This is the existential question that some Americans are certainly asking. After all, former President Donald J. Trump is no longer in office. Following the 2020 election, enough of our democratic system worked to ensure a transition of power.
The answer is: a great deal. The trial matters. Ironically, some Republicans will have the most to gain from impeaching Trump. Beyond voting to convict, the Senate has the option of voting to prohibit Trump from holding federal office in the future. If Republicans want to show that they are interested in “purging” Trumpism from the GOP, this would be an essential first step. For any Republican who is interested in reshaping the party or running for President in 2024, this vote would remove Trump as a threat. To be sure, Republicans who vote to convict will face immense blowback from Trump’s base. But if they can survive that, they will have cleared the playing field for the next election.
But more important than political self-interest is the health of our democracy. To say that our political processes have been under strain is an understatement. Trump exploited the problems and dysfunction that were already plaguing national politics. In doing so, he pushed our democratic system to the brink. The way he used presidential power — which both parties have allowed to expand in scale and scope since the early 20th century — was dangerous. He ignored norms, abandoned traditions and weaponized executive power in ways that none of our leaders has done in modern US history.
Now that Trump is out of office, Americans are faced with the task of repairing our democracy. One of the most vexing challenges has to do with norms, which were once sufficient to check executive power and protect our institutions. If the Trump presidency taught us one thing, it was how destabilizing our politics can become– spinning out of control — when Presidents refuse to abide by them. Although we often speak about how our constitutional system protects us, what became clear after 2017 was just how much norms mattered as well.
When the system of checks and balances is overwhelmed by partisan interest, we have a major problem on our hands. While part of Trump’s campaign to overturn the election involved concrete measures such as calling state officials to pressure them into discounting votes and filing flimsy lawsuits, ultimately, his toxic rhetoric did the most damage. Through Twitter and rallies, the former President filled our airwaves with lies about voter fraud and spurious claims of his victory. This was an extraordinarily dangerous use of the bully pulpit that aimed to do nothing less than overturn the legitimate results of an election by stoking anger, hatred and distrust in the electorate.
It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to see the direct connection between Trump’s rhetorical campaign and the deadly events that unfolded.
The Senate impeachment trial offers a chance for legislators to go on the historical record and say that Trump’s behavior cannot stand. Both parties have an opportunity to state in decisive fashion that they will not allow Presidents to whip the electorate into a frenzy of lies and attempt to destroy our democracy for their own self-interest — and get away with it.
Senators will have a chance to draw a line in the sand and use their constitutionally-mandated powers to rebuke a President who broke his oath of office — and also potentially to prevent him from assuming office again and resuming his damaging project. Doing so would also set an important precedent that would deter future Presidents from veering into similarly dangerous territory. This is why the trial matters. Soon, we’ll learn which Senators care about protecting our democracy and which are willing to look the other way.