Donald Trump will probably go down in history not just as only the third US president to be impeached, but also as the first to be re-elected after impeachment, writes Donal O’Keeffe.
12pm Eastern Standard Time, Wednesday 20 January, 2021. The United States Capitol, Washington DC.
One small, left hand rests on the Lincoln Bible, and an equally and unusually tiny right hand is held aloft. Chief Justice Roberts invites the president to repeat after him, “I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear…”
The 74-year-old president, looking obese and unwell under his trademark fake tan and flapping dyed hair, scowls and, voice quavering, says, “I, Donald John Trump…”
Four years earlier, after Trump’s first inauguration speech, on a rainy Washington day when George W Bush had made a complete hames of the everyday task of putting on a waterproof poncho, the former president leaned across to Hillary Clinton, former first lady, and defeated presidential candidate sitting beside him outside the Capitol, and muttered “Well, that was some weird shit.”
The TV networks didn’t pick up the audio on Bush’s words, but lip-readers watching at home swore they had correctly interpreted what he had said. It would be nearly three years before Clinton would confirm that they had.
Listening back to Trump’s ‘American carnage’ inauguration speech, written for him (even if he later claimed he wrote it himself) by then senior White House advisors Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon – both of them alt-right white supremacists – it is indeed perhaps ‘some weird shit’ by the standards of inaugural speeches. It is also, however, instructive as a clear roadmap of where Trump and those trying to steer him intended his presidency to go.
He began, in a completely uncharacteristic show of grace, by thanking the Obamas for their help during the transition, describing them as ‘magnificent’, before immediately departing from the conciliatory norms of inaugural addresses.
“Today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington DC and giving it back to you, the people.
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself.”
Trump’s angry delivery betrayed the fact that this was a man who had never expected, or wanted, to be elected president. Trump had gambled and lost on a campaign designed to boost his own brand by laying down the foundations of a Trump TV network to outfox Fox. His clear shock when he realised he had won was matched only by that of Hillary Clinton, who had been so certain of victory she had not even bothered to write in advance a concession speech.
Trump’s inaugural speech ranted about “Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealised potential.”
This acknowledgement of America’s problems was not in itself unique. Trump’s hated predecessor Barack Obama – and hated all the more after Trump’s out-of-character gratitude at the start of his speech – had, in his own 2009 inaugural speech, spoken of America’s many failings, but the difference was that Obama had done so in a spirit of optimism, promising that a shared sense of endeavour might tackle those problems.
That is what leaders do in acceptance speeches in democracies. They try to inspire a common sense of hope, and to bind the wounds of battle in the wake of bruising election campaigns.
In presenting his apocalyptic vision of ‘American carnage’, Trump offered no such vision of a shared future where, through hard work and the recognition that Americans have far more in common than sets them apart, a better future awaits this great nation, etc, etc.
Yes, it probably is guff, but it’s the guff by which most democracies avoid revolutions, and it’s the guff by which most normal people manage to keep politics for the most part out of their lives while they get on with the busy task of just living their lives.
For Trump, and the cynics and racists behind him though, the notion of shared purpose would undermine the snake-oil they’re selling. For Trump and his enablers, the situation has to be catastrophically hopeless until they can introduce the saviour. Having laid out an utterly bleak vision of America, one guaranteed to appeal to the rust-belt voters who elected him, Trump then presented himself as the Messiah.
“That all changes,” he said, “right here, and right now.”
It was all bullshit, of course, but that doesn’t matter. As with the evangelists who pretend to believe that Trump – a thrice-married self-confessed sex-offender – is a good if imperfect man, all that matters is that he appeals to his tribe, and delivers the tax breaks he promised his billionaire backers, and the anti-choice judges he promised his performatively religious supporters who couldn’t care less about the 20-plus women who say they were raped by Trump.
And here we are now, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sends two articles of impeachment to the Senate for trial. Donald John Trump looks increasingly likely to become not only the third US president to be impeached, but – given the uninspiring field of Democratic candidates vying to oppose him in November – the first president to be re-elected after impeachment.
Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868 and narrowly avoided conviction in the Senate. He failed to secure the Democratic nomination that year, and left office in 1869. In 1974, Richard Nixon resigned rather than face almost-certain impeachment and removal from office.
Bill Clinton was impeached (and acquitted in the Senate) in 1998, half-way through his second and final term, as mandated by the 22nd Amendment. Clinton’s impeachment backfired against the Republicans, who suffered in the 1998 and 2000 elections. The same may happen now too to the Democrats.
As suggested previously in this column, fans of The Wire will recall Omar Little’s advice, “You come at the king, you best not miss”. Trump will almost certainly avoid conviction, with Senate majority Republicans unlikely to vote against a president who has remade the party in his image. Impeachment can only work in Trump’s favour.
With no obvious, strong Democratic presidential candidate, it’s hard not to expect four more chaotic years of Trump.
American carnage is only the start of it. Four more years of Trump means four more years of the normalisation of hatred, cowardice and the cruelty Bob Dylan called “doomed and determined to destroy all that’s gentle”.
If Trump is re-elected in November, and right now that seems a depressing likelihood, then the weird shit is only beginning.