Republicans and the Trolley Problem

We’re a week into President Joe Biden’s new administration, but while the new POTUS strives to implement a slew of progressive policies to begin to undo some of the damage done by the previous administration and build for the US’ future, the stain on the country left by Donald Trump is so stubborn that Democrats are still trying to scrub it out and mask the stench.

The historic second impeachment of a President, due to Donald Trump’s incitement of the insurrection in Washington D.C. on January 6th is ongoing with the article of impeachment having been delivered to the Senate. Jamie Raskin’s reading of the article included detailed description of Trump’s actions and reasoning behind why they amounted to insurrection, and summarised the crimes of which Trump is accused and what some of the results would be were the 45th President to be convicted in the Senate;
“Donald John Trump, who engaged in high crimes and misdemeanours by inciting violence against the government of the United States… Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the constitution prohibits any person who has ‘engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States from holding office under the United States’.”  

With the trial set to begin within the next couple of weeks, many Republicans such as Mitt Romney have shown support for the impeachment of Trump, while others have spoken out against it, chief amongst them have been Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Reasons for not convicting the former President, or for that matter even holding a trial, have ranged from defence of his indefensible actions to the claim that the trial should be forgone in order to promote unity.

It was revealed yesterday that all but five Republican Senators have appeared to oppose holding a trail for Trump, signalling a likely acquittal when the trial reaches its conclusion.

The US is now at a crossroads. Or a wye, if you Google the technical term like I just did. It is at the juncture of this wye that America finds itself now, and Republicans are faced with arguably one of the most commonly known ethical conundrums; the trolley problem.

The trolley problem is a series of thought experiments first outlined by English philosopher Phillipa Foot. The most common example is the “Bystander at the Switch” variant in which a person finds themselves at a lever that controls a set of switching tracks. There is an out-of-control trolley car headed for the junction which is currently set to divert the car onto a rail on which several people are trapped. On the other rail track is a single trapped person. The intended philosophical conundrum is whether it would be more ethical to do nothing, allowing the car to hit several people, or to pull the lever and actively cause the death of the single person on the other line.

The Trolley problem

A Lever and a Choice

The Republican party and more specifically, its Senators, are the bystanders at the switch. The ideals of American democracy, peaceful transferral of power and justice both social and legal are on one side of the tracks. This is the side of conviction. Former President Trump is on the other track, assumedly claiming that the train doesn’t exist or that the train is out to get him. To choose this track would be to choose to not convict the former President of the crimes of which he is demonstrably guilty.

It seems like a majority of Republican Senators are willing to throw the aforementioned American ideals under the bus, or in this case, the trolley car by choosing to allow the car of impeachment conviction to steer clear of Trump, thereby crushing said ideals.

It seems odd that they would be willing to allow this to happen, given that Trump is no longer President and that they have taken oaths to protect and defend the constitution that he has been attempting to subvert and arguably succeeding in desecrating for months, if not years. Why, then?

Much of it, I would think, stems from self-interest or self-preservation. Given the nature of the Republican National Convention (RNC) and the way it has acted sycophantically towards Trump to benefit from the frenzy the former President whipped up while running for and being in office, it might be understandable that Senators fear for their jobs should they vote to convict. It would be naïve to rule out the possibility of the RNC diverting funds away from impeachment-favouring Senators should they run for re-election in the 2022 mid-term elections or the 2024 cycle.

Separate from the RNC, Republican Senators may be looking to avoid upsetting Trump’s supporter base, who likely make up a significant portion of the Republican base in their home states and could have the power to unseat the Senators if and when they go for re-election. All of this factors into why self-interest could be key in Senate Republicans’ decision as to whether or not they will pull the lever on convicting Trump.

Another, perhaps more reasonable reason for sparing Trump from the trolley is fear. Whatever you think of Republicans, some of them, it must be assumed, are human. In all seriousness, a lot of these people will have husbands or wives, children and grandchildren and have a pretty justified reason for believing that should they publicly appear to support Trump’s conviction, the lives of their loved ones could very well be in danger.

Acquit For Your Lives

We have seen in recent months that Trump fanatics are not above violence and seditionist murder. In fact, despite the horrific events of January 6th it could almost be seen as lucky that there weren’t more. Riots were planned online for every state Capitol during the certification of election results. Every state Capitol. Without wanting to sound either dramatic or like I’m stating the obvious, that points to nationwide pockets of seditionist rebellion. With a few more lapses in security like that which was seen in D.C. on the 6th, there could have been a lot more deaths.

It isn’t too hard to understand Senate Republicans’ fear that, should they vote to convict, mobs could come for them and their loved ones. Remember, this is the same group of unstable thugs that constructed a set of gallows on the National Mall and chanted “hang Mike Pence”, a Vice-President that was arguably further to the right than Trump himself and who had received constant vitriolic praise from Trump and his fanatics during their administration.  

Peter Meijer, a Republican representative from Michigan, recently told MSNBC that he was “taking appropriate measures”, including buying a set of body armour and hiring a personal security detail for himself and his family, due to fear of a loss of control of law enforcement over rioters in D.C.

The Hill reported that three unnamed Republican representatives were subjected to death threats following the impeachment vote, and Politico published a statement revealing that several more representatives indicated a preference for voting for impeachment but feared “casting that vote could get them and their families murdered.” (Reports of published findings in The Hill and Politico stated by J. Vallejo of The Independent on January 14th, 2020)

A New Trolley Problem

I suppose the circumstances call for a bit of an adaptation to the trolley problem. In this scenario the tracks, the people tied to them, and the trolley are the same, but there is a bloodthirsty mob holding pitchforks and torches watching you, and the mob supports the lone man on his side of the track and will support him to the point of crushing those on the other side.

I must stress that it is due to these threats that I can understand the reluctance of some Republicans to publicly support and vote for impeachment and conviction. If anything, it humanises them after four years of willingly dehumanising themselves. The fact remains that this is a trolley problem, though.

Maybe the situation has put them on the tracks with Trump. Maybe to damn Trump is to leave themselves open to some form of damnation, be it in their career or worse. The question they face is whether fulfilling their oath to protect democracy is worth increasing the risk to themselves and their families.

Put that way, that is about as unenviable as it gets. I don’t know if I could make that decision, I really don’t. I’d like to think I could, particularly if I’d been prepared to take the oath that Senators in the US take. To take that oath would imply not only an understanding, but a deep-seated appreciation and belief of the solemnity of the oath and what it represents. Do the Senate Republicans allow themselves to be overcome by fear for theirs and their families’ lives and, in doing so, risk the integrity of the office they hold and the values that their country represents?

I suppose we have our answer in the way the vote seems to be swinging, and it’s disappointing that it seems Trump will not face justice. At least, that is for his role in the insurrection, there’s still plenty that he is likely to have to answer for.

Perhaps the more important ongoings in D.C. are that which I began this piece by referencing; the opening days and policies of Biden’s administration. I must admit, the concept of Trump being acquitted and America allowing itself to move forward isn’t the most unappealing one. The question is, can America move forward until Trump is not only out of the office, as he is, but out of the chance of running for office again? Impeachment and conviction is the one sure-fire way to ensure he doesn’t whip his fanatics up for another round in 2024. It seems unlikely that we’re going to see the brass balls and pull of the lever that’s going to be needed to make that happen, though.

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