Donald Trump was the third American president in the last four decades to be restricted by the country’s voters to a single elected term. The other two were Jimmy Carter and George Bush. Unlike them Trump has signalled his determination to remain a political force.
After the elections Trump simply refused to accept defeat. Day in and day out, he claimed that he was being robbed of victory. This, notwithstanding repeated failures in court after court, including the Supreme Court. Indeed, he condemned the Supreme Court judges whom he had appointed for not upholding his cause. The American constitution requires that the national legislature puts its seal on the election result. This is a mere formality after the electoral college ‘votes’ on the basis of election results of each American state. However, in a truly extraordinary move Trump sought to pressure vice-president Pence who as the Senate’s president had to preside over the legislative session to certify the result. He wanted Pence to work for what would have been in effect the annulment of the election in some key states. When Pence refused to do so Trump publicly condemned him including at the infamous rally on January 6 where he provoked his supporters to go to the Capitol to express their ire at the ‘election fraud’.
The attack on the Capitol shocked the American political class. It made the Democratic party leadership determined to rule out Trump as a future factor in American public life. It also put many Republican party leaders on the back foot. Thus, when the Democrats moved a motion for impeaching Trump in the House of Representatives not only did all Democrats support it ten Republican members also voted for it. The motion will now go to the Senate where a ‘trial’ will be held on the article of impeachment. It will be presided by the Supreme Court chief justice. The article of impeachment charges Trump with inciting insurrection. There is no bar for the Senate proceedings from going ahead even after Trump has ceased to be president.
After the events of January 6 Trump has ceased to openly and directly complain of election fraud. He also criticised the violent attack on the Capitol. Without naming Joe Biden he wished the incoming administration well. But this does not mean that he has become reconciled to his defeat. His gesture of not congratulating Biden leave alone not meeting him and of breaking from tradition in not attending the presidential inauguration ceremony on January 20 were of course graceless but they were meant to indirectly convey that he continues to believe that he was robbed of the election and that for him Biden is not a legitimate president. That is also the message he wants to give to his supporters. But there was another objective which was revealed in the short speech he delivered at Andrew’s Air Force base from where he took off to fly to his home in Florida.
No outgoing president makes public addresses on the day he demits office. That is the day of the incoming person. Once again Trump broke tradition to recount his administration’s achievements—of strengthening the country’s military and in this context specifically mentioned the creation of the space force. He also spoke of how the economy was doing well before the pandemic. He spoke of the development of the COVID-19 vaccine in very quick time. He took credit for the appointment of judges of the Supreme Court and the Federal Courts (the implication being that they will ensure the continuation of conservative ideology for many, many years to come). He expressed the hope that the incoming administration will not undo the good work done by him. Finally—and this is crucial—he said that he would be back in some form.
Trump’s clear words—and they bear repetition—that he would be back in some form means, at a minimum, that he will seek to influence public affairs, and at the maximum, that he may consider running for president again in 2024. In essence Trump was warning Republican party senators not to convict him when the trial takes place on the impeachment motion. Under the constitution at least two-thirds of the senate must agree with the impeachment motion for it to be successful. That means that at least seventeen senators will have to vote for it. Thus, Trump was signalling to them that they could do so at the peril of his working actively against them politically. This will be crucial for the senators in the swing states.
The position now is therefore this. If Trump’s is not convicted by the Senate, he will continue to be a rallying point for conservative ‘America First’ opinion in the country which is split down the middle. That will make Biden’s task to unite the country supremely difficult. Trump will keep presenting his alternative vision of America and the divisions may just become more rigid. Thus, it is crucial for Biden that the senate convicts him and thereafter passes a motion that will deny him the right to hold any public office. Such a motion the Democrats can pass by a simple majority.
Trump is no longer president but he is not out of the reckoning as yet. Finally, the healing of America will be difficult but it may be impossible so long as Trump remains a viable factor in American public affairs. The next few weeks are therefore critical for America’s future and well-being.