Trump’s acquittal proves authoritarianism remains ‘potent force’ in US

  • Trump’s acquittal shows “anti-democratic threats are alive and well” in the US, an expert said.
  • A presidential historian said Trump has a permanent “black mark” from two impeachments.
  • Many GOP senators voted for acquittal to avoid self-indictment, an expert said.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

“You’ve gotta remember you’ve already won.”

That’s what GOP Sen. Ted Cruz said he told President Donald Trump’s legal team amid the former commander-in-chief’s second impeachment trial. Cruz was right. Trump was destined to be acquitted, and virtually everyone knew it before the trial even began.

As expected, the vast majority of Senate Republicans voted to acquit Trump on the charge of inciting an insurrection in spite of the glaring, damning evidence against him.

Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale University and author of “How Fascism Works,” told Insider the trial exhibited how the GOP has become a “complete norm-breaking party, because they regard the other side as illegitimate.”

Republicans fear becoming a permanent minority party and have wedded themselves to democracy-eroding tactics as a result, Stanley said, warning that Trump’s trial showed authoritarianism remains a “potent force” in the US.

That said, the House impeachment managers crafted a compelling case against Trump that showed how he fomented a culture of violence and extremism for years. Historians say this will forever tarnish Trump’s legacy. 

“Trump has been publicly shamed to the point of being unable, most likely, to return to the presidency,” Jeffrey Engel, founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University and a co-author of “Impeachment: An American History,” told Insider.

Trump lost in 2020 without the disgrace of being impeached twice and now “this black mark” will follow him wherever he goes, Engel added.

Similarly, Stanley said it was “vital” to go through the trial even though Trump wasn’t convicted “because it’s a part of the historical record.”

But the seemingly inevitable conclusion of Trump’s trial still raises serious questions as to whether impeachment is a truly effective means of holding presidents accountable.

The founders would be ‘sad that we elected such a jack—‘

trump flipped


In other democratic countries, such as South Korea, presidential misconduct has led to prolonged protests and even imprisonment. Nothing of the like is occuring in the US. Trump could still potentially face criminal charges over his actions while president, but his acquittal means he’s able to run for office again — including in the 2024 presidential race.  

Trump provoked a violent insurrection at the heart of America’s democracy that led to five deaths, including a police officer. It was a bloody consequence of Trump’s effort to overturn the election and refusal to respect the tradition of a peaceful transfer of power. The US had never seen such anti-democratic behavior from a sitting president. 

Former Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, a Democrat, in a recent CNN op-ed said, “If Trump’s actions are not impeachable, then nothing is, and we may as well strike that provision from the Constitution

Trump’s acquittal sends a “chilling message” that future presidents will “face no accountability for inciting violence during and after an election,” Keisha N. Blain, an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, told Politico Magazine.

“The Senate’s failure to hold Trump accountable—and in so doing, their failure to prevent him from running for office again—will have lasting, terrible consequences,” Blain said.

Others, however, argue the public re-telling of Trump’s role in sparking the riot will permanently mar Trump’s political standing. Engel said that impeachment, however imperfect, still “maintains its ability to be the ultimate political judgment.”

“If the purpose of democracy is to allow the majority’s will to be heard, then the founders were right in thinking that impeachment would be such an awful stain that anybody who endured it is unlikely to ever get past the electorate again,” Engel said. “Let’s remember Trump was impeached the first time and subsequently lost.”

The net effect of the trial, Engel said, is ensuring that Trump “doesn’t ever capture the presidency again.” Engel said it’s possible that Trump could win the GOP nomination in the future, but doesn’t see “any way that he achieves victory again.”

The founders would be “sad that we elected such a jack—,” Engel said of Trump. “But they wouldn’t be surprised.”

“The Constitution is designed, specifically, not to prevent the election of such a person, but to ensure that such a person can’t maintain power forever,” Engel added.

‘Authoritarianism is like the mob’

capitol siege riot ladder

Rioters clash with police using big ladder trying to enter Capitol building through the front doors.

Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

During impeachment trials, senators are meant to be impartial jurors.

The way many GOP senators behaved during Trump’s latest trial likely would’ve seen them removed as jurors in an actual criminal case. They made it abundantly clear they would not take the proceedings seriously, claiming the trial was unconstitutional because Trump was no longer president — an argument top legal scholars have vehemently rejected as meritless.

Stanley said that many GOP senators were driven to vote for acquittal from the start because doing otherwise would’ve amounted to self-indictment.

Cruz, among other Republican senators like Josh Hawley, helped amplify Trump’s relentless, baseless claims of voter fraud that catalyzed the fatal insurrection at the Capitol. Trump, with help from these Republican lawmakers, falsely convinced millions of Americans they’d been disenfranchised. The pro-Trump mob that descended upon the Capitol on January 6 was spawned out of this lie. 

“The way authoritarianism works is you get people to break the law with you,” Stanley said. “And when they break the law with you, they have to defend your illegal acts because they are culpable. That’s how the whole thing works: loyalty. That’s how the mob works … Authoritarianism is like the mob.”

‘Anti-democratic threats are alive and well’

Hawley Cruz

GOP Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri, left, and Ted Cruz of Texas, right, speak after Republicans objected to certifying the Electoral College votes from Arizona during a joint session of Congress on January 6, 2021.

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Trump is no longer in the White House but “anti-democratic threats are alive and well” in the US, Stanley said, adding that Americans should expect the GOP to fight to ensure fewer people can vote in future elections. 

Issuing a similar warning, Brian Klaas, a political scientist at the University College London, on Monday tweeted: “Trump’s authoritarianism was an immediate, existential threat to democracy. But what we’ll be grappling with for years is the fact that a significant majority of Republican officials and voters didn’t just tolerate his authoritarianism. They cheered for it — and they want more.”

Trump has revealed that “there’s an anti-democratic audience in America” attracted to autocratic leadership, Stanley said, and restoring faith in government while strengthening laws protecting voting rights are the primary remedies to this slide toward authoritarianism. 

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