need to join all 50 Democrats to convict Mr. Trump by a two-thirds majority.

That would require changing a number of minds. According to a New York Times whip count, three dozen Republicans have already said they oppose conviction. An additional 13 senators are undecided.

Reports from our colleagues on the Senate floor offer some insights into the current Republican mind-set.

Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah were seen entering a room with the Trump legal team on Thursday night. The next day, the senators animatedly made their arguments for acquittal to some of their Republicans colleagues.

Others flaunted their lack of interest as the House managers made their arguments. At points, a dozen or more Republican senators were away from their mahogany desks. Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina retreated to his party’s cloakroom to read on his phone. Senator Rick Scott could be seen filling out a blank map of Asia, inviting speculation about whether the junior senator from Florida would rather be in Wuhan than Washington this week.

And on Friday, even Mr. Cassidy signaled that he may soon blend into the herd. Sharp-eyed reporters spotted him carrying a draft of a statement indicating he planned to acquit Mr. Trump.


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