By Robert A. Vella
Before the 2016 presidential election, both the Democratic and Republican parties faced internal civil wars pitting populist insurgents against the post-World War II centrist establishment which blended neoconservative foreign policy with neoliberal economic policy. It was a microcosm of what was happening across the world particularly in western democracies. Globalization was making the rich much richer, but it was ruining the livelihoods of many ordinary working class people. As this wealth gap increased and eroded the prevailing middle class, the resulting societal angst triggered animosity towards both the ruling elites and towards the ethnically diverse peoples who were migrating between nations. The influx of immigrants incidentally diluted the cultural identity of host populations which in turn spurred rising nationalist and xenophobic sentiments. The political stage had been set for a populist backlash.
In that presidential election, Democrats chose an establishment candidate (Hillary Clinton) while Republicans chose a presumed populist candidate (Donald Trump, in reality a faux-populist). Had the mood of the country not been so polarized, Clinton would have won in a landslide. But, America was so polarized. Trump won a narrow electoral victory which profoundly affected both political parties. The liberal and progressive base of the Democratic Party blamed the defeat on centrists forcing a shift leftwards, and Trump’s success precipitated an even more radical shift rightwards for the Republican Party. The effect on the GOP was so profound that it solidified Trump’s supremacy and forced Republican politicians and officials to either submit or resign. The GOP had become the Party of Trump, and everyone in America knew it.
The Republican capitulation to Trump may have been an unavoidable practical decision, but it was also egregiously shortsighted. By putting all their eggs in one basket, the GOP’s fate would rest in the hands of a single leader – a man who could inspire and rally its angry base, yet a man who was personally flawed in just about every conceivable way. In selling their soul to the devil they intimately knew beforehand, Republicans risked sacrificing a viable future for their party in exchange for packing the federal courts with conservative judges and some fiscally irresponsible tax cuts. It was a bet only a compulsive gambler would make.
From the very first week of Trump’s presidency, Republicans were having second thoughts. When Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was caught lying to federal investigators about his Russian contacts, he was forced to resign after less than a month on the job. The next month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation. Two months after that, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey for his refusal to halt the Russia investigation and Special Counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to lead it. In the span of four months, the road ahead for the Trump presidency had been paved over a swamp of corruption which could not support it. The initial potholes grew larger, new ones emerged, and washouts eroded away whole sections. Republican congressional members became politically stranded and many subsequently resigned.
When suburban voters – especially women – deserted the GOP in the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans found themselves between a rock and a hard place. Having lost their electoral margin, they could appease their base by sticking with a president who was likely to fall, or they could cut their losses by abandoning Trump with the intent of reforming the party after his fall. In either case, GOP prospects for keeping control of the White House and U.S. Senate in the 2020 elections would seem bleak. If they can’t win with their base, and they can’t win without their base, then what can they do?
Because the GOP has lost control of the U.S. House of Representatives, it will be Republicans in the U.S. Senate who’ll be forced to answer that question. In 2020, a presidential election year where voter turnout is typically highest, they’ll be defending almost twice as many incumbent seats as Democrats and more than twice as many seats which appear particularly vulnerable at this point in time (see: 2020 United States Senate elections). GOP senators will not only be concerned about their individual reelection prospects over the next two years, they will also be concerned about their party’s chances for holding the White House at a time when its political brand has been so tarnished by Trump’s scandals (see: Sen. Susan Collins on GOP primary in 2020: ‘I see nothing wrong with challengers’ and America’s Electoral Map Is Changing). Added to those worries is the increasing possibility that President Trump will be impeached by the House which would require the Senate to decide whether to remove him from office. It’s safe to assume that no Republican in the Senate wants to see that vote take place.
So, what will they do? If what happened during the Watergate scandal – which forced President Nixon to resign – provides any indicator for the current situation, and I believe it does, then the key factor will be how the public perceives the credibility of the charges against Trump. Nixon’s fate was sealed when his secret tapes were revealed which exposed his complicity in the criminal break-in of Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters, the attempts to cover it up, and the attempts to obstruct the federal investigations into it. Trump’s fate is more complicated. His legal vulnerability involves not just one incident, but at least 17 different investigations including: 1) collusion with Russia to manipulate the 2016 election, 2) conspiring with his then-personal lawyer Michael Cohen and American Media Inc. CEO David Pecker to influence the 2016 election by breaching campaign finance laws, 3) working on behalf of foreign interests to illegally affect U.S. politics and policies, 4) violating the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution which prohibits public officials from using their office to personally enrich themselves, 5) tax evasion and other financial crimes by the Trump Organization and Trump Foundation, and 6) quid pro quo (i.e. pay to play) conflicts of interest involving the misuse of presidential inaugurations funds.
Any of these are criminally indictable and meet the impeachment standard of High Crimes and Misdemeanors. Taken together, they represent a danger to the Trump presidency which far exceeds that faced by Nixon. In other words, Trump may be able to clear some of these legal hurdles but he’s unlikely to clear all of them. Somewhere along the line, evidence of guilt will emerge which will be difficult for the public or for GOP senators to deny; and, we got a taste of that evidence recently when Michael Cohen’s prison sentence was announced naming Donald Trump (i.e. “Individual-1”) as an unindicted co-conspirator. At that moment, the crisis will come to a head.
The sheer depth and extent of Trump’s political corruption cannot be ignored by America’s governmental system because it poses a direct and existential threat to it. It will respond whether through the prosecutorial process, the impeachment process, or through a backroom deal that ends this national nightmare in exchange for legal immunity. We’ll see which in 2019.