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With Trump’s Acquittal, The Fragility Of America’s Democracy Is Even More Clear

The U.S. Senate’s vote on Saturday to acquit former President Donald Trump, following the House’s impeachment of Trump last month, played out almost exactly as expected — but it also captured the broad outlines of his four-year presidency in miniature:

  1. Trump does something anti-democratic and/or extreme that is hard to imagine any previous president doing;
  2. Republican voters stand by him, as do core party activists;
  3. With the GOP base behind Trump, Republican members of Congress don’t break with Trump, even while they carefully try to avoid defending his specific actions;
  4. A plurality or outright majority of the public align with Democratic criticism of Trump, but opinions are also split along party lines;
  5. And finally, Democrats decide against taking the most aggressive anti-Trump steps available to them and instead move on to policy issues, since most steps to restrain or punish Trump can’t happen without votes from Republican elected officials.

What happened on Jan. 6 and the days leading up to it — an American president spending weeks trying to reverse the results of a free and fair election, culminating in his supporters storming the U.S. Capitol to try to keep him in power by force — was so shocking that it seemed at least possible (if unlikely) that it would break the pattern. Could Republicans stick with Trump again? And if they did, wouldn’t Democrats try to shame GOP senators as much as possible?

But by the time we got to Feb. 13, less than six weeks after the attack on the Capitol, it was obvious that nothing had fundamentally changed. Democrats, fully aware that there weren’t nearly enough GOP votes to convict Trump, opted against calling any witnesses and, in less than a week, wrapped up Trump’s second impeachment trial, stemming from one of the most terrible incidents in recent American history. In the end, only seven of the 50 Republican senators voted to convict Trump of the charge of “incitement of insurrection,” joining all 50 Democrats. The 57 votes against Trump — versus the 43 GOP votes to acquit — fell short of the two-thirds needed per the Constitution to convict. Trump was acquitted. He can run for president again. And, at least for now, he remains an influential figure in the Republican Party and therefore American politics overall.

In some ways, it’s as though Jan. 6 never happened — Trump is a fairly unpopular, impeached, one-term president who still retains a deep base of support among Republican voters. Trump and his brand of politics may be politically damaged, but they’re not going anywhere.

How did we end up in a situation where not much has changed? Well, the big story of the weeks since Jan. 6 is simple: The GOP base stuck with Trump. Even before the attack at the Capitol, some top Republicans, most notably Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, were ready for the party to move on from Trump, viewing him as a drag on the GOP’s electoral prospects (since Trump’s election in 2016, Republicans lost the House, the Senate and the presidency, in part due to voter backlash against Trump). In an alternate reality, Jan. 6 might have both strengthened the resolve of the party to dump Trump and also ease that break, since Republican lawmakers could argue that of course they were uncomfortable with a president whose supporters invaded the Capitol.

But the party’s base, particularly core activists, was overwhelmingly opposed to Trump being convicted in the Senate or facing any kind of punishment for Jan 6. Once that became clear, Republicans in Washington started citing an argument — one rejected by many legal experts — that it is unconstitutional to convict a president who is out of office. This was a convenient rationale — it allowed Senate Republicans to avoid both angering the base and defending Trump’s conduct in the run-up to and on Jan. 6.

And with little chance of convicting Trump, Democrats basically decided to move on rather than just delaying the inevitable acquittal.

The big question is what happens next.

Trump is, of course, out of office. He is no longer an imminent, direct threat to lawmakers (a sitting president who can encourage his supporters to protest at the Capitol). Nor is he an imminent threat to American democracy (a sitting president regularly breaking with democratic norms).

But the results of this trial mean that both threats remain. Many of the people who invaded the Capitol have been arrested, and many of them are likely to serve time in jail. But it appears that none of the politicians who propagated the falsehoods about election fraud in 2020 — setting the conditions for the insurrection — will face any serious repercussions at all. That’s most notably Trump, but also figures like Sen. Josh Hawley. What’s to stop Republican officials in 2022 or 2024 from making up frivolous charges of election fraud and then watching as conservative voters take aggressive and even violent actions because they believe what prominent Republicans are saying?

Because the Senate trial did not result in conviction, Trump himself could seek another term as president, and there is every reason to think that he would accelerate his anti-democratic tendencies if he were in office again. And even if Trump himself doesn’t seek the presidency again, aspiring Republican politicians know now that the party’s base and elected officials will tolerate a lot of anti-democratic behavior. So, both Trump and Trump-style politics remain major threats to American democracy and potentially the future of the Republican Party.

What does this acquittal mean for conservative Americans not aligned with Trump? There is already a formal effort from some on the right, such as Evan McMulllin, a Republican who ran for president as an independent in 2016, to start a new conservative party that is not aligned with the current GOP. Republicans like Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger are likely to try to build anti-Trump and anti-Trumpism movements within the party.

The Democrats, already divided in some ways on ideological grounds on issues like Medicare for All, now have another big question: How do they try to defend American democracy against rising anti-democratic forces largely centered within the GOP? That debate is likely to center on to what extent Democrats should adopt more hardball tactics to try to reduce GOP power, including steps such as getting rid of the filibuster or adding justices to the Supreme Court. That debate will also have an electoral dimension, as the party must figure out whether conservative voters wary of Trump and Trumpism constitute a big enough bloc to make it worthwhile to court them, even if that means sidelining some of the policy goals of the party’s more progressive wing.

Finally, Trump’s acquittal and the tacit acceptance of his actions by much of the Republican Party presents challenges for institutions who see themselves as “nonpartisan” but hold some democratic values, most notably the media, big business and tech companies. In the wake of Jan. 6, a lot of corporations announced at least temporary halts on donating money through their political action committees to Republicans who voted against the certification of Biden’s election victory.

Can corporations continue that policy, which in effect positions them against most Republicans in Congress? Can Twitter sustain a permanent ban on Trump if he remains perhaps the most important figure in a party that represents the views of nearly half of American voters? Can other social media companies get aggressive about limiting speech that might incite violence if that also results in limiting speech from conservatives more than liberals? How does the political media try to reach people who voted for Trump but still directly and honestly cover the racist and anti-democratic behavior from Trump and some of his supporters?

The riot on Jan. 6 provided an opportunity for the Republican Party and therefore the country to begin to take an off-ramp from Trump himself and Trumpism. But Trump’s acquittal suggests that Republicans did not want to take that off-ramp — and that means the nation couldn’t either.

CORRECTION (Feb. 14, 2021, 7:36 a.m.): This article has been updated to correct Sen. Hawley’s first name.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.