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Republicans acquitting Trump again is the worst in a string of bad bets

Imagine going all in on Donald Trump in 2021.
Photo illustration of an elephant in the spotlight walking a across a tight rope.
It has been 20 years of a high-wire act without a net.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

The Republican Party is, in theory at least, grounded in conservative ideals. For the entirety of the 21st century, though, what has defined the party's politics has been a series of high-wire acts, constantly pursuing political gain and hoping the cost won't be too high. These gambles have cost the country billions of dollars and thousands of lives. Their 43 votes to acquit former President Donald Trump are just the latest high-stakes risk with no reward — and potentially the one with the biggest consequences.

I came of political age in the immediate aftermath of the Republican Party-led charge to war in Iraq. The neoconservative wing rolled what it was sure was a set of loaded dice, convinced that the people of Iraq would welcome us as liberators. Instead, what we got was a war that cost an estimated $2.2 trillion by 2013, a less stable Middle East, the rise of the Islamic State terrorists a decade later and the evaporation of the budget surplus that Republicans had been left in January 2001. It's a wager the party has done its best to shove down the memory hole in recent years, highlighting Trump's (belated) opposition to "forever wars" without noting who started those wars.

Rather than be chastened after their bet that reducing regulations on Wall Street would somehow trickle wealth down to the masses (it did not) resulted in the 2008 financial crisis, Republicans decided to gamble with the credit of the United States of America — twice in two years. The second time involved specifically preferring to put the country in a position to purposefully default on its loans rather than allow poor people to have access to health care. None of it was necessary, and none of it ended well for Republicans. After painful budget cuts, reductions in the country's credit rating and two weeks of a government shutdown, Obamacare is still the law of the land.

And then we had a laundry list of bets made during the Trump era. Some were placed by voters, some by elected officials, and all crashed and burned. There was the bet that Trump would eventually become more presidential. There was the bet that he'd be a political net positive for the Republican Party. There was the bet that he would be a populist voice for the little guy or a force for American strength around the world.

Instead, Republicans in the last four years lost control of the House, the Senate and the White House. The party itself is shrinking as people change their registrations in the aftermath of the election. The country is faces much higher deficits after (bad-faith) predictions that businesses would spend windfalls from tax cuts on growing the economy. Allies overseas, meanwhile, are less certain than ever before about the ability of the U.S. to be the leader of the free world.

Even with this chaos, even with Trump's clear intention to cheat in the 2020 election, Republicans didn't know when to fold 'em. All Senate Republicans but one voted to keep him in office last year. Some insisted that Trump would be cowed moving forward, despite their votes to acquit him. Trump had learned a "pretty big lesson" from impeachment, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said at the time. He clearly did not.

Cramer and other Republicans are wagering America's future — without any evidence — on the idea that Trump is politically weakened enough to no longer be a threat.

And yet after all of that, the decisions of 43 Republican senators to vote to acquit Trump may have been the worst bet the party has ever placed. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., told reporters Friday that the trial had disqualified Trump from running for future office, even if the Senate had left the door open for him.

"There's some support that will never leave, but I think that is a shrinking population and probably shrinks a little bit after this week," Cramer said.

Cramer and other Republicans are wagering America's future — without any evidence — on the idea that Trump is politically weakened enough to no longer be a threat. They're betting that nobody will ever come along who will try to steal an election like Trump did but do it better, more efficiently, more effectively. They're betting that they won't be held responsible should that day ever come.

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., offered a prescient warning during the third day of the trial, telling senators that he wasn't worried that Trump would run for office again in 2024 and win. "I'm afraid he's going to run again and lose. Because he can do this again," Lieu said of the chaos Trump unleashed on Congress.

Lieu made a strong point. But Republicans are willing to go all in on the chance that he was wrong. I shudder to think about what we'll have lost when the cards hit the table.