Why the Democrats Tied Themselves in Knots During Donald Trump’s Impeachment Trial

The Democrats' confused and inept handling of the final stage of the impeachment trial revealed the contradiction at the heart of the party's politics: whether it's trying to represent bold change or simply a return to the pre-Trump status quo.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi joins House impeachment managers at a press conference after the conclusion of former president Donald Trump's second impeachment trial on February 13, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

On its face, the fiasco that occurred in the waning hours of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial was more or less a classic Democratic Party self-own. For those fortunate enough to have not been paying close attention: on Saturday, following an announcement by Democratic impeachment front man Rep. Jamie Raskin that he wanted to subpoena Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler to testify, the Senate voted to hear witnesses — a move that promised to extend the proceedings and strengthen the case against the accused.

Having dramatically raised the stakes, Democrats then almost immediately backed down and decided not to seek witness testimony after all. The conclusion of Trump’s impeachment thus found prominent liberals arguing, simultaneously, that 1) the trial was, and had been, vitally important; 2) that continuing it would have been a needless distraction from more salient matters; 3) and that its outcome had been a foregone conclusion all along.

The spin that followed was therefore every bit as confused and tortured as you would expect.

“These Republicans voted to acquit in the face of this mountain of unrefuted evidence,” said Raskin, whose confusing tactics closed out the trial’s final day. “There’s no reasoning with people who basically are acting like members of a religious cult.” “None of those who disdain the Dems for reaching a deal to move the trial forward,” argued CNN pundit and Obama alum David Axelrod, “are the Americans who are desperate for help, for work for vaccines, for their children to be back at school. The other path would have tied up the senate for weeks. They made the right decision.”

None of this, to put it politely, makes very much sense. For one thing, as Politico reported soon after, the Democrats’ actual reason for bringing the trial to a sudden end without hearing from witnesses seems to have been motivated more by the desire of some senators to go on vacation than any cunning stratagem (the Senate and House are both on recess this week and, in the words of Democrat Chris Coons: “People [wanted] to get home for Valentine’s Day.”) More to the point, the posttrial spin brings to mind a pretty obvious rejoinder: namely, why exactly the Democrats were pushing for one in the first place.

Both Axelrod and Raskin are right, of course, that the affair was likely a foregone conclusion from the outset (though, it’s at least faintly possible that a longer, more incriminating process could have swung a few more votes). Axelrod is probably also right to suggest that ordinary Americans are more concerned with issues related to the pandemic and economic relief than with following the machinations of an intra-Beltway procedural joust. Taken to its logical conclusion, however, this sounds suspiciously like a critique of the Democrats’ whole confused approach to impeachment: somehow, at once a critical defense of the country’s democratic institutions and a sideshow distracting everyone from the far more important issues at hand.

The episode will probably be soon forgotten, but the contradiction it brought to the surface is likely to be as much a structural feature of liberalism in the Biden era as it was under Donald Trump and may well intensify now that the Democrats themselves are in power. Despite the existential shock of 2016, the ensuing four years mostly saw mainstream liberal lawmakers reject any major rethink of their politics — even as many also claimed the country was facing the most sinister right-wing threat of modern times. The result was an awkward, often tortured fusion of the language of national emergency with status quo political behavior: a fusion that manifested yet again at the conclusion of Trump’s impeachment trial.

In the Biden era, it’s more than probable these two impulses will continue to clash as a president who has rested his appeal on a promise to restore equilibrium presides over a world-historic pandemic and, among other things, considers passing a new domestic terrorism law. This contradiction won’t be Biden’s alone. For the past four years, the back-to-brunch quest for normalcy of the Democratic mainstream has sat awkwardly alongside rhetoric about a country in the throes of multiple, exceptional crises — two dissonant political narratives that show no sign of abating as a new political era begins.

Trump is thankfully gone. But, as the conclusion of his impeachment trial makes abundantly clear, the pathologies his presidency fostered among America’s liberals are probably here to stay.