When the Senate voted on Wednesday, Feb. 5 to acquit President Trump on both articles of impeachment, a resigned sigh escaped the lips of the left. While Democrats in Congress and the Senate vehemently fought to prosecute Trump’s actions, the impeachment trial’s result was unsurprising, and the Senate voted along party lines. Following the vote, both politicians and reporters set about reconciling the importance of impeachment with its anticlimactic result. In the media, this reconciliation included contextualizing the Senate’s vote to acquit Trump, and an analysis of how such a vote is not, in fact, any indication of his guilt.
Senator Sherrod Brown’s op-ed in the New York Times, entitled “In Private, Republicans Admit They Acquitted Trump Out of Fear,” argues that while many Republican members of Congress love what Trump “delivers for them” from a policy standpoint, “for the stay-in-office-at-all-cost representatives and senators, fear is the motivator.”
To a degree, this is true. Trump’s success is largely based on fear: his emotional volatility and willingness to attack those who go against his wishes is a pointed tool against dissenters. Brown rightly criticizes Republican senators’ fear “that Mr. Trump might give them a nickname… or that he might tweet about their disloyalty. Or—worst of all—that he might come to their state to campaign against them in the Republican primary.”
However, it’s ineffective and misleading to view Republican Senators’ votes as unequivocally forced by Trump’s cavalier, unorthodox and outspoken attitude. Brown’s argument robs career politicians of agency and responsibility, distracting from the fact that Trump’s administration has furthered their political interests.
President Trump’s irreverence towards the professionalism that normally underlies American politics is not only disruptive but effective, as it is supported by a large and passionate voter base that feels he speaks for a population that has long gone unheard and unrecognized. But to view his presidency—and acquittal—as an extension of his aggressive 2016 campaign, in which he emerged as a front-runner by out-quipping incumbent Republicans like Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, is a dangerous oversimplification.
Writing off Trump as a simple-minded, Twitter-happy, red-faced, and uncouth anomaly is misguided; doing so fails to appreciate the success he’s had the past three years wooing the Republican party, showcasing his ability to be a forceful policymaker and rhetorical opportunist. Such simplifications then lead to the kind of generalization that Sherrod Brown makes: that Republican senators are scared, spineless politicians who lack the ability to think or speak for themselves.
It’s obviously reductive to boil down these dynamics so discretely; years of resentment and moving political currents can’t be encapsulated by an ad hominem argument. While we shouldn’t ignore Trump’s ignorance and bigotry, recognizing and condemning it must come about within the context of a more complicated narrative: a narrative that cannot be captured in a sound bite. The now stale, yet still often used, message that encourages voters to disregard Trump because he’s a misogynistic and inarticulate billionaire who doesn’t pay his taxes fails to address the gravity of his administration. We need to also focus on his shallow convictions and selfish motivations. For example, worsening inequality exacerbated by tax cuts for the rich and stagnant middle-class wages fundamentally contradicts his self-proclaimed role as a champion of the working class. It’s time to do away with a narrative that disregards him as a fluke, and begin to construct one that more accurately depicts the stark reality at hand.
Generalizations and blanket statements have always been, and will always be, a tool used by politicians to efficiently box in their opponents. To effectively illuminate the complete dangers of a Trump presidency is to go beyond his Twitter feed, and expose him as an opportunist with no real principles, as someone who is to fight for himself and those like him.
Lucas White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.