Max Steinbaum: The Gettysburg of the Trump presidency

Thursday, October 17, 2019 - 9:36am

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Four months after the Union and Confederate armies receded from Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln boarded a train bound for the southern Pennsylvania town that had witnessed the costliest battle in American history. The following day, he delivered a two-minute speech that redefined our nation’s mission and has since come to be counted among the greatest speeches of all time. But the president did not anticipate his Gettysburg Address to be as revered as it has been, or at least, he did not believe his words could ever match the sacrifice made by the Union soldiers four months prior. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” Lincoln said. “But it can never forget what they did here.”

Lincoln, of course, was only half right. America did note and does remember what was said on that Thursday in November in Gettysburg. 

There are few times in American history when the words of our leaders have become so entrenched in our national consciousness. Our collective remembrance of these times is usually associated with significant moments in American history. The words of the Declaration of Independence, for instance, encapsulate the zeitgeist of Revolutionary America. The immortal reassurance of FDR’s first inaugural address — “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” — reflects the uncertainty Americans felt during the Great Depression. Unlike in November 1863, America is not engaged in a Civil War of cannons and rifles — but we are most definitely engaged in a civil war over our national character. 

We are quickly arriving at one of these momentous junctures. As House Democrats promote impeaching President Donald Trump — and justly so — two realities are clear: In the event of impeachment, all of America is curious as to what Congress will say, and posterity will most definitely applaud or condemn them for what they do.

As much as Trump and his loyal Republican minions wish to discredit the impeachment inquiry, the drama is no trumped-up theater. Our president attempted to persuade a foreign government to investigate a political rival for personal gain. It was against the law, and if unpunished, it puts the integrity of American democracy in peril.

By no means was Trump’s solicitation of the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son appropriate or acceptable. Even Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, a long-time cheerleader for the president, recognized the severity of Trump’s offense. “Some Republicans are trying,” Carlson wrote with Daily Caller co-founder Neil Patel, “but there’s no way to spin this as a good idea.” 

House Democrats, who launched an impeachment inquiry after news of the Ukraine scandal broke, certainly agree. Unfortunately for the president, impeachment resides entirely within their control: Impeaching the president only requires votes from a majority of the House, which the Democrats hold 234-197. After his impeachment on the House’s charges, the president would then be tried by the Senate. To convict Trump and thereby remove him from office would require 67 Senate votes. Given the current partisan composition of the Senate, a conviction would necessitate 20 Republican defections.

According to an Oct. 3 USA Today poll, only 17 percent of Republicans favor impeachment. 

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that every Senate Democrat were to vote to convict the president; that’s 47 of the necessary 67 votes. If the way Senate Republicans vote roughly reflects public opinion, 17 percent of the GOP’s 53 Senate seats would bring in nine more votes for conviction. The final tally would be 56 votes in favor of conviction to 44 against; the Trump presidency would survive by the grace of 11 Republican senators.

But that simulation assumes Republican voting would follow public opinion (it very well may not), and that public opinion won’t be different come a Senate trial (it very well may). It also ignores the possibility, however slim, that Republican senators — however deferential to the president in the past — may not defend him from conviction. As CNN’s Frida Ghitis reports, “Former Republican Senator Jeff Flake said if the vote were private, at least 35 Republican Senators” would vote to convict the president — well over the 20 defections necessary for a two-thirds majority.

Flake’s implication is rather upsetting: Because America will know how individual senators voted, a good deal of Republicans — perhaps enough to save Trump — will vote to acquit despite their better judgement. A principled stand against our criminal-in-chief will fail out of Republican cowardice.

The Senate would do well to remember that this could potentially be the Gettysburg of the Trump presidency and perhaps even the era. In the event of impeachment, the bitterly judgmental eyes of history will fall upon them, and the country will note and long remember what they did.

Max Steinbaum can be reached at maxst@umich.edu.