When George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000 but became president anyway, he did so with almost 50.5 million votes. I didn’t know that number until I looked it up, because it would have been unimaginable for that president — even though he could be quite demagogic — to brandish it as proof that he represented some quasi-mystical conception of “the people,” in contrast to the nearly 51 million citizens who voted for his opponent.
Anyone who pays attention to politics, however, knows that Donald Trump got around 63 million votes in 2016. That number has taken on a totemic significance for him and his supporters; any attempts to restrain his power are seen as a sin against the 63 million. During the long impeachment debate in the House on Wednesday, Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, called for a moment of silence to “remember the voices of the 63 million American voters” whose will Democrats would defy, as if seeing Trump held to constitutional standards was a sort of death.
On the surface it seems strange, this constant trumpeting of a vote total that is more than 2 million less than the total received by Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. Trump didn’t just lose the popular vote — he lost it by a greater margin than any successful presidential candidate in American history. The right’s bombastic repetition of Trump’s 63 million could be just a propaganda trick meant to bully America’s anti-Trump majority into seeing itself as marginal, despite the more than 65 million votes Clinton received. But as I watched impeachment unfold, it seemed like something more than that — an assertion of whom Republicans think this country belongs to.
Over the last three years, a political narrative has developed that Republicans in Congress secretly dislike Trump but overlook his personal degeneracy in the interest of enacting their agenda. Wednesday should explode that fiction forever.
The Republican identification with Trump is total. Again and again, histrionic Republican congressmen equated hatred of the president with hatred of themselves and hatred of the sacred 63 million. They spoke of Trump with an awe and a maudlin devotion bordering on religious; Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., declared that Trump had been given less due process than Jesus Christ himself.
If Trump is a martyr, who are his persecutors? You could watch the debate with the sound off and understand. All day, Republican speeches delivered by old white men alternated with Democratic speeches from women, people of color and young people. White men make up 90% of the Republican caucus and 38% of the Democratic one, and the day dramatized the representational gulf in the starkest visual terms.
With the sound on, you could hear fury and self-pity from the Republicans, along with, at times, outrage that Democrats would have the audacity to speak on behalf of American values. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., brought with him one of those color-coded maps Trump supporters love, showing how their fewer 2016 votes were spread over much greater expanses of land. “We’re not being devoured from within because of some surreal assertion of the socialists’ newfound love for the very flag that they trod upon,” Higgins said. “We face this horror because of this map.”
In a sense, he’s right: We face the horror of Trump because the structure of American democracy gives disproportionate power to a declining demographic group passionately convinced of its right to rule. Trump, with his braying entitlement, his boastful ignorance, his sneering contempt for pluralism, is an avatar of a Republican Party desperate to return to the 1980s, or the 1950s, or maybe the 1910s. He can’t betray America if, to those who fetishize the 63 million, he embodies it.
At the start of this administration, many who are horrified by Trump, me included, thought that at some point the Republican fever might break, leading conservatives in Congress to check a dictator-worshiping buffoon for the sake of the Constitution they claim to revere. I’ve become ashamed of my naïveté in imagining any overlap between my ideas about what is valuable in this country, and theirs.
“There’s been a lot of talk about the 63 million people who voted for Mr. Trump,” the House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, said in his surprisingly moving speech on Wednesday. “Little talk about the 65 million people who voted for Hillary Clinton.” With the House’s impeachment vote, the America outside of Trump’s ruling faction finally mattered.
I don’t mean that impeachment was revenge on a minority president made possible only by a brute majority in one chamber of Congress. Before the Ukraine scandal broke, I had harangued leading Democrats to impeach Trump for obstructing the Mueller investigation, for his flagrant violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, and for cheating in his 2016 election by committing campaign finance crimes, and I’d been repeatedly frustrated by their extreme reluctance. Democrats didn’t want to impeach, but once they decided to, Trump’s insistence that his Electoral College victory grants him impunity didn’t work. For one night, democracy asserted itself.
Much has been made of the fact that the articles of impeachment received no Republican votes; the one conservative who backed them, the former Freedom Caucus member Justin Amash, left the party to become an independent. But there are hardly any moderate Republicans left who might have been open to impeachment because voters in 2018 replaced most of them with Democrats. In the end, Trump’s impeachment passed with more House votes than Bill Clinton’s. All but one of the Democrats first elected in last year’s blue wave voted for impeachment, some at real political risk, given the conservative lean of their districts.
“Today, especially today, I reflect on the founding documents that have set us apart in the world, leading people across generations and across the world to risk everything because of their belief in our great nation,” said the Virginia Democrat Abigail Spanberger, a Constitution scarf around her neck, her voice charged with emotion.
Women and people of color, of course, were originally outside the protection of those founding documents. But on Wednesday, the most diverse Congress in history declared that even the most powerful white man in the world should be bound by them. When Republicans act as if that’s a sacrilege, they show us what they worship.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.