This party-wide retreat from memory and accountability has been symbolized by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s ritual renunciation of his initial moral sanity. When the violence was fresh, he affirmed that President Donald Trump “bears responsibility for [the] attack on Congress by mob rioters.” More recently, under political pressure, McCarthy (R-Calif.) claimed: “I don’t believe he provoked it.” In the process, a whole generation of idealistic young people has been given a reliable guide to public character: Don’t be like this man.
The desire to erase the memory of unpleasant events is psychologically natural. But it would be disastrous in a democracy under continuing threat. The Capitol insurrection — and the broader attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election — lies like an undigested lump in the gut of our political system. How can we be asked to forget events that we haven’t fully processed? The president of the United States, with the broad approval of GOP leaders, systematically attempted to invalidate millions of votes from disproportionately minority voters. When that effort failed, Trump invited a mob to Washington, whipped up its resentments, directed it toward Capitol Hill, urged it to intimidate legislators and disrupt a constitutional process, challenged it to “fight,” and then refused to intervene while domestic terrorists hunted for Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in the hallways of the Capitol.
Would Republican senators still want the country to put these events behind it if 20 Capitol Police officers had been beaten to death rather than one? If Pelosi had actually been zip-tied and held hostage? If Pence had been murdered? At what point would executive incitement of a violent mob to intimidate the legislative branch meet GOP senators’ exacting standards for conviction? For what similar actions by a Democratic president would they allow bygones to be bygones?
The problem here is a general lack of Republican shame. In everyday life, shame is a generally unhealthy emotion. In a politician, it is irreplaceable. The possibility of political shame is required by the existence of political honor. Like those in the U.S. military, federal legislators pledge to protect and defend the Constitution. This transforms their job into a calling that involves the possibility of personal sacrifice.
Those politicians, such as Trump, who view the political enterprise as nothing more than a dirty game are quite literally shameless. Those such as McCarthy, who choose cowardice over sacrifice, are discrediting their calling.
But what of Republican members of the Senate impeachment jury? A couple — namely Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) — are partially responsible for provoking the rage that led to the sacking of the Capitol. Along with a few colleagues, they voted to accede to the demands of the mob, even after its violent attack. They are some of American history’s most reckless violators of democratic honor. And they seem firmly attached to their ignominy.
Most Senate Republicans, however, voted against the mass disenfranchisement of minority voters. Yet they hesitate to extend Republican misery through a trial, claiming it would draw attention away from other urgent legislative matters.
A political case can be made that only Senate conviction would liberate the GOP from its Trump captivity. But the justifications run deeper. On the pages of newspapers and in dark corners of the Internet, a consensus is taking shape about the historical meaning of the Capitol assault. Violent radicals want to interpret it as the first shots — the Lexington and Concord — of a growing racist revolution, granted the legitimacy of sponsorship by the president of the United States. A Republican senator who votes against conviction of the president would feed this dangerous narrative and empower some of the most vicious and violent people in the United States. That would merit enough shame to define a political career.
The main reason we cannot throw this event down a memory hole is that the social threats that produced it are ongoing. If the Capitol attack is not fully and completely repudiated, then “January 6!” will be strengthened as a radical rallying cry. And an un-convicted Trump would do his best to ensure it. I suspect he is privately proud of the Bastille-storming performed in his honor.
By convicting Trump, Senate Republicans would be saying that the insurrection was something very different: the last gasp of a dying presidency, a uniformly condemned outbreak of hatred and an act of eternal dishonor.