Donald Trump’s Impeachment Legacy: Violent Extremism

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It was an extraordinary moment.

As a mob of rioters stormed its way down the halls of the Senate, Officer Eugene Goodman of the Capitol Police ran past Senator Mitt Romney, frantically directing him to seek cover. The former Republican presidential nominee broke into a sprint, taking off in the other direction. He most likely had reason to run: The day before, Trump supporters had heckled Mr. Romney on his way to Washington, chanting “traitor, traitor, traitor” on a crowded plane.

The world has seen so much footage from that painful day. But nearly all of it has focused on the attackers themselves. In the Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump, we saw a new angle: Members of Congress running for their lives.

I heard nearly every moment of the trial, moving through my apartment as the hours passed. First in the living room, I watched it on television. Then from the kitchen, I listened to the radio while I made more coffee. And later on my computer in the bedroom once the kids came home, so I could avoid explaining why, exactly, those people were breaking windows with flagpoles and all the other questions that — despite the detailed presentation — I still couldn’t answer with much confidence. Questions like, whether they will all go to jail and if everyone is really safe now.

It’s that last question that lingers. Mr. Trump seems poised to be acquitted. But does this unprecedented moment in American history mark the beginning of the end of a particularly violent era? Or the end of the beginning?

In the trial, the House managers tried to show how things that once seemed extraordinary became standard political combat. Like chants of “Lock her up” and violence at political protests — yes, on both the right and the left.

“In 2017, it was unfathomable to many of us to think that Charlottesville could happen,” Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado, one of the Democratic House managers, told senators, arguing that acquitting Mr. Trump could encourage more violence. “Frankly, what unfathomable horrors could await us if we do not stand up and say, ‘No this is not America’?”

But what if that question has already been answered? Whether or not Mr. Trump is convicted, the extremism that flourished under his administration has embedded itself in our politics.

Robert Pape, a specialist in political violence at the University of Chicago, analyzed the backgrounds and statements of nearly 200 Capitol attackers. His analysis found that most were middle-aged and middle class or wealthier. Many had good jobs. Nearly all — 89 percent — had no apparent affiliation with any known militant organization.

“The Capitol riot revealed a new force in American politics — not merely a mix of right-wing organizations, but a broader mass political movement that has violence at its core and draws strength even from places where Trump supporters are in the minority,” he wrote in The Atlantic.

The Trump Impeachment ›

What You Need to Know

    • A trial is being held to decide whether former President Donald J. Trump is guilty of inciting a deadly mob of his supporters when they stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, violently breaching security measures and sending lawmakers into hiding as they met to certify President Biden’s victory.
    • The House voted 232 to 197 to approve a single article of impeachment, accusing Mr. Trump of “inciting violence against the government of the United States” in his quest to overturn the election results. Ten Republicans joined the Democrats in voting to impeach him.
    • To convict Mr. Trump, the Senate would need a two-thirds majority to be in agreement. This means at least 17 Republican senators would have to vote with Senate Democrats to convict.
    • A conviction seems unlikely. Last month, only five Republicans in the Senate sided with Democrats in beating back a Republican attempt to dismiss the charges because Mr. Trump is no longer in office. Only 27 senators say they are undecided about whether to convict Mr. Trump.
    • If the Senate convicts Mr. Trump, finding him guilty of “inciting violence against the government of the United States,” senators could then vote on whether to bar him from holding future office. That vote would only require a simple majority, and if it came down to party lines, Democrats would prevail with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaking vote.
    • If the Senate does not convict Mr. Trump, the former president could be eligible to run for public office once again. Public opinion surveys show that he remains by far the most popular national figure in the Republican Party.

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