Only 10 House Republicans had the integrity and the guts to vote for impeachment Wednesday, despite the unprecedented nature of the article before them. If the rest were so cowardly, ambitious or brainwashed that they felt they had to defend Trump, then let that be between them and what's left of their consciences.
But when they rose to hypocritically lament that impeaching Trump a second time would only "further divide a nation that is calling for healing," as Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana unctuously put it, every single Republican who even pretends to believe in that call for unity should have declared that the November election was entirely legitimate and that Joe Biden defeated Trump fair and square.
Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California came close — but not close enough. He said "Biden will be sworn in as president of the United States in one week because he won the election." But he failed to take the final necessary step and acknowledge that it is untrue that there were serious questions about how the votes were counted in swing states, that there were unspecified "irregularities" in the process, and that he and others were wrong to encourage the party's base to believe that.
Why is it so important that Republicans come clean about the Big Lie? Because that myth animated last week's "Stop the Steal" rally and the sacking of the Capitol. That's the whole reason thousands of National Guard troops had to bivouac inside the Capitol on Tuesday night and why the Mall will be closed to celebrants when Biden and Kamala D. Harris are sworn in on Inauguration Day.
During the campaign, Trump repeatedly claimed that "the only way we're going to lose this election is if the election is rigged." His supporters believed him. After he lost, he and his lawyers made baseless claim after baseless claim about "dead people" allegedly voting, about Biden's vote totals allegedly being fraudulently boosted in the wee hours, about voting machines allegedly manufactured by a company owned in part by the family of late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez. Trump actually won in a "sacred landslide," he maintained, but the election was "stolen." Once again, his supporters believed him.
Republican elected officials — except those lost in the wilderness of the QAnon conspiracy theory — knew full well that Trump was lying. They knew Trump's demands for recounts and his legal team's laughable strategies were bound to fail. But precious few Republican members of Congress called him out, and the GOP apparatus gamely went along with Trump's Big Lie that the election was somehow rigged.
Some Republicans fell in line with Trump's ridiculous claims because they knew he would be gone soon and didn't want to draw his ire in the months and weeks left in his term. Others, however, saw an opportunity to advance the party's long-term project of tilting the playing field by purging voter rolls and otherwise restricting the franchise in ways that disadvantage Democratic candidates and make it easier for Republicans to win.
Trump promised rank-and-file Republicans that somehow the election result would be reversed and he would remain in office. But Jan. 6 loomed. Once the electoral votes had been tallied and certified, his fiction could no longer be maintained. Trump told his supporters to come to Washington; he sent them up to Capitol Hill to "fight" for him — and the horror that ensued ended up making him the only president to be impeached twice.
The biggest problem facing the nation now is not what to do with Trump, who will soon become yesterday's news. The crisis is that more than 70 percent of Republican voters believe — falsely — that there was some kind of widespread fraud in the election. The essence of democracy is accepting both victory and loss as legitimate outcomes.
A GOP that internalizes and retains Trump's conspiratorial worldview is not a political party. It is a dangerous cult. Elected officials who have cynically — or cravenly — gone along with that cult's lies will not find it easy to reverse course.
Much more important than whether Trump is convicted in his coming trial is whether Republicans level with their constituents and tell them that Trump is lying.
If Republicans won't — or can't — tell the truth about the November election, they are no longer participants in our democracy. They are its enemies.