The former president was impeached for a second time in the House of Representatives, most recently for “engaging in high Crimes and Misdemeanors by inciting violence against the Government of the United States.” In other words, he egged on the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol early this month. And so on Monday evening, with the Capitol blessedly quiet and calm, one could hear the footfalls of the legislators on the stone floor as they walked two by two, solemnly focused on their task. A few camera shutters clicked, but mostly there was an eerie silence in a space that has been the location of so much tumult, so many emotions in such a short span of time.
The impeachment managers moved though a room filled with the ghosts of our distant past and the fresh memories of our troubled present.
The Capitol was the crime scene on Jan. 6, the place where citizens came to kill their own democracy by denying the results of a fair and square election. Then, only two weeks later, on Inauguration Day, it was the setting where our representatives stood and admired the stability and fortitude of the American system. The simple comity of now-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell toward House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was greeted by observers like gladiatorial detente. There at the Capitol lies the worst of us, as well as our mediocre selves. The best that we have to offer has gone missing.
Tuesday afternoon, the sad hum continued. The senators were sworn in as jurors in the upcoming trial. And in groups of four, they walked to the front of the chamber to sign the oath book. They bent low over a wooden table as a clerk handed each one a pen, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who was not wearing a mask even as he loomed over the clerk. In between the calling of names, a rush of white noise filled the microphone, emphasizing the plodding bureaucracy of the proceedings. Impeachment has become part of the country’s churn. Frustrating, unsatisfying but necessary.
Impeachment moved forward while President Biden spoke to the country about systemic racism and his belief that America can’t progress in a full and free way unless it brings all of its citizens along. Biden was at the White House, busy signing executive orders putting an end to the Department of Justice’s use of private prisons and reinvigorating the Department of Housing and Urban Development to root out long-standing inequity in the housing market, and meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the country was trying to sort out just how it felt about its own Constitution.
The impeachment carried on even though some Senate Republicans aimed to declare it unconstitutional to hold the former president to account for attempting to subvert the Constitution, which leaves one wondering exactly what these legislators think it means to take an oath to uphold the country’s governing document. Other Republicans — Sen. Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley — have lamented that impeachment is too divisive or tedious, too distracting or difficult — or simply too mean.
They want to just move along — smiling politely in the face of the wreckage. The whole nation wants to move on. How could we not? But we can’t until we’ve dealt with the mess that lies all around us. We can’t simply step over it and put it in the past because the muck is too wide and deep. We need to wade in. We need to confront the president’s part in the storming of the Capitol by people who billed themselves as patriots and come to a much needed, fuller recognition that it was part of the psychic violence that happened long ago, when so many members of our society weren’t considered Americans at all.
Biden has rightfully turned his attention to strengthening voting rights and safeguarding them. The Senate is now charged with assessing the man who stoked extremism, racism and fear, who caused the veracity of the vote in the recent election to be questioned because he questioned the validity of the voters themselves. The impeachment of the former president forces us to wrestle with a past that allowed such poisonous thinking to flourish and to become a rallying cry.
A year ago, when Trump was impeached for the first time, the sight of the House managers striding through Statuary Hall had the air of high drama. The buildup had been slow and complicated. The formal transfer of documents was a triumphant climax for a substantial percentage of the country that was immensely frustrated and angry. This time, the impeachment proceedings were fast and furious after a devastating breach of democracy. The walk to the Senate chambers didn’t resonate with rage or righteous indignation. Mostly, in the managers’ sober dress and silence, there was little more than sorrow that it had come to this.
The country’s grievous past has so thoroughly spoiled the present that even the Constitution has been called into question. And instead of looking to it for guidance and grounding, it has become a damnable vessel of doubt.