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McConnell wants the impeachment trial to be about Congress’s authority — not about loyalty to Trump

Let’s look closely at what words he used to blame the former president for provoking the Capitol attack.

- January 24, 2021

On Monday, the House is scheduled to deliver to the Senate the article of impeachment against former president Donald Trump. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has already signaled that he might vote to convict, having declared that the Capitol rioters “were provoked by the president.” Some reporting suggests that McConnell and some other Republican leaders would like to see Trump convicted and then disqualified from ever holding federal office again — thereby removing him from the center of Republican politics. To reach that, assuming all 50 Democratic Senators vote to convict, 17 GOP Senators would have to do so as well.

Finding those 17 votes won’t be easy. Even after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Trump’s approval rating remains high among Republican voters, and the vast majority of them say they do not believe President Biden legitimately won the November election. And if the Senate’s impeachment trial focuses on election irregularities or Trump’s performance as president, the conviction vote will become a test of partisan loyalty that Republican senators — who do not want to antagonize their electoral base — won’t want to flunk.

If McConnell wants to secure GOP votes to convict, he would have to change the terms of the debate. Here’s what he might be up to.

How can Republicans justify voting to convict?

If that is indeed his goal, McConnell’s strategic challenge is to devise a way for Republican senators to justify their votes to convict without appearing to betray their party.

McConnell has signaled the strategy he plans to use. He said “violent criminals tried to stop Congress from doing our duty.” And he leveled blame, declaring that Trump and other leaders “provoked” the mob to use “fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like”: the certification of electoral college votes.

McConnell is framing whether to convict Trump in institutional terms: A president interfered with Congress’s ability to meet its responsibilities under the Constitution. As political scientist Bryan Garsten has argued, this framing seeks to convince senators that “the sadness and the anger” that they felt on Jan. 6 “was justified by the offense not merely against them as individuals, not merely against a fair election outcome, but specifically against the constitutional role they were dutifully performing.”

Political manipulation can be a winning strategy

McConnell is taking a page straight out of the late political scientist William Riker’s classic 1986 book “The Art of Political Manipulation.” Riker coined the term “heresthetic” to describe strategies people can use to win political fights by “set[ting] up the situation in such a way that other people will want to join them — or will feel forced by circumstances to join them — even without any persuasion at all.” One of the most effective such strategies is to manipulate which dimensions, or conflicts, are considered relevant to understanding a political debate and taking a position.

Many political debates involve only one dimension of conflict. One example is gun regulation, which is mainly about the conflict between individual freedom and public safety. Positions span from the far left, where people believe gun ownership and use should be highly regulated, to the far right, where people oppose nearly all restrictions on the right of individuals to buy guns and carry them openly.

But other political debates take place along more than one dimension of conflict. For example, the debate over whether schools should be open for in-person learning during the pandemic can be thought of as two-dimensional.

One dimension is based on the educational needs of students, which focuses on whether remote classes are adequate. Another dimension is based on teachers’ health and safety concerns, which shifts the focus to whether it is acceptable to require teachers to return to classrooms while the virus is raging in their communities.

Some people would oppose in-person learning if the debate is about whether to protect teachers from an increased risk of contracting the virus — but would support it if the debate were about whether to boost student learning.

Creative politicians can add new dimensions of conflict to a debate to gain an advantage. For instance, Riker describes how Republican Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln used a strategic ploy to trap Sen. Stephen A. Douglas (D-Ill.) in their famous 1858 political debates. Instead of sticking to the major dimension of conflict between Democrats and Republicans to that point — whether the United States would mainly be an agrarian or a commercial nation — Lincoln inserted a new issue, slavery, into his exchanges. Lincoln knew this would put his rival into an uncomfortable position and make it hard for him to come up with effective rejoinders, given the significant divisions within the Democratic Party on slavery.

According to Riker, this is how politicians can win when they might otherwise lose: Add to political debate a new dimension of conflict that might splinter a group, some of whom would vote differently if the framing of the conflict not been shifted.

McConnell’s strategy might work

McConnell’s endgame is unclear, but he seems to be trying to encourage his GOP colleagues to take a stand on whether Congress’s ability to carry out its constitutional duties must be protected from would-be authoritarian presidents and violent mobs. That’s quite different terrain from whether Republicans support Trump.

Of course, McConnell is not the only Republican who can play this game. Trump’s Senate allies, including Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), are signaling they will argue it is unconstitutional to put a private citizen on trial — in other words, that a president can be impeached only while serving in the office.

Trump’s impeachment trial is scheduled to begin on Feb. 9. While McConnell’s gambit is a long shot, he has laid out a potential pathway — based on a classic strategy from political science — for securing GOP votes to convict.

Jeffery A. Jenkins (@jaj7d) is the Provost Professor of Public Policy, Political Science and Law; the Judith & John Bedrosian Chair of Governance and the Public Enterprise; and director of the Bedrosian Center at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.

Eric M. Patashnik (@EricPatashnik) is the Julis-Rabinowitz Professor of Public Policy and Political Science and the director of the MPA Program at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.