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Larry Donnelly: I cannot forgive Trump for imploring his most radicalised followers to storm the Capitol

Larry Donnelly reflects on the final days of President Donald Trump’s term.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

6 JANUARY 2021 is a date that most Americans, as well as those in Ireland and beyond with an affinity for the land of my birth, will never forget.

Of course, the same can be said of several other dates – 7 December 1941, 11 September 2001 et al – in American history.

But there was something different about what happened on a wintry weekday afternoon in Washington, DC. There wasn’t a foreign enemy out to get the United States; instead, our own people, at the instigation of our own president, physically attacked our own Capitol Building.

They did not merely strike at an edifice. As they smashed its windows, they sought to unravel American democracy.

For inside, Congress had gathered to ratify the results of the Electoral College and confirm Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the next president and vice-president. This constitutional exercise is at the heart of the peaceful transfer of power that our civic religion teaches us to revere.

It will be some time before I fully get to grips with the images of fellow citizens rioting, battling with outnumbered security personnel and ransacking the desks of elected officials.

And I cannot forgive the president for imploring some of his most manipulated and radicalised followers to go there and fight to overturn the clear will of the people. The profound shock and sadness I experienced while watching the incident unfold have morphed into anger in the intervening 10 days.

trump-supporters-storm-us-capitol Rioters broke windows and breached the Capitol building in an attempt to overthrow the results of the 2020 election. Source: Lev Radin/Zuma Press/PA Images

It was positively sickening to later see video footage of the Trump family hosting their inner circle of sycophants at what can only be described as a “watch party” on the grounds of the White House shortly before the mob, whipped up into a frenzy by the man they adore, brutally assaulted and killed a policeman. In truth, I was too shaken to write about all of this before now.

I did not expect things to get this far. My view was shaped by what I had been told by people who have come across Donald Trump. The consensus was that he was certainly an egotist and a narcissist, but because he was, he was incapable of betraying his self-interest. I agreed, and disputed the claims of those who sketched out rather apocalyptic scenarios. As it transpired, they were right. I was not alone in getting it wrong.

Now, President Trump has been impeached for incitement to insurrection by the House of Representatives in a 232-197 vote, with 10 Republicans joining all Democrats in the lower chamber.

Unlike the first occasion on which the president was impeached, Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t really have any other choice. The president’s conduct could not be allowed to stand and warranted the ultimate sanction, no matter how much was left in his term or what the political fallout might be.

Congressional Democrats will surely be happy with the deliberately leaked comments of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to the effect that he was pleased by the outcome in the House and would consider voting to convict Donald Trump at the close of the trial in the Senate.

It is probable that McConnell’s newfound hatred for his erstwhile ally is borne mainly out of the reality that the president, by alleging that voting was rigged in Georgia and demanding that its secretary of state “find” 11,780 additional votes for him, lost the two recent run-off contests there for the GOP and control of the upper chamber as a consequence. My suspicion is that the enmity actually predates the chaos in Washington.

Nonetheless, if McConnell were to join the handful of Republican Senators who will vote to convict the by then former president, he could bring colleagues with him. In this event, cobbling together the required two-thirds majority moves into the realm of possibility.

A conviction would not be meaningless in that it would guarantee eternal ignominy for Donald Trump and a subsequent simple majority decision would prevent him from holding office again. Either way, the latter appears a highly unlikely prospect at present.

The hesitancy of Republicans, however, to cast aside the New York billionaire is manifest in the continued challenges to the Electoral College totals after the violence and unrest on 6 January and in the impeachment vote.

Those hoping against hope for principled high-mindedness on this front are bound to be disappointed. Raw political calculus swamps idealism 99 times out of 100 in the toughest business of them all.

Politics is a numbers game in the end and there are 74 million reasons – one for each of his extraordinary vote tally under the circumstances – why elected conservatives are unwilling to publicly cut ties to Donald Trump, even as they wish behind locked doors that he’d vanish.

Trump’s mantras are Make America Great Again and America First. In the aftermath of failed wars and trade deals that accelerated the flight of industry, and in an era of division along myriad fault lines, he recognised that this “turn back the clock,” unilateralist brand of conservatism would appeal to a broader and different swathe of the electorate than traditional Republican dogma.

He was bang on the money, and given the unwavering fidelity he has inspired, there had been a big disconnect between the outlook of the party’s hierarchy and the faithful on the ground.

Shrewd, ambitious Republicans understand this. Accordingly, they’re proceeding with caution. If they could, those with their eyes on the presidential nomination in 2024 would readily jettison Trump and his family while adapting the overarching message and putting a fresh face on it. Yet they have to be careful about the cult of personality that has sprung up around the most controversial man on the planet.

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Aspirants like Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley have arguably been too careful in their excessive adulation of Trump. Mike Pence will endeavour to carve out a halfway house by portraying himself as his ex-boss’s steadfast ally, but one who would not transgress convention or the constitution at the crucial moment.

Meanwhile, former Governor of South Carolina and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has managed to stay above the fray and isn’t easy to paint into a corner. It will be fascinating to see how 2024 presidential primary politicking eventually plays out in a fractious GOP.

For the past two months, I’ve been asked the same question repeatedly: What will Donald Trump do next? As we anticipate Joe Biden’s inauguration, I can only offer two less than definitive responses.

Whatever he does, he will be nowhere near as significant a player as he might have been before 6 January. And isn’t it a relief that he won’t be President of the United States anymore?

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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