December 19, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
For Supporters, Impeachment Dispels Donald Trump’s Image of Invincibility
The Democrats cut him, and now he's bleeding.
The president has been indicted for abusing his powers and for obstructing Congress. News from Washington this morning is that Donald Trump is seething about the stain of impeachment on his presidential legacy. That’s a very, very polite way of putting it.
The truth is less courteous. The truth, I think, is that the president has been cut in ways he’s never been cut. No matter how bad he has behaved, no matter how weak he has appeared, the president has been able to act like nothing can touch him. This ability has led even the most cynical reporter to believe he’s encased in Teflon, as if he really could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and none of his supporters would balk.
A mountain is about fall on top of Mitch McConnell.
But those supporters yesterday saw something new. They saw the president being held accountable for his constitutional crimes. They saw the president’s defenders in the House try desperately to stop it, but fail. It wasn’t the first time House Speaker Nancy Pelosi handed his ass to him. She has done that repeatedly. But it was probably the first time the president’s supporters were closely paying attention when she did it.
Sure, they hate her. They always hated her. That’s nothing new. What is new, however, is the president’s weakness. The Democrats cut Donald Trump, and now he’s bleeding.
The thing about authoritarian-minded Americans is that authority is the thing. Their authority. What Trump does and says—the substance of his conduct—doesn’t matter. He looks strong. He acts strong. He campaigned on that perception of strength. Trump punches down, sure. That’s cowardly, yes. That’s beside the point. To the authoritarian mind, appearing strong is strength. And if Trump appears strong, they are strong. If he appears weak, they are weak. Such is the bond between cult followers and cult leaders.
The news out of Washington this morning is that the president is seething about the stain of impeachment on his presidential legacy. Ha! Donald Trump is a nihilist. There is no tomorrow! “Legacy” means nothing to someone with zero sense of shame. What makes Trump seethe isn’t damage to his historical reputation. What makes him seethe is what makes all con men seethe. Once the spell is broken, there’s no going back. Trump’s spell has been looking invincible. But now he’s cut, and he’s losing blood.
He won’t die, of course. He could be reelected! Trump’s ego won’t stand for it, though. The president must stop the bleeding. His allies say impeachment is a distraction from carrying on with the people’s business. Impeachment, however, will be the president’s singular obsession from now on. He must prove he’s still invincible. He’ll need help.
That’s where the Senate comes in. Only acquittal will stop Trump’s bleeding. Acquittal means the Congress was wrong. It means the president isn’t weak. It means his supporter aren’t weak. Authoritarians always sound like they are rugged individualists. They always sound like they don’t need approval from anyone. But authoritarians like Donald Trump and the 34 percent of Americans constituting his hard base of power desire approval above all. House Democrats cut. Only Senate Republicans can heal. A mountain is about fall on top of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s head.
Nancy Pelosi has the leverage. McConnell doesn’t.
I don’t think he knows it yet. McConnell said this morning that Pelosi was playing games. She did not immediately send two articles of impeachment to the Senate. She said she wouldn’t do that until she got assurances that the Senate would conduct a fair and constitutional trial. She said she won’t remit when the foreman of the Senate jury (McConnell) has said he’s already made up his mind. McConnell, for his part, said her refusal to remit is proof that the House impeachment process was “shoddy work.”
She has the leverage. He doesn’t. I know it looks like the reverse. It looks like Pelosi is saving the Senate Republicans from taking the worst vote of their lives. It looks like Pelosi is playing “constitutional hardball” without any tangible objective. But McConnell will want to acquit more than she wants to remit. The mountain won’t fall on her. The president’s desire for exoneration to recast his invincibility spell before a chunk of supporters stop paying attention is only starting to mount. The longer Pelosi waits to send the articles, the more likely McConnell is to give in her to demands.
Authoritarians always sound like they don’t play by anyone’s rule. But rules are how they get what they want. They get what they want when their opponents obey the rules while they cheat. Pelosi, in not sending the articles right away, is playing by her own rules now. She’s therefore pinned McConnell between the House and the president.
The longer McConnell dithers, the more the president bleeds.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.