The Senate’s acquittal of Donald Trump for inciting the January 6 insurrection did not come as a surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing. Forty-three Republican senators stood with the former president, a shameful display that should puncture any delusions that the party would become more moderate after Trump left office. It confirmed, instead, the GOP’s ongoing radicalization. While Republicans already had only a tenuous commitment to democratic government—in recent years they’ve ramped up assaults on voting rights and grown ever more reliant on a strategy of minority rule—their support for conspiracy theories about election fraud was unprecedented. When they refused to hold Trump accountable for whipping up a violent mob to “stop the steal,” it was merely the latest indication of how far they would go to maintain their grip on power.
This does not mean it was a mistake for Democrats to pursue Trump’s impeachment. For days after the assault on the Capitol, there was no public briefing about what happened from government officials, and journalists were left to figure out what they could from witness statements, social-media posts, and information that trickled out from law enforcement. House impeachment managers provided by far the most complete account we have of the riots—a precise timeline of events that irrefutably connected Trump’s words and deeds to the actions of the mob, especially his speech outside the White House immediately preceding the insurrection and his tweets as it occurred. The video presented by Rep. Jamie Raskin, which spliced together damning footage of Trump with clips—some previously unseen—of what happened inside the Capitol, offered frightening proof of just how serious the president's supporters were in using deadly violence to meet his aims. That alone was a genuine service to the country.
After the trial concluded, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell admitted, “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day.” It was a very strange thing to say after voting for acquittal. McConnell justified his vote by appealing to a narrow definition of incitement and a belief that impeachment should be used only to remove someone from office, but his comments are best understood as proof that nothing could have changed his mind—let alone the minds of his colleagues. No brilliant, unpursued strategy existed that would have magically persuaded Republicans to abandon Trump. As Raskin later said, “There's no reasoning with people who basically are acting like members of a religious cult.”