An Impeachment Trial Is Less About Trump and More About White Supremacy

The Republicans worry that they cannot win without Trump’s base, but they may not be able to win with it.

Historian Kathleen Frydl argues in The American Prospect that “whiteness” has been the one constant in American politics: “Since the country’s founding, one organized political faction has been dedicated to preserving institutionalized racism, whether slavery or its successors.”

Of course, the whiteness faction hasn’t organized itself strictly within party lines, nor has it ever had complete control of either of the two major parties. The closest we’ve come to that is the pre-1960’s Southern Democrats and today’s Republican Party, both of which are strongly identified with the supremacy of whites and white culture.

As Frydl surveys the near-future of the GOP, she hears echoes of the cleavage of the Whig Party, which broke into pro and anti-slavery factions in the mid 19thCentury before collapsing and giving way to the Party of Lincoln.

This is not a strategy for victory for today’s Republican Party which has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. Its diminished strength in the Sun Belt, particularly Georgia, Arizona, and Texas, is now threatening to remove what’s left of its Electoral College advantage. This lack of presidential viability will present its own problems, but it’s really driven by something much more fundamental–what Frydl sees as not only a white agenda but also “falsehoods” and “baseless conspiracy theories.” She puts it this way: “They cannot win national office without endorsing fabulist conspiracies, and they cannot win national office if they do.” Molly Ball of The Atlantic frames the question in a similar vein: “[Donald] Trump may be done with Washington, but Washington—and particularly his adopted party—is not done with him…”

Republicans can’t put off the question of how to deal with the Florida retiree. Trump will go to trial in the U.S. Senate for incitement of insurrection, stemming from his refusal to concede the election results and attempts to prevent Congress from counting the Electoral College votes on January 6th. If Trump is found guilty, a second vote to prevent him from ever enjoying another “position of honor, trust or profit” would preclude him from making a future run for the presidency.

Many Republican senators, all of whom will be jurors, are saying that the party cannot convict Trump and survive. They are particularly worried that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will vote to find Trump guilty.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is explicit on this point, arguing earlier this week that “any Republican-leader type who embraces [conviction] is doing a lot of damage to the party,” and “for the party to move forward, we got to move the party with Donald Trump. There’s no way to be a successful Republican Party without having President Trump working with all of us and all of us working with him. That’s just a fact.”

Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin went further, saying “No. No. No.” when asked if he could still support McConnell as caucus leader if he rules against Trump.

Alabama Freshman Sen. Tommy Tuberville, the former head football coach at Auburn University, says a conviction “wouldn’t be good” because “the whole thing is about a team, and if you start separating the team, then it just tears it up.”

These arguments have literally nothing to do with Trump’s guilt, innocence, or suitability for future office. They are solely dedicated to politics, specifically to the impossibility of the Republican Party being a contender for power if they don’t retain the lion’s share of Trump’s loyal base.

Yet, Trump’s base is virtually synonymous with what Frydl calls the perennial organized faction in American politics that has always “been dedicated to preserving institutionalized racism.” A decision to convict Trump and prevent him from ever running again is therefore not just a vote about one man but the future of the party. In this case, Trump is the bathwater you want to throw out, but the whiteness faction is the baby you want to keep.

When Frydl says the Republicans “cannot win national office without endorsing fabulist conspiracies, and they cannot win national office if they do,” this isn’t because QAnon is an irreplaceable constituency but because straightforward, honest racism isn’t politically palatable and must be channeled and disguised. Presently, the whiteness faction is disguised as a Trump cult of personality and what Graham, Johnson, and Tuberville are essentially arguing is that Trump’s hold on that faction is real and unchangeable. If they throw out Trump, they’ll throw the party’s only avenue to power out in the bargain.

Perhaps this is true, but white supremacy has more staying power than a de-platformed ex-president. It may find a more comfortable home than the Republican Party, but it won’t disappear.

McConnell speaks for a different faction. This faction sees Trump less as the representative of a core constituency than an embarrassment and an aberration. Whatever the party’s current problems and future vulnerabilities, it can’t move forward until it is rid of him. The January 6 attack on the Capitol was the final straw, and the institutions of government need to be protected against populist assault. This doesn’t mean that this faction is politically stupid. They, too, are weighing the costs of convicting Trump and wondering if their careers can survive the backlash that would inevitably come.

Yet, they’re also balancing Frydl’s observation that Trumpian “ideas are deeply repellent to the independent and suburban voters Republicans need in order to win many elections.”

In the end, very few Republican senators will base their impeachment vote on Trump’s guilt or innocence, but rather on their assessment of the best way to regain power.

However the senators vote on Trump’s impeachment, their verdict will divide the party from key constituencies it needs to win. Either way, the party will be more divided after Trump’s second impeachment than before it.

Both guilty and innocent verdicts will invite strong third party challenges in the next election, especially if reports about Trump forming some kind of Patriot Party prove true. But the real driver of this crackup is probably not personality-driven. It could be that for the first time in American history, white supremacy is no longer an organizing principle that can bring victory.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com