The second impeachment trial for former President Donald J. Trump begins on Monday. Democrats hope to prove that Trump was responsible for the insurrection that left five dead at the January 6th storming of the Capitol Building. Republicans will argue that Trump committed no impeachable offense and claim the trial is merely vindictive against Trump. Almost regardless of how the final senate vote goes, however, the dysfunction in Washington – and the divide among politically-charged Americans around the country – is certain to get worse.
The riot at the Capitol was a disaster in its own right. Not only did five people lose their lives, including a Capitol Hill police officer, but as happens so often in such cases, officials are threatening to overreact and put up permanent security fencing around the building similar to the White House, further alienating the people from their representatives. However undesirable and unnecessary such measures may be, however, they are nothing compared to the harm done to the country’s social fabric that the riot and subsequent impeachment trial are likely to be.
My Time on Capitol Hill..and with Joe Biden
Though there has always been animosity between the two political parties, throughout most of our post-Civil War period we have mostly managed to conduct affairs of state to keep the country working. That began to take a sharp downward turn, however, during the Clinton Administration. I was working in Washington for the first time as a legislative correspondent for Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R, TX) in 1998 when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke.
At that time, Republicans and Democrats had differing views on several issues that provided frequent bouts of disagreements, but they were able to conduct the people’s business with relative effectiveness. I specifically recall early 1998 when Sen. Hutchison was debating then-Sen. Joe Biden on the merits of NATO expansion. My boss was against the move. Biden was for it.
As a junior staffer, I rarely got to attend to Sen. Hutchison during a debate on the Senate floor. Since I had already seen combat action by then and had lived for years in Europe, however, she invited me to accompany her. At one point as Sen. Hutchison stood up to move to the speaker’s podium, Biden sat down next to his staffer, about 10 feet from me.
He looked over at me, smiled broadly, and asked me how I was doing! I was surprised that he would even acknowledge me, a mere staffer – and of the ‘enemy’ at that. But as I discovered, no one was surprised that a Senator of the opposite party would be cordial. That was routine then. But as a product of the Lewinsky affair and subsequent impeachment trial, however, things changed dramatically.
A Change in Tone
The Republicans turned sharply hostile towards the president and his party. The Drudge Report, which broke the news in the first place, exploded in popularity right about the time Fox News emerged as a leading voice for conservatives. CNN led the charge for liberals, and both sides gave increasing space to friendly voices, which became increasingly hostile. The divide only got bigger from there.
Many Democrats seethed in anger that the Republican House impeached Clinton and demonized him in the process. Their numbers in the Senate ensured the president would not be removed from office, but the damage had been done. When Republican George Bush was narrowly elected over Al Gore in the controversial 2000 election, it was the Democrats’ turn to hate on the GOP president. Republican and Democratic members of each chamber followed the party line and increased their vitriol against the other side.
When Obama replaced Bush, GOP leaders openly stated that for them, the “single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” The Party made good on its pledge to work against Obama and the obstruction never abated. Many in the Democratic Party were incensed at the resistance and often gave voice to their frustration in the media. When their standard-bearer Hillary Clinton was shockingly defeated by Trump in 2016, many of them refused to accept his victory as legitimate, and thousands of Democrats repeated the mantra that “Trump is not my president.”
Here Comes Trump
Just like the GOP before them, Democrats were at Trump’s throat from the beginning, resisting virtually everything he did or policy he advocated. Many in the Democratic Party were actively pursuing the impeachment of Trump before he’d even been in office a year. When the House actually did impeach Trump in 2019, battle lines were sharply drawn.
Neither side allowed for a middle ground: either you were all-in for Trump or totally against him. Nuance wasn’t allowed. Being against one policy but working together on areas of mutual interest became impossible (in either direction). Now that Biden is president and Trump is about to face the Senate trial on his second impeachment, the proverbial knives are out.
Democrats are adamant that Trump be held to account for what they argue was his role in inspiring the insurrection at the Capitol. Republicans angrily argue that the trial is unconstitutional because Trump is no longer in office and thus this a “sham trial” and frivolous. Republicans all but assured that the Senate won’t convict Trump in the February 9th trial when 45 Republican senators voted to stop the trial on constitutional grounds. 17 Republicans would have to join all 50 Democrats to convict.
A Fractured America
Where does that leave the country, then, following the expected acquittal next week? As hard as it may be to believe, in a worse place.
Already the GOP has shown its strategy by accusing Biden of reneging on his promise to seek unity while resisting almost every effort at outreach he has made. Democrats are already encouraging Biden to forget about even trying to be inclusive of the Republicans and just move forward on an exclusively partisan basis.
After the acquittal’s aftermath, Biden will come under increasing pressure from his supporters to completely abandon attempts at finding bipartisan solutions. The Republicans are almost sure to further fan the flames of their aggrieved bases by accusing the Democratic Party of being unamerican, of trying to make America a socialist country, and will demonize their liberal colleagues.
And America will become an increasingly divided nation.
Trump’s Second Impeachment: The Aftermath
The hard-core liberals of the Democratic Party will pull harder to the left. The far right-wing of the Republican Party will pull further to the right, making it increasingly difficult for any elected representative of their party to make the slightest cooperative move with the opposition. Gridlock in Washington will no longer be a frequent occurrence but will become the routine. But worst of all, the threat of violent actors on both sides taking matters into their own hands will grow, not decline.
It is a virtual certainty that this trial will worsen the political environment in America. Leaders in both parties are going to have to find a way to demonstrate, with firm, bold action, that neither Republicans nor Democrats are “enemies” to be defeated (or feared), but fellow Americans with differing visions on what’s best for Americans. We will either find a way to at least dial back the vitriol – and quickly – or we may discover to our peril that the violent events of January 6th become more frequent.
Daniel L. Davis is a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times and the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” The views shared in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent any group. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.