Three classic studies put our current troubles into perspective.

Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 “American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy” explained that the contradiction between the lofty ideals of the “American Creed” and the reality of racism chronically rends America. Currently, the Black struggle for equality confronts a White supremacy movement, some of whom are domestic terrorists.

Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, expanding on Myrdal, in 1981 discerned recurring bouts of “democratic diste mper” when American reality fails to live up to its democratic ideals. Periodically, frustration with the gap boils over. Huntington saw a “promise of disharmony” built into U.S. democracy. That’s one promise Trump fulfilled.

Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter’s oft-cited 1964 article, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” argued that Americans tend to swallow feverish conspiracy theories that feed paranoid demagoguery. Battles over the 2020 election exemplify such paranoia.

Horrific events lead to conspiracy theories, such as Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and the storming of Capitol Hill. Right-wing conspiracy theories flare every generation or two. In the early 1950s, McCarthyism convinced many that Democrats were turning over the U.S. to Soviet communism. In today’s conspiracy theory, most Republicans think the Democrats stole the 2020 election. Common denominator: vengeful Republicans raging at being out of power.

American politics is currently polarized between clashing conspiracy theories. One is that Democrats stole the election. No evidence has been found. The second is that Trump conspired with associates to overturn election results by invalidating state electoral counts. If all else failed, a mob would invade Congress. For this, there is growing evidence.

The impeachment trial of President Trump will not banish either conspiracy theory. Maybe nothing will. Senate Republicans have strong interests in blocking conviction — namely, not admitting error and their own winning re-election. Most Republicans still believe that Biden lost and is illegitimate. Accordingly, in their minds, violent rebellion is justified, even praiseworthy. The GOP has partially merged with QAnon; the House now has at least two believers.

Unity? You can’t unify snarling opposites. Efforts to forget the past and “move on” require repressing facts and memories, leaving wounds that never properly heal. For the sake of rehabilitating the defeated Confederacy, Reconstruction, including Black voting, was effectively repealed. The result has been an eternal “lost cause,” lynching and voter suppression. The past, as Faulkner noted, “is not even past.” Let’s hope the 2020 Georgia vote proves otherwise.

As more Trump voters back away from Trump, Republican leaders such as Sen. McConnell and Rep. McCarthy grope for an elusive middle ground on Trump to keep the party together — a difficult, clumsy task. Is there a middle ground?

Can the shift be accelerated? Yes, by officeholders admitting that Trump bullied them to support untruths. Revelations that legislators and their families are threatened — last week, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) — shock voters. Trump’s impeachment trial and court cases may uncover damning evidence.

The trick will be to get Trump supporters to realize that he was not really a conservative and has ruined the Republican Party. Republican Never Trumpers who formed the Lincoln Project in 2019 to restore a traditional or “institutional” GOP are the angriest anti-Trump figures. When Steve Schmidt speaks, steam comes out of the TV. Trump-inclined Republicans are far more likely to listen to traditional Republicans than they are to Democrats.

Figures outside of politics may succeed where Congress can’t. The social media, law firms, sports personalities and corporations who spurn Trump have more clout and credibility, precisely because they ain’t government. Who has greater mass influence, Bill Belichik or Liz Cheney? The cutoff of corporate donations to House members who voted Jan. 6 against certifying the election was a real attention-getter.

What will happen to the Trumpers, who still constitute most Republican voters?

Christian nationalists will stay loyal to Trump or his successors; a few will keep espousing violence. Some will revert to traditional Republicanism, some slink back into nonvoting and some form a new party, which Trump has proposed. Republicans will be fighting among themselves for years, giving Democrats an electoral advantage and enabling them to push a much more progessive agenda than Obama’s.

A bit of wisdom goes: “Never attribute to conspiracy that which can be explained by stupidity.” Trump shows elements of both. Well before Jan. 6, he was conspiring with federal and state justice officials and congressmen to interfere with the election. But its execution was incoherent and clumsy. Trump’s ineptitude set up a failed conspiracy.

This isn’t the end of the Republic. If Huntington is right, we are experiencing another bout of democratic distemper that only time may heal. That will not, however, immunize us for the next bout. Ultimately, what we’re looking at here is us — our political culture, our lofty ideals and our inability to fulfill them.