04:06 - Source: CNN
Key questions in Trump's second impeachment trial

Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the book “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 
Michael D'Antonio

This quiet is so startling – like the moment when a siren is switched off – that it almost seems unreal. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, and votes cast by the American people, former President Donald Trump has been muted. However, this silence is not the same as absence. He remains, in fact, a threat to the political order, as the more rabid element of the Christian right would be poised to embrace him as a martyr. (Martyrdom has a significant place in the minds of many conservative Evangelicals.)

The only president ever to be impeached twice, Trump will soon be tried in the Senate on the charge of “inciting violence against the government of the United States.” His incitements included months of false claims that the 2020 election was rigged against him and a call for his supporters to “fight like hell,” which they heeded by immediately launching a bloody and fatal mob attack on the US Capitol. If found guilty, Trump will almost certainly be punished, in a second vote the that requires merely a majority of Senators present, by a lifetime ban on his ever again holding federal office.

No matter the outcome of the trial, Trump will still be regarded as a champion by a following that includes many who are familiar with the martyrs of their faith. Among the rioters who broke into the Capitol were many who prayed and others who carried religious symbols – after they drove legislators from their chamber and occupied it. We should expect some of these supporters, not only to recommit to Trump, but also to visit retribution upon Republicans who fail to defend him in his upcoming trial.

The danger of a martyred Trump was raised weeks ago by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio when he argued for Congress to let the defeated Trump fade away. A second impeachment would be “like pouring gasoline on fire,” said Rubio after the mob ransacked his workplace. “And, by the way, I think a lot of the people who are out there for the first time, after seeing what happened last week, sort of reckoning with the last four years, now all of a sudden they’re circling the wagons and it threatens to make him a martyr.”

One of many Republican officials who openly blend conservative religion and politics, Rubio should know that the mix can be potent. However, failing to impeach and then convict Trump would constitute appeasement on a grand scale. This was what Rubio and other Senate Republicans did when they ignored the evidence and failed to remove Trump at the end of his first impeachment trial. The result was evident for all to see in the president’s ferocious effort to overturn the election result and the televised assault on the Capitol.

In light of everything that happened in the past year, surely Rubio sees how Trump responds when he escapes accountability. Failing to hold him accountable in this second trial would embolden him further and signal to future Trumps that there will be no penalty imposed even if they incite a violent insurrection.

The members of Congress who voted for Trump’s second impeachment, among them 10 Republicans, recognized their duty to the country’s present circumstance and to its future.

When Republican senators like Rubio raise the martyr argument to resist fulfilling their roles in the same way, they obscure the current state of affairs in two ways:

First, having been impeached a second time, Trump is already a martyr in the eyes of the MAGA faithful.

Second, as a martyr he poses an immediate threat, not to the nation, but to the Republican Party and those GOP senators who vote to convict him.

Inside the GOP, the army that gathers behind the martyred Trump can wreak havoc by backing primary challenges against Republicans who fail to defend their leader. With a recent poll indicating that 73% of Republicans actually believe there was widespread voter fraud, their cause will appeal to millions who vote in party primaries.

Trump himself is well aware of the power of the martyr dynamic. In 2015, he refused to support the idea that Barack Obama be impeached, which had been a fever dream of a number of Republicans. “In a way you’ll make him a martyr,” warned Trump during a radio interview with the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

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    But the time for anyone to argue about whether acting to discipline Trump would make him a martyr has long passed. He already is one. Similarly, Republicans are well beyond the point where they should be worried about a schism on the political right. Trump and his followers are already talking about creating their own MAGA party should the GOP fail them. This schism is happening and the Republican Party as they knew it is already lost.

    The only open question, as Republican senators prepare to try Trump, is whether they are at last willing to protect their country from him.