Politics & Policy

Rand Paul Misreads the Politics of Trump’s Senate Trial

Sen. Rand Paul (Chris Keane/Reuters)
Convicting the president and barring him from future office is the clearest way forward for the GOP.

Rand Paul would like you to know that while he “didn’t agree with the [Capitol] fight that happened” January 6, he doesn’t believe that President Trump — whose batty two-month crusade to convince his supporters the election was stolen served as the proximate cause of the “fight” — should be disqualified from holding office again in the future.

Language tends to be intemperate these days, but “I didn’t agree with the fight” errs in the opposite direction: It’s far too tame a response to the sickening display of January 6. This was no ordinary “fight.” It was an attempt to violently disrupt the counting of electoral votes, and hence the peaceful transfer of power to the next duly elected administration. It stunned America and shamed us before the world. It made us look like a banana republic. It resulted in several deaths and might have led to a physical attack on, or even the murder of, the vice president as he was conducting the most important business of his term. Trump’s actions may not have met the legal definition of incitement, but he tossed a match on kindling he had carefully placed and thoroughly soaked with kerosene. As Dan McLaughlin has written, Trump must face consequences “sufficiently spectacular to deter any repetition so long as our national memory endures.” But if Senator Paul has his way, apparently, Trump will suffer no consequences whatsoever and reenter private life as the heavy favorite to be the next Republican presidential nominee.

This is madness.

Abraham Lincoln’s party was fine without Trump for 150 years and it will long survive him. The parties being largely ruled from the ground up, it’s not feasible to eject Trump from a GOP he seized control of in 2015 and has since disgraced, but it is possible for 17 Republican senators to convict and disqualify him from holding any future high office in the United States. This is the right thing to do and it’s also the prudent thing to do, for the sake of the party as well as the country. The GOP cannot afford to spend the next four years trying to explain away Trump’s indefensible actions. It has to move on, and there is only one way to do that.

Paul foresees a colossal schism in the party should Trump be convicted and barred from future office-holding, warning that one-third of the party will walk away from the GOP in that scenario. He’s wrong: One of the curses (but also, sometimes, one of the blessings) of our culture is our notoriously short collective memory. Should Trump be disqualified this winter, the discussion will quickly move on to other topics. Who should be the new party’s standard-bearer? Don Jr.? I very much doubt it. It’s unclear that even Trump Sr. would be enthusiastic about that, having repeatedly ridiculed his younger namesake as, among many other things, “not the sharpest knife in the drawer.” For five years we’ve seen various other Republican politicians attempt to ape Trump’s combination of posturing and populism, and it never works. Senator Josh Hawley has spent two years reverse-mortgaging his reputation in an attempt to extract equity out of the Trump bank, and it has gotten him nowhere. A Politico/Morning Consult poll taken in November put him at 1 percent in the polls, and that was before his shameful performance on January 6. Though some of Trump’s ideas about trade and immigration may continue to have sway in some parts of the party, Trumpism as a whole is too closely tied up with one man to be handed off to a new leader. It would die with Trump’s political career, and the party would move on.

A disqualified Trump would, of course, rain hellfire on the senators who disqualified him, as well as any other perceived backstabbers. But four years from now, when ten Republican senators face reelection, Trump’s rage will be background noise at worst. Six years from now, when Ben Sasse, Mitch McConnell, Susan Collins, and 17 of their Republican colleagues face the voters, it won’t be any noise at all. Trump himself has a short attention span and a fear of being boring; even he won’t be able to keep up the insults for four years, much less six, on whatever cable-news perch from which he chooses to harangue the nation. It is true that Trump is the only thing that consistently fascinates Trump. But America does not love a sore loser, and his victim act will begin to go stale by the next time voters go to the polls. Gradually, even many of his most ardent supporters will begin to realize the man is embarrassing.

Among those who persist in believing the fantasy that Trump was robbed and that any lawmakers who voted against him are sworn enemies, how will this play out at the ballot box? It won’t, because voting will remain a binary choice. Trump, being disqualified, won’t be able to run as a third-party candidate and divide the party. The primary motivating force for voters will continue to be, as it has been for years, visceral dislike for one party’s style and policies. Joe Biden has signaled in many ways that, far from being a unifying president, he will consider it a core duty to focus on punishing and antagonizing Trump supporters via appointments and policies specifically designed to irritate them. Biden has watched Trump play the role of Troll-in-Chief for the last four years and decided he wants in on the action. Kamala Harris, should she become president, would be even more despised by both conventional Republicans and Trumpists.

So never fear, Senator Paul: Post-Trump, Republicans will close ranks quickly. The main thing the American Right stands for is hating what Democrats do, and Democrats are preparing to embark on a presidency full of policies that are easy to hate.


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