Donald Trump’s Impeachment Legacy: Violent Extremism

“The Capitol riot revealed a new force in American politics — not merely a mix of right-wing organizations, but a broader mass political movement that has violence at its core and draws strength even from places where Trump supporters are in the minority,” he wrote in The Atlantic.

That force shows little sign of backing down: Two weeks ago, the Homeland Security Department issued a rare terrorism alert warning that violent extremists were emboldened by the attack and motivated by “the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives.”

There is some indication that such violent acts have support among some Americans, particularly within the Republican Party. A survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute this week found that 55 percent of Republicans back the use of force as a way to “arrest the decline of the traditional American way of life,” as compared with 35 percent of independents and 22 percent of Democrats.

In their impeachment defense, lawyers for Mr. Trump didn’t focus on the attackers but the former president, arguing that he didn’t intend to incite a violent attack. The parts of his rhetoric cited by the House impeachment managers were “selectively edited” and the video was manipulated, they said. The Trump team showed video montages of Democrats using the word “fight” — further torturing an already worn piece of political rhetoric. (Of course, none of those politicians, it’s worth noting, were being tried for inciting a riot.)

And they used Mr. Trump’s comments in 2017 after the events in Charlottesville, Va. — that there were “very fine people on both sides” — to argue that his words have long been misconstrued. Former homeland security officials have cited those remarks as a defining moment that emboldened extremists.

Many Republicans in Congress are likely to seize upon this question of intent. Even with Mr. Trump out of office, crossing the former president would mean alienating a significant part of their base. Those, like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who promoted Mr. Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud leading up to the ransacking at the Capitol, show no signs of changing their minds. It’s quite likely that the final number of Republicans who vote for conviction will be well below the two-thirds majority required.

Eventually, the debate over Mr. Trump’s culpability will be left to the history books. What will remain indisputable, however, is that his words mattered. Extremist violence flourished under his watch. And uprooting that will be a far more difficult national undertaking than a few long days in the Senate.

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