After Donald Trump’s inaugural address, George W Bush turned to Hillary Clinton and said: “Well, that was some weird shit,” the former secretary of state confirmed earlier this month.
For nearly three years since that chilly day here at the US Capitol in Washington, Democrats (and many others) have accused of Trump using and abusing the United States like his personal punchbag. On Wednesday, that slice of America finally punched back via impeachment.
Impeachment naturally gives satisfaction to the president’s critics, like seeing a bully get a bloody nose. But it is now far from certain the bullying will stop or that Trump will even suffer for it. As Republicans in the House of Representatives lined up like human shields to defend the indefensible, there was no doubt their Senate colleagues will next month do the same to block his removal from office and acquit him.
While no crystal ball can truly foresee whether impeachment will help or hurt Trump in the 2020 presidential election, the House’s ultimate sanction may come to be seen simply as one more battle in America’s cold civil war. That would make it one of the most important yet least consequential votes in congressional history.
There are ample reasons for its importance. Trump’s mad-king conduct has been stress-testing American democracy since he was sworn in. The 2018 midterm elections began the course correction, giving Democrats the House majority. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, for so long reluctant to pull the impeachment trigger, did so after Trump pressured Ukraine for political favors.
“If we do not act now, we would be derelict in our duty,” Pelosi, wearing solemn black and a pin resembling the mace of the republic, told the chamber at noon. “He gave us no choice.”
Thus with myriad allusions to the constitution, democracy and the founding fathers, Democrats sealed Trump’s fate as the third US president to be impeached. But the differences from Bill Clinton’s punishment, 21 years ago almost to the day, were instructive about what the future holds.
As Republicans kept reminding the House, there was no bipartisan support this time. At this stage in the game, Clinton was penitent and his backers were generally willing to admit he did wrong, though they held that impeachment did not fit the crime.
Trump, by contrast, released a primal scream of a six-page letter to Pelosi on the eve of impeachment, full of sound and fury and deranged claims such as “more due process was afforded to those accused in the Salem Witch Trials”. And his Republican allies remained in lockstep, showing no signs of even beginning to listen to Democratic arguments or find a sliver common ground.
The Georgia congressman Barry Loudermilk told the House: “When Jesus was falsely accused of treason, Pontius Pilate gave Jesus the opportunity to face his accusers. During that sham trial, Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than Democrats have afforded this president in this process.”
In short, like the Beatles, Trump is now bigger than Jesus in the eyes of his cultlike fanbase. For them, what does not kill him makes him stronger. This is why the consequences of Wednesday are harder to discern.
It is true Trump will have to fight the next election with a millstone around his neck. His Democratic opponent will surely warn against re-electing a man who, as school textbooks will forever record, abused his office, obstructed Congress and seems disposed to do so again.
But even for progressives, Trump’s dealings with Ukraine seem less likely to be a galvanizing force than his casual misogyny or racism, his caging of children on the border or his economically and environmentally destructive policies.
Indeed, by lunchtime on Wednesday, there were a few anti-Trump protesters visible outside the US Capitol, where an ominous figure clad in black and a motorcycle helmet, holding an American flag, circled on an electric skateboard. Inside the building, tourists wandered the corridors, studied statues of long dead politicians and took selfies as if it was a normal day.
In the House chamber itself, most seats for members of the public were empty (though the press gallery was standing room only) for most of the day, a contrast to the long queues that snaked outside the first public impeachment hearing. Add in dwindling TV viewing figures and there has been talk of “impeachment fatigue” – a far cry from when the Clinton saga held the nation spellbound.
The predictability of the outcome hasn’t helped and the same spoilers will be true when Trump goes on trial in the Senate in January. The majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has already promised to coordinate with the White House, while the South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham has announced he will not be an impartial juror. A handful of Republicans could yet rebel, or at least cause trouble, but expect a boost in morale, if not morals, for the president.
Marc Thiessen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former chief speechwriter for George W Bush, wrote in the Washington Post: “When the Senate acquits Trump, as it inevitably will, the spirits of the ‘Resistance’ will be dampened – while Trump supporters will be energized by his victory and claimed vindication.”
Noting positive economic figures including low unemployment, movement on the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement and the start of a trade deal with China, Thiessen argued that “these past few weeks have arguably been the best of Trump’s presidency”.
Certainly they appear to have dashed Democrats’ hopes that the presentation of the case against Trump at public hearings would significantly turn opinion against him. His approval rating has remained steady. A CNN poll this week found that 32% of Americans believe the impeachment inquiry will ultimately help Trump’s reelection bid, while 25% say it will hurt his chances and 37% think it will make no difference.
As for Trump, his letter made clear that he will be wounded, seething and hellbent on revenge. On the day of his election, the New York Times noted his ability to perform “the judo move of turning the weight of a complacent establishment against it”. He will now seek to turn the weight of impeachment against his foes in 2020.
For weeks, his re-election campaign has been running adverts and raising millions of dollars off the inquiry. On Wednesday, it sent out its latest email seeking donations to the “Pre-Vote Impeachment Defense Fund”.
The House debate offered its own premonitions of the weaponisation of impeachment. Perhaps never more so than when Clay Higgins of Texas cast Democrats as “insidious forces” that threaten the republic. “They fear the true will of we the people,” he barked angrily. “They are deep established DC. They fear, they call this Republican map flyover country. They call us deplorables.”
“They fear our faith, they fear our strength, they fear our unity, they fear our vote and they fear our president. We will never surrender our nation to career establishment DC politicians and bureaucrats. Our republic shall survive this threat from within. American patriots shall prevail.”
It could almost have been the first draft of Trump’s speech at the 2020 Republican national convention.