Underlying the impeachment debate was a struggle over what steps are required to bring the nation together.
The solutions endorsed by most Republicans? Amnesia, evasion and denial.
Amnesia about their own party’s role in encouraging Trump for four years. Evasion of the party’s complicity in advancing Trump’s dangerous falsehood that President-elect Joe Biden stole an election that the Democrat won decisively. And denial of their own responsibility, outlined eloquently by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) during the debate over electoral college votes, to tell their own supporters the truth about the election’s outcome, and about Trump himself.
There is a school of thought — it has subscribers beyond the Republican duck-and-cover crowd — that impeaching Trump would get in the way of Biden’s effort to launch his presidency in a brisk and unifying way.
Republicans latched onto this argument Wednesday. In opposing impeachment, few of them tried to defend Trump. They just sought excuses to vote with him one last time. Thus, many who last week were willing to rip the nation apart by voting to challenge Biden’s victory were suddenly apostles of St. Francis of Assisi. Warm togetherness, they insisted, was their only purpose.
“Let us look forward, not backward,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said on the House floor during the debate. “Let us come together, not apart. Let us celebrate the peaceful transition of power to a new president, rather than impeaching an old president.”
That sounds lovely until you recognize a hard lesson from history: After a deeply divisive struggle, there can be no durable unity if one side continues to propagate myths, if those who have ripped a nation apart refuse to acknowledge their role in deepening its schisms, if crimes committed are swept under a rug woven from the threads of politically convenient forgetfulness.
The effort to create a new order of racial justice in the South after our Civil War was thwarted for nearly a century because of myths spun by Confederates who cast a war for slavery as a noble lost cause and Reconstruction, an effort to democratize an unjust society, as oppressive. The Weimar Republic, Germany’s noble democratic experiment, failed because large parts of the country’s political elite refused to acknowledge its own failures in World War I and never accepted the new regime.
In our time, the United States will move forward only if Trump’s radical attacks on democracy itself are recognized and condemned, only if his false claims are repudiated by his own party, only if every form of false equivalence aimed at diminishing or relativizing Trump’s shameful behavior is thoroughly and completely discredited.
It fell to a brave Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, to offer her party a better path. Her eloquent case for impeachment on Tuesday was cited again and again by Democrats.
“The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the President,” Cheney wrote. “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”
Thus did the No. 3 House Republican stand up even as Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, one of Trump’s most servile defenders, urged the House to “resist the temptations of further polarization.” But guess what? It took this fight and this outrage to get McCarthy (Calif.), finally, to acknowledge that Biden won the election legitimately. The polarizers only oppose polarization when their bluff is being called.
“You know,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), “what happened would never have happened if everybody stood up in unity and called out the president when he was not telling the American people the truth, when he was pushing a big lie. We will never have unity without truth, and also without accountability.”
Last Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who is one of the most conciliatory members of either party, spoke as the former Divinity School student he was once was. “There can only be reconciliation,” he said, “with repentance.” And as McGovern suggested, the road to repentance will be paved by truth and accountability. We can be thankful that the 10 House Republicans who voted for impeachment took the first steps.