Opinion | Has Trump's Reckoning Come Too Late? - The New York Times
world agrees that
exactly the man
critics said he was.
but has the
By Michelle Goldberg
Photographs by Mark Peterson
"The House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment report quotes, at length, the speech that Donald Trump gave to his devotees on Jan. 6 before many of them stormed the Capitol, baying for execution.
“We’ve got to get rid of the weak congresspeople, the ones that aren’t any good, the Liz Cheneys of the world, we got to get rid of them,” said President Trump. He urged his minions to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the place where Congress was meeting to certify the election he lost: “Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”
A week later, Representative Cheney, the third-highest-ranking Republican in the House, would vote to get rid of him, joining nine of her fellow Republicans in backing impeachment. “The president of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack,” she said in a statement, adding, “There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”
Trump now becomes the first president in American history to be impeached twice. Half of all presidential impeachments since the Republic began have been impeachments of Trump. This latest impeachment is different than the first, and not just because it was bipartisan. It culminates a week in which Trump has finally faced the broad social pariahdom he’s always deserved.
When a mob incited by the president ransacked the Capitol, killing one policeman and pummeling others, it also tore down a veil. Suddenly, all but the most fanatical partisans admitted that Trump was exactly who his fiercest critics have always said he was.
Banks promised to stop lending to him. Major social media companies banned him. One of the Trump Organization’s law firms dropped it as a client. The coach of the New England Patriots rejected the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the P.G.A. pulled its namesake tournament from a Trump golf course. Universities revoked honorary degrees. Some of the country’s biggest corporations, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pledged to withhold donations from congressional enablers of his voter fraud fantasy. Bill de Blasio announced that New York City would end contracts with the Trump Organization to run two ice rinks and other concessions worth millions annually.
Trumpists often whine about being ostracized — Melania Trump being snubbed by Vogue seems a particular sore point — but watching all these institutions reject the president now is a reminder of how many didn’t do so earlier.
At the beginning of the president’s reign, I expected this moment of widespread repudiation to come quickly. But Trump survived the special counsel investigation. He survived his first impeachment. When he seemed poised to retain his political influence even after losing a presidential election, I despaired of a reckoning ever coming at all. “When this is all over, nobody will admit to ever having supported it,” David Frum tweeted in 2019. Two weeks ago, that seemed like wishful thinking.
There’s a bleak sort of relief in the arrival, after everything, of comeuppance. The question is whether it’s too late, whether the low-grade insurgency that the president has inspired and encouraged will continue to terrorize the country that’s leaving him behind.
“This was an armed violent rebellion at the very seat of government, and the emergency is not over,” Representative Jamie Raskin, the Democrats’ lead impeachment manager, told me. “So we have to use every means at our disposal to reassert the supremacy of constitutional government over chaos and violence.”
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The siege of the Capitol wasn’t a departure for Trump, it was an apotheosis. For years, he’s been telling us he wouldn’t accept an election loss. For years, he’s been urging his followers to violence, refusing to condemn their violence, and insinuating that even greater violence was on the way. As he told Breitbart in 2019, in one of his characteristic threats, “I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”
Jan. 6 wasn’t even the first time Trump cheered an armed siege of an American capitol; he did that last spring when gun-toting anti-lockdown activists stormed the Michigan statehouse. Later, after news emerged of a plot to kidnap and publicly execute Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Trump said, “I mean, we’ll have to see if it’s a problem. Right? People are entitled to say maybe it was a problem, maybe it wasn’t.”
It is shocking that Trump didn’t act when Congress could have faced a mass hostage-taking, or worse. It is not surprising.
Throughout his presidency, Republicans pretended not to hear what the president was saying. For the last few months, Republican election officials in Georgia have spoken with mounting desperation of being barraged with death threats as a result of Trump’s ceaseless lies about the election, but national Republicans did little to restrain him. There was no exodus away from the president and his brand when, during the debates, he refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power and told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
The far right took heart from the president’s winks and nods, retweets and outright displays of support. “Donald Trump, ever since his campaign, throughout his four years in office, has done nothing but pander to these people,” Daryl Johnson, a former senior intelligence analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, told me.
Now a private security consultant, Johnson was caught in a political tempest during the Obama administration, when, at D.H.S., he wrote a report warning of a “resurgence in right-wing extremist recruitment and radicalization activity,” including efforts to recruit veterans. Republicans were apoplectic, seeing the report as an effort to brand conservatives as potential terrorists. Johnson’s unit was disbanded and he left government.
