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The GOP’s Final Act In A Long Public Surrender

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) leaves his office and walks to the Senate floor at the U.S. Capitol on February 8, 2021 in Washington, DC.  (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) leaves his office and walks to the Senate floor at the U.S. Capitol on February 8, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

When I read that Sen. Mitch McConnell would be voting to acquit former President Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial I thought immediately of the words set down by Joseph Conrad in his novel, “Heart of Darkness.”

“They were conquerors,” Conrad writes, “and for that you want only brute force — nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.”

This description is the story of Trumpism in a nutshell. Trump rose to power not because he was intelligent or charismatic or even cunning. He rose to power because he knew how to activate the violent grievance that animates the darkest precincts of the American psyche.

It was there all along, in his public call for the so-called Central Park Five to be executed without a trial. It was there at his rallies, where he openly reveled in the violent fantasies he stoked, of his enemies being locked up and punched out. It was there in his adoration of dictators and white supremacists.

The national media exploited these rants for ratings and failed to flag the undercurrent of menace. His supporters understood him precisely. That is why they eagerly assaulted fellow citizens and ran them over with cars and sent bombs to his perceived enemies and staged mass shootings.

[Trump] rose to power because he knew how to activate the violent grievance that animates the darkest precincts of the American psyche.

It’s why they organized militias and stormed state capitals and traveled to Washington, D.C., on January 6, the date Trump specified, to get “wild.” It’s why they stormed the halls of Congress, beating police officers to death and seeking to assassinate Trump’s own vice president.

It is impossible to imagine the insurrection that left members of Congress running for their lives without Trump’s incessant promotion of “brute force” as the ultimate path to power. Why else would he watch the mob’s rampage with such pleasure, and refuse to take any action to protect those in danger? He wanted them terrorized.

But it’s the second half of the Conrad quote that’s worth heeding here.

Trump’s rise to power was made possible only by the weakness of others — the pundits and producers who amplified his provocations, of course. (I am one of them.) But even more so, the cowards of the Republican Party, who refused to stand up to Trump, even as he desecrated every standard of public service, flaunting his greed, ignoring the pandemic, punishing the powerless (migrant children, religious minorities, peaceful protestors) and finally, attacking democracy itself.

They all knew Trump was a dangerous demagogue and most of them said so, out loud, before he was elected. But the moment he was in power, they bowed down to him, servile.

McConnell’s announcement that he will vote to acquit Trump — regardless of what any witnesses might say — is merely the last step in this long process of public surrender. And the House Managers' decision to not call witnesses after all is not only a tactical blunder, but a bewildering act of moral cowardice.

The creed is not political, but primal. It is the mindset of the mob unleashed

Over the past four years, I and others have struggled to find the words to describe Trump’s character, or at least the motives that drive his behavior. I myself have called him dishonest, corrupt, callous, petty, cynical, manipulative, insecure, desperate, sadistic and abusive. That’s a partial list. I have even attempted to explain to myself how he became this way — that it was the result of worshipping a father who told him he could either be a killer or a loser.

But as the House Managers have laid out the totality of the case against him, these words have come to feel insufficient. It has become more and more apparent that Donald Trump is evil. That is the word we have used, throughout history, to describe men (and it is almost always men) who revel in cruelty and seek to mobilize and exploit the cruelty of others.

The creed is not political, but primal. It is the mindset of the mob unleashed:

He who would live must fight. He who doesn’t wish to fight in this world, where permanent struggle is the law of life, has not the right to exist.

Trump would never use such explicit and lofty words, of course. He prefers the cowardly, legally insulated argot of the mafia boss. The quote belongs, instead, to Adolf Hitler.

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Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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