Essential Politics: Republicans aren’t going to convict Trump. Voters don’t want them to.
This is the Feb. 12, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.
Why won’t Republican senators vote to convict?
As House impeachment managers methodically laid out their case against former President Trump this week, that question has come up a lot. Numerous Republican senators have praised the presentation, using words including “detailed,” “powerful” and “effective.” Most have also made clear they’re not going to vote to convict.
The two-thirds majority needed for conviction would require 17 Republicans to join all 50 Democrats, assuming that all 100 senators are present for the vote, which could come as early as this weekend. Currently, fewer than half that many Republicans appear to be in play.
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The unwillingness to vote against Trump doesn’t reflect affection for him: In private, many Republican senators disparage him. Nor do they relish the idea of his running again. Many see Trump as a long-term liability for their party.
A few may truly believe as a matter of principle that the Constitution bars the Senate from trying a former official. For most, however, that’s a convenient dodge.
The real answer is simpler, if, perhaps, more disturbing: They’re representing their voters.
Tolerance of violence
Trump has lost some ground with Republican voters, but he remains popular with the vast majority of them. Nearly 8 in 10 adults who identify as Republicans have a favorable view of Trump, according to a new survey by the American Enterprise Institute.
That doesn’t mean they’re all intense Trump fans, but a big group are: Just over one-third reported feeling “very favorable” toward him, and 37% said their loyalties lie primarily with Trump, not with the party.
And while it’s true that the Republican Party itself has shrunk a bit in the last few months, that trend can easily be exaggerated.
Many states, for example, have reported tens of thousands of people switching their registrations away from the GOP since the election. But that’s a tiny fraction of the 74 million votes Trump won in November.
The latest numbers from Gallup, which has tracked party identification for decades, find that 24% of Americans identify as Republican (another large group identifies as independent but reliably votes Republican), and 37% have a favorable view of the party. In both cases, that’s down seven points since just before the election and puts the GOP at a significant disadvantage relative to the Democrats, but neither reading is an all-time low.
So while the turbulent final months of the Trump administration hurt the GOP, Republican elected officials can reasonably hope their party will recover. Many of them believe that recovery depends on keeping the loyalty of voters who express loyalty to Trump.
Ominously, a significant chunk of those voters express high tolerance for political violence.
The American Enterprise Institute survey found that nearly 8 in 10 Republicans said they believed the political system is stacked against people who hold traditional values, and 55% said they agreed that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”
Nearly two-thirds of Republicans said they believed the 2020 election had been marked by “widespread fraud,” with 37% calling that statement “completely accurate.”
A large minority of Republicans, 39%, said they completely or somewhat believed that “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves even if it requires taking violent actions.” Among Democrats, 17% took that view, and among independents, 31% did.
One in eight Republicans said they “completely” agreed that violence may be required if elected officials didn’t protect the country.
That view is especially widespread among a group that has become the foundation of the current Republican coalition, white evangelical Christians. Among that group, 41% said they completely or somewhat believed that violence may be required.
None of that means that a huge group of Republican voters is ready to storm the Capitol — expressing sympathy with an idea on a poll isn’t the same as taking action.
But it does highlight the fact that the radicalization of Republicans is a bottom-up phenomenon.
Republican elected officials, especially Trump, and right-wing media have spread conspiracy theories and helped normalize violence, but there shouldn’t be any question that those developments are demand driven: Donald Trump didn’t create the set of beliefs and attitudes now widely referred to as Trumpism, he sensed their presence in the Republican electorate and positioned himself to capitalize.
Elected officials don’t need polls to tell them that a significant share of their voters fervently support Trump, are open to conspiracy theories and give at least lip service to political violence. They encounter those views frequently.
In recent weeks, they’ve seen the sharp backlash against Republicans who have spoken out against Trump, such as Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state.
A few Republican senators, notably Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Mitt Romney of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have been willing to buck the crowd and condemn Trump. At the other end of the spectrum, some senators may share extremist views, although they don’t express them out loud.
Most, however, like most political figures most of the time, simply want to avoid political risk.
House impeachment managers have tried to highlight the risk of not acting, as the lead House impeachment manager, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), did on Thursday.
“Is there any political leader in this room who believes that if he is ever allowed by the Senate to get back into the Oval Office, Donald Trump would stop inciting violence to get his way?” Raskin asked.
“Would you bet the lives of more police officers on that? Would you bet the safety of your family on that? Would you bet the future of your democracy on that?”
