(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Senate trial of President Donald Trump is proving less Soviet than expected. Representative Adam Schiff of California, the House impeachment manager, last week presented a coherent, damning and often eloquent narrative of Trump’s guilt, backed by text messages, emails, letters and sworn witness testimony previously delivered to the House.
As my colleague Jonathan Bernstein points out, the weight of such facts can alter political gravity. Even Republicans who have made up their minds to acquit — which almost certainly describes the entire GOP caucus — have had to sit through the avalanche of evidence. Surely it weighs on at least a few consciences. Meanwhile, writes New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, ignoring the facts carries risks of its own: “The impeachment trial is an exercise in displaying the Republican Party’s institutional culpability in Trump’s contempt for the rule of law. At some point, they will have to decide to damn the president or to damn themselves.”
It’s a foregone conclusion: Republican senators will damn themselves to infinity and beyond. The question isn’t what Republican senators will decide next week, but where the Republican Party will go after Trump’s acquittal. That answer, too, is alarmingly clear: further downward. From 1994 to 2015, give or take, the party was tumbling down a slippery slope. Since 2016, Republicans have been falling at 32 feet per second squared.
Acquitting Trump is not the same as shrugging at the president’s venality and vindictiveness, or mumbling and walking away when a reporter asks whether you believe it’s OK to solicit foreign sabotage of a U.S. election. Acquitting Trump is a bold, affirmative act.
The acquittal will mark the senators as political made men. It will be their induction into Trump’s gangster ethos, using constitutional powers to enable corruption. For those who have hovered on the periphery of Trump’s political gangland, there is no route back to innocence.
Many long ago crossed that Rubicon, proclaiming their fealty to “the chosen one.” But acquittal will transform even the most reticent Republicans into conspirators against democracy and rule of law.
It will not be long before they are called upon to defend the indefensible again. And they will do it, acquiescing to the next figurative or literal crime just as they did to Trump’s videotaped boast of sexual assaults, his horrifying sellouts to Russian President Vladimir Putin, his personal use of charitable contributions intended for veterans, his brutality toward children, or his quotidian blitzes against decency and democracy.
Schiff’s repeated use of the word “cheat” to describe Trump’s posture toward U.S. elections was less an accounting of past performance than a guarantee of future results. “No one is really making the argument, ‘Donald Trump would never do such a thing,’ because of course we know that he would, and of course we know that he did,” Schiff told the Senate last week. “He’ll do it now. He’s done it before. He’ll do it for the next several months. He’ll do it in the election if he’s allowed to.”
Whether the game is golf or politics or business, Trump cheats. On trial for seeking foreign interference in the 2020 election, after having been the beneficiary of foreign interference in the 2016 election, Trump will find many willing accomplices before November. His presidency is a strategic boon to multiple U.S. adversaries, most prominently Putin. Another modest investment in Trump’s presidency could yield an even larger return — destroying, for a generation or more, American democracy not only as a vehicle of ethical government but also as a protector (aspirationally if not always actually) of human dignity.
This is not cynicism. It’s the reality of U.S. politics in 2020. Acquitting Trump will destroy what’s left of the Republican Party’s claims to ethical legitimacy and pave the way for the further erosion of democracy. The only question that remains is how much more corruption the non-MAGA majority of Americans is willing to take.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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