The simplest explanation for the political cravenness of Donald Trump’s enablers is that they want to retain power. The corresponding puzzle is their reticence about using it: What is this power for if they are unwilling to exercise it in order to defend their branch of government?
That is a large question with an extended history. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have long been reluctant to utilize the power at their disposal to defend legislative authority. Their go-to move is to ask the courts to adjudicate disputes between the executive and legislative branches instead. But the trend is reaching its apotheosis in the former president’s second Senate trial, which yesterday vividly depicted a literal assault on Congressional power. Senators possess the authority to defend themselves institutionally. But in order to retain their power as senators, most Republicans appear unwilling to use it.
There are, of course, prudential reasons to oppose Trump’s conviction. But Republican senators are not giving them. They are instead retreating into a reflex to defend Trump out of what appears to be fear of their constituents.
David Mayhew established the power of reelection as a tool for predicting and explaining legislative behavior. But a deeper question lies beneath that one. Why do members of Congress want to be reelected? James Madison, in counterposing ambition to ambition, simply assumed a personal motive for power. What we have today is the entirely un-Madisonian spectacle of legislators who are reluctant to exercise power so they can keep it instead. It is a political hoarding compulsion: piling up authority with no intention to expend it on anything.
The underlying motive for reelection is a question political science needs to tackle rather than taking for granted. Americans’ instinctive explanation is often an assumption of corruption or greed, but that thesis only goes so far. Congressional salaries are respectable but not lavish, and old-school, cash-under-the-table corruption is vanishingly rare. Many members of Congress do go from Capitol Hill to lucrative careers in lobbying, but that explanation for the reelection motive, too, has its limits. If sheer greed is the motive, a long career in Congress, which is what makes lobbying connections lucrative, is an inefficient gateway.
Yuval Levin has observed that seats in Congress have become platforms for performance—more Twitter followers, cable news appearances and so forth. That was evident when the newly elected Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a North Carolina Republican and Trump acolyte who has inherited his muse’s propensity for saying the quiet part out loud, bragged to his colleagues that he built his staff around communicating rather than legislating. Communication is supposed to serve legislation. What happens when it becomes an end unto itself?
There may be another factor at play, which is the Schmittian impulse to view politics in terms of friends and, more important, enemies. In the age of Trump, many Republicans see themselves as the last barricade against the onrushing socialist hordes. Socialism, in turn, has become less a description of economic policy than a cultural symbol. The more intense the threat, the more important Republicans can feel about themselves and their moment in history. Yet that self-importance, too, is a kind of theater, especially when, in order to be seen manning the barricades, members of Congress are willing to disarm themselves of the weapons they actually wield at them.
There are still institutionalists in the Republican Party. Mitch McConnell has been an inconsistent one, but his underlying commitment to the Senate may change the dynamics of the trial. Those who are less interested in the institution than in their individual power, and who therefore fear jeopardizing their reelection, need to answer the existential question about losing their seats: So? Or, more to the point: If not an outright insurrection, what actually would induce you to spend the power you hoard?