Under Trump, political pressure on federal law enforcement to ignore the far right would only grow. After a white supremacist killed 23 people in a Walmart in El Paso in 2019, Dave Gomez, a former F.B.I. supervisor overseeing terrorism cases, told The Washington Post that the agency was “hamstrung” in trying to investigate white nationalists. “There’s some reluctance among agents to bring forth an investigation that targets what the president perceives as his base,” said Gomez.
The violent far right appears to have been emboldened by the experience of being treated as valued constituents. “The problem existed before him, but it’s really flourished even more under his administration,” Johnson said of Trump.
This is a departure from previous patterns, Johnson said: Right-wing extremist activity usually abates during Republican administrations, when conservatives feel less existentially threatened. But Trump kept the far right’s paranoia and sense of grievance at a constant boil, and gave them permission to act. The people at the Capitol who said they were there because the president wanted them to be weren’t necessarily delusional.
But there’s no reason to believe that the threat will recede when Trump is gone. Johnson believes it’s going to get worse, and he’s not alone. A recent federal intelligence bulletin warns, “Amplified perceptions of fraud surrounding the outcome of the General Election and the change in control of the Presidency and Senate,” along with fear of what the new administration has in store, will “very likely will lead to an increase in DVE violence.” DVE stands for “domestic violent extremists.”
Already, Washington looks like a war zone. Joe Biden’s inauguration next week will be closed to the public. Representative Peter Meijer, one of the 10 Republicans to vote for impeachment, said on MSNBC that he and some of his colleagues are buying body armor: “Our expectation is that someone may try to kill us.”
The end of Trump’s presidency has shaken American stability as even 9/11 did not, and that’s before you factor in around 4,000 people a day dying of Covid-19.
Making Trump face consequences for trying to overturn the election will not, by itself, stop the disorder he’s instigated. But it may be a precondition for making the country governable. “The time to stop tyrants and despots is when you first see them breaking from the demands of law,” said Raskin. Trump, he said, “has been indulged and protected for so long by some of his colleagues that he brought us to the brink of hell in the Capitol of the United States.”
An animating irony of Trumpism — one common among authoritarians — is that it revels in lawlessness while glorifying law and order. “This is the central contradiction-slash-truth of authoritarian regimes,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an N.Y.U. historian and the author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.” She cited Mussolini’s definition of fascism as a “revolution of reaction.” Fascism had a radical impulse to overturn the existing order, “to liberate extremism, lawlessness, but it also claims to be a reaction to bring order to society.”
The same is true of Trump’s movement. Central to Trump’s mystique is that he breaks rules and gets away with it. To reassert the rule of law, said Ben-Ghiat, “showing the world that he cannot in fact get away with it” is crucial.
That is part of the work of the second impeachment. This impeachment may be as much a burden for Democrats as for Republicans; a Senate trial would surely postpone some of the urgent business of the Biden administration. It has gone forward because Democrats had no choice if they wanted to defend our increasingly fragile system of government.
The very fact that Raskin will lead the prosecution of Trump in the Senate is a sign of the solemnity with which Democrats are approaching it. As you’ve perhaps read by now, Raskin recently suffered the most gutting loss imaginable. Tormented by depression, his 25-year-old son, “a radiant light in this broken world,” as Raskin and his wife wrote in a eulogy, took his own life on Dec. 31, “the last hellish brutal day of that godawful miserable year of 2020.”
Raskin buried his son on Jan. 5, the day before he went to the Capitol to count the electoral vote. His youngest daughter didn’t want him to go; he felt he had to be there but invited her and his other daughter’s husband to come with him. When the mob breached the building, Raskin was on the House floor, and his daughter and son-in-law were in an office with his chief of staff. “The kids were hiding under a desk,” he said. “They had pushed as much furniture as they could up against the door, but people were banging at the door.”
That day, Raskin began working with his colleagues to draft both an article of impeachment and a resolution calling on Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment.
I asked him why, after all he’s endured, he wanted to lead the effort to bring Trump to trial. “I’ve devoted my life and career to the defense of our democracy and our people,” said Raskin, who was a constitutional law professor before he was a congressman. Then he said: “My son is in my heart, and in my chest I feel him every day. And Tommy was a great lover of human freedom and democracy and he would want me to be doing whatever I’m asked to do to defend democracy against chaos and fascism.”
It is not yet clear who Raskin will be up against. Prominent law firms have refused to represent Trump in his postelection legal fights, and Bloomberg News reports that lawyers who have defended the president in the past don’t want to do so anymore. For four years, as Trump has brought ever more havoc and hatred to this country, many have wondered what it would take to dent his impunity. The answer appears to be twofold: Committing sedition, and losing power."