But, for most Republican senators, rationalizing inaction is easy: Trump isn’t likely to run again regardless of what the Senate votes. By 2024, voters may have tired of him. Political cycles turn.
Unwilling to face down their Trump-backing constituents, most Republican senators have signaled that Raskin’s bet is one they’re willing to take.
Full impeachment coverage
If you’ve missed parts of the impeachment trial this week, we’ve got you covered. Here are the highlights:
The proceedings opened Tuesday, with senators voting 56-44 that the Constitution allows them to try a former official, Jennifer Haberkorn reported.
Haberkorn also examined what Democrats hope they can accomplish even if Trump is acquitted.
On Wednesday, the first full day of their case, House impeachment managers described Trump’s actions as “deliberate, planned and premeditated,” Sarah Wire and I wrote.
That same day, Georgia prosecutors announced a criminal probe of Trump for alleged election interference, Jenny Jarvie reported. The investigation centers on Trump’s Jan. 2 telephone call to Raffensperger in which he demanded that the Georgia official “find 11,780 votes.”
The investigation “includes, but is not limited to, potential violations of Georgia law prohibiting the solicitation of election fraud, the making of false statements to state and local governmental bodies, conspiracy, racketeering, violation of oath of office and any involvement in violence or threats related to the election’s administration,” wrote Fani T. Willis, the district attorney for Fulton County, which includes Atlanta.
On Thursday, the impeachment managers wrapped up their case, warning that if Trump isn’t held accountable, he could try to use a mob to regain power.
For a quick summary, here are five takeaways from the impeachment trial.
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The domestic policy agenda
President Biden wants to reopen schools, but he’s running into resistance from teacher unions in Democratic strongholds. California, in particular, could hold him back, Chris Megerian wrote.
Xavier Becerra has emerged as the most endangered Biden Cabinet nominee, Evan Halper reports.
The combination of Becerra’s strong support for abortion rights and his role as California Attorney General in defending Gov. Gavin Newsom‘s orders that closed churches during peak periods of the COVID-19 pandemic have made the Health and Human Services nominee a lightning rod for Republican opposition.
The GOP depiction of Becerra as a radical is ironic, since among progressives he’s widely viewed as centrist technocrat. In the end, since Democrats have the majority in the Senate, he’ll probably win confirmation, but the road likely will be long and bumpy, and confirmation could require Vice President Harris to break a tie.
The administration is taking its first major step to start admitting immigrants blocked by Trump, Molly O’Toole and Molly Hennessy-Fiske reported.
At the end of next week, officials will start allowing the first of some 25,000 migrants who have been forced to remain in Mexico while their claims for asylum were heard to enter the U.S. The migrants will be allowed to stay in the country while their cases are considered.
Migrants will be screened for the coronavirus before being allowed to cross the border. Officials will allow a few hundred into the country each day, with priority to those who have been waiting longest.
“Not a pundit” has become a new catchphrase at the White House as Biden tries to keep the focus on his priorities. Press Secretary Jen Psaki and other officials are making a determined effort to reorient a press corps that has gotten used to the White House weighing in on every passing headline, Eli Stokols reported.
Foreign policy focus on Asia
With his first call with Xi Jinping, Biden looks to reset the U.S.-China relationship, Don Lee and Eli Stokols reported. The initial call between Biden and the Chinese president lasted two hours, the White House said. Biden so far is keeping in place the tariffs that Trump imposed on goods imported from China.
One topic of the call was the military coup in Burma. Biden imposed sanctions on coup leaders on Wednesday, Tracy Wilkinson reported.
An early test for Harris
The vice president’s niece, Meena Harris, has a personal brand that she’s avidly promoted. Her efforts have raised fears in the White House that she’s profiting from her Aunt Kamala’s office, Noah Bierman reported.
The latest from California
There’s been a sharp decline in support for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Melanie Mason reported. The latest UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll finds 35% of voters in the state approve of Feinstein’s work. That’s the first time that her job approval has turned negative. The poll also gives early readings on Harris and newly appointed Sen. Alex Padilla.
For the record: Wednesday’s newsletter said Fox Business had filled Lou Dobbs’ slot on the network with former Trump economic advisor Larry Kudlow. The new program with Kudlow is not taking Dobbs’ time slot.
And a quick programming note: Essential Politics will take Monday off for the holiday. We’ll be back in your inbox on Wednesday, Feb. 17.
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