17th January 2021
There is a story from ancient times about a ruler who had installed above their throne a sword that, but for being suspended a single hair, would come down and kill them.
This suspended sword would be a constant reminder to that ruler – or whoever else sat on the throne – of the anxiety of ruling, and of the reality of danger.
The intention was that such a threat would ensure that any person on the throne would always be in exactly the right frame of mind for the challenges of ruling.
This sword of Damocles is now the subject of a familiar phrase – a phrase so familiar that many will not know the backstory.
The contemporary relevance of this fable is perhaps obvious.
President Donald Trump has been impeached, but there has not yet been a senate trial for his conviction.
Such a trial is almost certainly not to take place before 20th January 2021 – three days’ time – when this presidential term ends by automatic operation of law.
This delay is unfortunate – as if what Trump did and did not do on 6th January 2021 does not warrant impeachment and removal from office then it is difficult to conceive of what would.
But the delay is not without its advantages.
The first advantage is that it avoids the possibility of an equally swift acquittal – for it cannot be assumed there would be sufficient support from Republican senators for conviction.
And an acquitted Trump would no doubt be emboldened and perhaps even more dangerous in these last few days of office.
And the second advantage is that the possibility of conviction now hangs over him like a sword suspended by a single hair.
A conviction – or even just a trial trial – after 20th January 2021 could still be consequential for Trump.
This is because there could also be a separate vote to disqualify him from holding office again – thereby, at a stroke, formally removing the main claim he may have for future political significance.
There could be other votes to remove various benefits that he would have as a former president.
And, for a politician highly conscious of his place in history, he will be the first president ever convicted after impeachment.
The better behaved Trump is before the 20th January 2021, this argument goes, the less likely such consequences will come to pass.
Alternatively, any recklessness or abuse of powers now will make the sword of a conviction and other sanctions dangle even more precariously.
Of course, this approach assumes Trump to be a rational politician (and this blog has averred previously that Trump’s behaviour can be seen as rational, if taken on its own terms).
But even if there is no rationality, and instead a simple regard of a political bully for the dynamics of political brute force and the power of leverage, the threat of a conviction may still have an effect.
Perhaps this is wishful thinking – and that there is nothing which can be done in the last three remaining days to prevent whatever abuses and misuses of power that Trump is still capable of.
But if those abuses and misuses of power do come to pass then at least there is the constitutional consolation prize of an increased likelihood of a conviction, even if it too late to make any practical difference to this presidency.
The sword of Damocles was both literally and metaphorically a suspended threat, intended to concentrate a ruler’s mind.
And over the next three days we shall see whether the possible conviction hanging over Trump will have a similar political effect.