A digital billboard of Donald Trump outside the Capitol last week. Doug Mills/The New York Times
Public opinion isn’t political power
Purely as a matter of political self-interest, congressional Republicans had some good reasons to abandon Donald Trump as the de facto leader of their party.
Trump is unpopular with most Americans, and he has been for his entire political career. He was able to win the presidency in 2016 only with help from some unusual factors — including an unpopular opponent, intervention from both Russia and the F.B.I. director and razor-thin wins in three swing states.
That would have been true even before Trump’s reaction to his defeat. He became the first president in U.S. history to try to overturn an election result, and he incited a crowd of supporters that violently attacked Congress while it was meeting to certify the results. (Here’s the latest about what he knew during the riot.) On the Senate floor this weekend, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, said that Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for the attack and accused him of “a disgraceful dereliction of duty.”
Partly because of the riot, Trump left office with just a 39 percent approval rating, according to FiveThirtyEight. Multiple recent polls showed that a majority of Americans thought that the Senate should convict him and disqualify him from holding future office.
So why didn’t Senate Republicans do so?
Senator Mitch McConnell arriving at the Capitol on Saturday. Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg
The G.O.P. is doing just fine
There are two important parts to the answer.
The more obvious one is the short-term political danger for individual Republicans. Roughly 70 percent of Republican voters continue to support Trump strongly, polls suggest. A similar share say they would be less likely to vote for a Republican senator who voted to convict Trump, according to Li Zhou of Vox.
For Republican politicians, turning on Trump still brings a significant risk of being a career-ending move, as it was for Jeff Flake, the former Arizona senator, and Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general. Of the seven Republican senators who voted for conviction, only one — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — faces re-election next year, Burgess Everett of Politico noted. And the seven are already facing blowback in their home states.
The second part of the answer is more subtle but no less important. Today’s Republican Party is less concerned with national public opinion than it used to be — or than today’s Democratic Party is.
The Republican Party of the past won elections by persuading most Americans that it would do a better job than Democrats of running the country. Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower each won at least 57 percent of the vote in their re-election campaigns. George W. Bush won 51 percent, largely by appealing to swing voters on national security, education, immigration and other issues. A party focused on rebuilding a national majority probably could not stay tethered to Trump.
But the modern Republican Party has found ways other than majority support to achieve its goals.
It benefits from a large built-in advantage in the Senate, which gives more power to rural and heavily white states. The filibuster also helps Republicans more than it does Democrats. In the House and state legislatures, both parties have gerrymandered, but Republicans have done more of it. In the courts, Republicans have been more aggressive about putting judges on the bench and blocking Democratic presidents from doing so. In the Electoral College, Democrats currently waste more votes than Republicans by running up large state-level victories.
All of this helps explain Trump’s second acquittal. The Republican Party is in the midst of the worst run that any party has endured — across American history — in the popular vote of presidential elections, having lost seven of the past eight. Yet the party has had a pretty good few decades, policy-wise. It has figured out how to succeed with minority support.
Republican-appointed justices dominate the Supreme Court. Republicans are optimistic they can retake control of both the House and the Senate next year (even if they win fewer votes nationwide). Taxes on the wealthy are near their lowest level in a century. Democrats have failed to enact many of their biggest priorities — on climate change, Medicare, the minimum wage, preschool, gun control, immigration and more.
Yes, Trump’s acquittal bucks public opinion. But it still might not cost the Republicans political power.
More on impeachment:
McConnell’s actions — voting for acquittal while upbraiding Trump — was an attempt “to both satisfy Trump supporters and appeal to Republicans who are repulsed by Trump,” Carl Hulse, The Times’s chief Washington correspondent, says.
President Biden wanted Trump to be convicted, but the quick trial at least allows Biden to get moving on his agenda, starting with a virus-relief bill.
At least six people who worked as security guards for Roger Stone, a Trump ally, stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, a Times investigation found.
The acquittal revived speculation about the electoral prospects of Trump’s daughter-in-law.