As the House of Representatives voted Wednesday on the second impeachment of President Donald Trump, the leader of the chamber’s Republicans, Kevin McCarthy, sought to have it both ways. Trump’s actions were wrong, McCarthy said, but so was the last-minute impeachment push. “A vote to impeach will further fan the flames of partisan division,” McCarthy said. Still, he added, “The President bears responsibility for [last] Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters.”
It was a stance likely to please nobody: not the Trump die-hards who populate the GOP base and see him as virtually infallible; not the shell-shocked establishment hoping to put the soon-to-be-ex-President in the rearview mirror. In that respect, it was an apt summation of the situation the Republican Party finds itself in as Trump leaves office in disgrace. Anything short of overthrowing the elected government won’t satisfy millions of Trump’s devoted followers. Yet the party’s inability to firmly reject Trump will allow him to continue dominating it, dictating its governing fictions and subjecting them to his whims.
How the GOP reckons with Trump as he leaves office is the question on which the future of American politics depends. For a few hours on Tuesday, it seemed the party might finally be gearing up to cast him aside. Mitch McConnell, the Republicans’ leader in the Senate, let it be known that he welcomed the impeachment effort, and several Trump-skeptical members of the House GOP announced their support for it. Leading the charge was the third-ranking House Republican, Liz Cheney, the Wyoming congresswoman and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution,” Cheney declared in announcing she would vote to impeach him.
To Trump’s opponents, it seemed like this might be the beginning of the the end. His critics, particularly those on the right, have long maintained that if only the party took a united stand, it could purge him and put to rest the lies and conspiracy theories that have gripped its ranks. The voters Trump has led into a cul-de-sac of craziness could, with a decisive show of leadership, be led away from him instead. “The devotion that Trump’s most fanatical supporters feel toward him will not go away on its own,” the conservative writer Matthew Continetti wrote in National Review. “It has to be severed. And Congress is in a position to act.”
But when it came down to it, House Republicans’ support for impeachment was more a trickle than a gush. In the end, 10 Republicans joined all 222 Democrats in voting to impeach. That was enough to secure a historically bipartisan result: no members of the President’s party voted for impeachment in 1868 and 2019, while five Democrats supported President Clinton’s impeachment in 1998. The 10 who crossed party lines spanned the spectrum, from moderates who’ve distanced themselves from Trump in the past to members from deep-red districts who simply reached the limits of what they could tolerate. “I will not use process as an excuse,” said Dan Newhouse, an unassuming fourth-termer from Washington state, taking direct aim at his colleagues’ objections. “There’s no excuse for President Trump’s actions.” There was applause in the chamber as he finished his brief statement.
Another four Republicans did not vote at all. Yet 197 of them, 93% of the GOP caucus, voted not to impeach. Some of them still condemned Trump in strong terms: Rep. Chip Roy of Texas called Trump’s conduct “impeachable” even as he raised procedural objections, while another Texan, Rep. Mike McCaul, expressed concern that he might regret his “no” vote as more facts about the siege come to light. But many others who spoke on the House floor defended the President to various degrees. Rep. Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin, for example, said Trump’s exhortation to “fight like hell” was “obviously standard hyperbole,” and he bore no blame for the violence that immediately followed it. Some of Cheney’s colleagues are circulating a petition to strip her leadership post.
Some Republicans believe in Trump as ardently as his most devoted supporters, but many others are afraid to repudiate him. Lawmakers have received a barrage of death threats against them and their families in recent weeks—threats that seem newly believable in light of last week’s siege. (As the House voted Wednesday, hundreds of National Guard troops lined the hallways—the first time soldiers have been stationed in the Capitol since the Civil War.) Trump and his allies have openly threatened primary challenges against Republicans who break with him, and in polls, many Republican voters say they consider themselves supporters of the President more than his party.
Yet not repudiating Trump has consequences, too. Major corporate donors have cut off the party’s election denialists, and the business world has denounced them. Trump himself has been kicked off Facebook and Twitter permanently. A resounding majority of Americans deplored the Capitol attack and blame the President for it. Since becoming the party of Trump, the GOP has lost the House, Senate and presidency. Formerly red states such as Arizona and Georgia have repeatedly voted for Democrats. Trump strengthened the party with rural white voters, but they were outnumbered by the educated voters in suburbs and exurbs that he drove away.
Most in the GOP would, like McCarthy, like to chart a middle course between going all-in on Trump’s cult of personality and rejecting it entirely. They want to assimilate Trump’s supporters without taking on his stain. If only Trump would play along—apologizing for his misdeeds, admitting he lost the election, headlining feel-good rallies here and there when elections come around, and generally being a team player—they could keep the voters he brought to the party and win back the ones he squandered. But they must know by now that Trump won’t let that happen. Indeed, he seems as likely as not to continue his attacks on disloyal Republicans in order to prove his continued clout. In a videotaped statement Wednesday, Trump urged his supporters to refrain from violence, but did not address the impeachment, the election or his role in last week’s events.
What happens next is unclear. McConnell announced Wednesday that he won’t immediately convene the Senate to try the impeachment case. Once President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated in a week, McConnell will no longer be the majority leader, and Democrats will be left to balance the ex-President’s case against competing priorities like confirming a new Cabinet and quickly passing the new COVID-19 relief Biden’s promised. Though McConnell has left the door open to convicting Trump, he also is a master of delay and obstruction who knows how quickly the perceived urgency of today’s hot-button issue can melt away in the face of Senate procedure.
As for the Republican Party’s long-term fate, that, too, remains to be seen. “Everyone craves a singular moment of cathartic repudiation,” the GOP pollster Patrick Ruffini said on Twitter, “but I still think the most likely scenario in the months following 1/20 is people… just forgetting.” Voters have short memories. And Trump, without Twitter or the pulpit of the presidency, may struggle to make his voice heard and become increasingly disengaged from politics. If he does want to stay in the fray, however, he can continue to make Republicans miserable by wielding his loyal army against them. The GOP may have missed its last, best chance Wednesday to finally take a united stand against Trump, and chart a different course without him.