February 6, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Acquittal Affirms Trump’s Illegitimacy
If the American people didn't know, now they know.
The United States Senate acquitted the president Wednesday of a couple of House indictments alleging that Donald Trump abused the power of his office for personal political gain and that he obstructed the constitutional authority of the US Congress.
Today, the president is celebrating, even brandishing this morning’s edition of USA Today, in which the banner headline is “Acquitted.” His press secretary accused the Democrats of treating her boss “horribly” and “maybe people should pay for that.”
Valuable information in an election year.
The president will have his revenge. That much we can count on. But revenge, when it comes, should be seen as more evidence demonstrating his illegitimacy. And the more he seeks vengeance, the more protective the Republicans will be. The pattern will be like all the others illustrating the party’s abandonment of democracy and republican principles. That’s valuable information for a citizenry heading into an election year.
Here’s the thing about yesterday’s acquittal. The vote for “not guilty” of abuse of power was totally partisan—52 Republicans. The vote for “guilty” of the same charge was bipartisan—45 Democrats, two independents and one Republican (Mitt Romney). Moreover, some “moderate” Republicans who voted “not guilty” (Susan Collins) have said Trump was actually guilty. He committed the alleged crimes. They just won’t hold him to account. Put this together and you have a picture of acquittal in name only.
The appearance of acquittal rather than the substance of exoneration is all this president needs. Obviously, it’s all he ever wanted. That the Senate trial was rigged from start to finish—no new witnesses, no new subpoenas, no new evidence—is not something he’ll lose sleep over. He will pretend he’s a victim. His followers will feel his “pain.” Together, they will call for fake justice for fake crimes against a fake president.
Here’s the other thing. The senators who voted for the president’s conviction represent more American voters than do the senators who voted to clear him of wrongdoing. According to Ari Berman, an authority of voting rights, “48 Senators who voted to convict Trump represent 18 million more Americans than 52 Republicans who voted to acquit.” There’s more here than a picture of acquittal in name only. Representatives of the country’s majority said Trump is guilty. The minority said no, and it prevailed.
What we are seeing is a clear emergence of minority rule.
At the same time, the Republicans surrendered much of the Senate’s authority with respect to the three branches of the federal government. As I wrote on January 22, deciding against due process was in essence deciding against the Senate’s power to check and balance the power of the executive. The Republican majority did that by turning “the world’s most deliberative body in the world’s fastest kangaroo court.”
They neutered themselves. Quin Hillyer put it much more artfully. A truly conservative columnist for the Washington Examiner, he said: “So the Senate Republicans, except for Romney, have made themselves constitutional eunuchs, forfeiting their powers vis-à-vis the executive branch—and countenancing an unchecked, imperial presidency.” He added: “They, and all of us, will rue the day they did so. How sad, and how shameful.”
Constitutional eunuchs! Sounds right to me! Now apply that to democratic theory.
In a republican democracy (or, if you wish, a democratic republic), the people are the sovereign. Not a king. Not an autocrat. The people are the government. The government is the people. A president’s authority is, therefore, derived from the people. He or she gets it by asking for it. If a majority of the people consent, a president’s authority is legitimate. If a majority does not consent, a president’s authority is illegitimate.
Normally we don’t get that far. If the majority of the people do not consent, then said president never becomes president in the first place. But in 2016, a majority of the American people did not consent to Donald Trump’s rule, and yet he was forced on us anyway. He moreover cheated—twice—once in 2016 and again in 2019. And now we have in the US Senate representatives of a minority of the American people saying, yeah, he’s guilty but we’re not going to stop him. Three cheers for minority rule!
My gut tells me most people most of the time didn’t know Trump was illegitimate. But with his acquittal via a sham trial, many more Americans will learn the truth. That lesson, moreover, will be deepened, I suspect, the moment Trump has his revenge.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.