If there was ever a lose-lose proposition in American politics, it was the second impeachment of Donald Trump. It had to happen and it had to fail. It had to happen because the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol demanded nothing less than the most severe penalty Congress could impose on the first act of treason ever committed by an American president, an attempted coup against Congress itself. It was bound to fail because Congress is more deeply divided and more profoundly dysfunctional than any other institution of our government.
The Founding Fathers did not want a two-party system of government. For them, “party” meant faction, as it had long meant in English politics. The Fathers had enough to deal with in bringing the 13 states into an effective union and reconciling the divergent interests they represented: borders and expansion; individual constitutions; commerce; slavery. They nonetheless formed parties, and almost immediately.
Whether in two-party or multiparty form, modern liberal governments have not found a way of conducting their business without parties, or another way of avoiding dictatorship. The systemic problem at the moment for us is that the two-party system in America, such as it was, has broken down. There is only one party in America now, in the sense of a political grouping minimally responsible for the tasks of government. It was the party that assumed majority control of both houses of Congress only on Jan. 5, and whose members — Democratic and Republican alike — had to flee for their lives on the very next day in the face of an armed mob, not “incited” but in good part organized, funded, summoned and finally set upon the Capitol building in session for the purpose of annulling a presidential election and, with further intimidation and revolt, setting a despot on his throne.
The House of Representatives did the only thing it constitutionally could in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection. It had no power to arrest President Trump. It had no power to effectively secure its own premises, the president also being Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. It impeached Trump and sent the impeachment to the Senate for action. The Senate, having gone into recess under the now-minority leader, Mitch McConnell, had gone out of session, and McConnell refused to recall it for the next 14 days, or even to have the bill of impeachment walked the short distance between the two chambers of Congress to be received by a functionary.
After Joe Biden was at last inaugurated behind protective barriers, McConnell then received the bill only to declare it to be invalid because Trump was now a private citizen beyond the Senate’s judicial reach. 43 of the Senate’s 50 Republican members concurred with this, and Donald Trump escaped any penalty from those whose lives he had put at risk of assassination. The entirety of the Democratic caucus of both houses voted to impeach Trump and to ban him from ever seeking office again. It was an incredibly inadequate response to a man who had attempted to overthrow the government, but it was the best it could do. Clearly, that is no longer good enough.
Years ago, I watched on closed-circuit television in Athens the trial of the dictators who had seized power in Greece by military insurrection eight years before, and I reported on it in The Miami Herald. The dictators were sentenced to life imprisonment, and they died in prison. There was no dispute, then or after, about their punishment. Democracy returned to Greece, the place where it was born.
Donald Trump is simply at liberty and on the loose. He lives in elegance and at ease. He is still the leader of a mob. Joe Biden had to defend not offering him intelligence briefings on national security matters, which he could no doubt have sold for a tidy sum. Biden is still seeking bipartisan support for his legislative and general policy agenda. A month has passed, and his $1.9 trillion bill for economic relief and COVID-19 vaccination languishes while he seeks even token Republican support. There is not the slightest indication he will get it, nor does he need it for the bill to pass. Meanwhile, tens of millions of Americans face hunger, privation and eviction, as well as potential death from the disease that has already claimed nearly half a million lives.
It’s not that Biden doesn’t, or shouldn’t, understand the futility of seeking support beyond his own party. As Barack Obama’s vice president, he spent the year 2009 courting Republican votes for the Affordable Care Act. He offered concession after concession, watering down a bill lame enough to begin with. He got not a single vote for his trouble. But the Republican Party is no longer simply a party of obstruction, as it has long been whenever out of power. It is no longer even the party of Richard Nixon, who resigned in disgrace, or George W. Bush, who lied us into war. It is the party that nominated a man for president it knew could never comprehend, let alone discharge his oath of office, and that has now failed to repudiate him as a traitor to his country. Part cabal, part cult and devoid of principle, it is not a political party at all.
It is true that, at the state and local level, there are still some people of integrity who call themselves Republicans, without whom we might not have emerged this year with a duly elected president. There are a few on the gubernatorial level, and even a small minority in Congress. It is not enough to make a party.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt came to office as president in 1933, faced with a crisis that threatened the Republic, he found a Republican Party resolutely set against him and a conservative Supreme Court ready to back those who opposed and even hated him. He told the Republicans he welcomed their hatred, and he brought the Court to heel by threatening to pack it. The result was the passage of the New Deal, and 20 years of Democratic hegemony. It was not a bad run. Joe Biden might think about emulating this, and if it takes twenty years for a new conservative party to emerge in the United States, or shall I say an actual one, I am prepared to wait. Only please, Joe, stop dithering with a gang that could not disavow a traitor, and that sold its soul long ago to casino capitalism, white supremacy and the worst figure ever to emerge on the stage of a mature democratic nation.