The underlying principle here, from Stone to Iran-Contra, is authoritarian but consistent: Members of the ruling clique are entitled to criticize law enforcement without sanction, and entitled to leniency when they commit crimes on the boss’s behalf. Everyone else is entitled to kneel.
Authoritarian nations come in many different stripes, but they all share a fundamental characteristic: The people who live in them are not allowed to freely choose their own leaders. This is why Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, in his speech announcing his vote to convict on the first article of impeachment, said that “corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.”
Democracies are sustained through the formal process by which power is contested and exchanged. Once that process is corrupted, you have merely the trappings of democracy within an authoritarian regime. Such governments may retain elections and courts and legislatures, but those institutions have no power to enforce the rule of law. America is not there yet—but the acquittal vote was a fateful step in that direction.
The process by which a democracy becomes an authoritarian regime is what social scientists call authoritarianization. The process does not need to be sudden and dramatic. Often, democratic mechanisms are eroded over a period of months or years, slowly degrading the ability of the public to choose its leaders or hold them to account.
Legislators in functioning democracies need not agree on substantive policy matters—they might fight over environmental safeguards, for example, or tax rates, or immigration, or health care. But no matter the party or ideology they support, they must hold sacred the right of the people to choose their own leaders. The entire Senate Republican Conference has only one legislator willing to act on that principle. The lesson Trump has learned from impeachment is that the Republican Party will let him get away with anything he wants to do.
Democratic backsliding can be arrested. But that is an arduous task, and a Trump defeat in November is a necessary but not sufficient step. Many Americans have doubtless failed to recognize what has occurred, or how quickly the nation is hurtling toward a state of unfreedom that may prove impossible to reverse. How long the Trump administration lasts should be up to the American people to decide. But this president would never risk allowing them to freely make such a choice. The Republican Party has shown that nothing would cause it to restrain the president, and so he has no reason to restrain himself.