In the aftermath of Wednesday’s violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, top voices on the American right have issued a call for lawmakers to “move on” without resorting to an impeachment proceeding against President Donald Trump. National Republican Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) has said the impeachment bid would “divide us” as a country, a call Fox News host Brian Kilmeade and other conservative personalities quickly echoed.
That Trump bears responsibility for that assault on the Capitol is not in question. The president constantly broadcasted lies about the results of November’s presidential election from his bully pulpit and across social media, fomenting fury. On Wednesday he repeated those lies to a mob of thousands, telling them to “show strength,” “fight like hell,” and strike fear into the hearts of lawmakers who refused to overturn Joe Biden’s win in the election. He then dispatched them to the Capitol.
When a great crime is committed, society can only move on when those responsible have been held accountable. This is a basic tenet not only of criminal law, but of truth and reconciliation commissions and other projects aimed at national healing. What exactly constitutes accountability and responsibility are, of course, dependent on the nature of the crime and the roles different figures played in its execution. But the principle is based on the idea that to be forgiven, one must first acknowledge responsibility and, in many cases, endure punishment. Without accountability, social wounds will not heal, but fester.
Republican leaders are not, in fact, asking the country to move on from the insurrection in any meaningful way. They are asking everyone to politely pretend that nothing happened, so that the conservative movement and elected GOP officials can avoid unpleasant consequences for their actions and rhetoric. Kilmeade’s point that “people are ready to explode” is, in this light, better understood as a threat than a plea for calm.
Let us be clear: Trump did not act alone. At the pre-riot rally on the National Mall, his lawyer, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, urged the mob to pursue “trial by combat” to overturn the election results. Trump supporters who invaded the Capitol chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” for the vice president’s refusing to throw out the electoral votes that made Biden president-elect. One rioter was photographed wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirt; others brought zip-tie handcuffs for detaining hostages. Still others brought a gallows to the Capitol, scrawled “Murder the Media” on its walls and beat a Capitol police officer to death with a fire extinguisher.
But the violence itself is only one dimension of Wednesday’s horror. What shocked the world was its political intent. This violence was committed as part of a concerted effort to overturn an election’s outcome at the direction of the losing candidate.
The political nature of the Capitol attack demands that accountability take political form. While the judiciary should handle criminal charges against individual insurrectionists, those who empowered and encouraged an assault on the legislative branch of the U.S. government should face consequences in the legislative branch. For Trump, there is no alternative to impeachment by the House and a conviction by the Senate.
The president is not the only bad actor here who must face punitive measures. Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) led the attempt in their chamber to overturn the election results, championing Trump’s conspiracy theories. Hawley gave a now-infamous fist-pump to the assembled mob shortly before they began rioting. Reps. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) and Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) both spoke at the Trump rally ahead of the attack and spread the lie that the election had been stolen from the president through mass fraud. All four men have decried the violence that ensued, but none have apologized for their role or even acknowledged any responsibility for the insurrection. If any of them respected their offices, they would resign. Since they will not, the House and Senate should expel them and let their constituents select replacements.
Those are the easy cases. But from there accountability gets tricky. The list of elected Republicans who voted with the mob is frighteningly long: eight senators and 139 House members voted against certifying the election results. These votes were cast after the insurrection, when it was abundantly clear to the entire country exactly what kind of reaction those votes would encourage. On Monday night, Capitol Police briefed Democrats on three more conspiracies to overthrow the government ahead of Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, potentially involving tens of thousands of armed terrorists, including one plot aimed explicitly at murdering Democrats to give Republicans control of the government.
The further down-ballot you go, the uglier the picture of the Republican Party gets. In Michigan alone, the GOP state party chair, statehouse legislators and local election officials went to extraordinary lengths to discredit Biden’s victory in the state and twist the legal system into overturning his win. The Rule of Law Defense Fund, a dark money organization Republican state attorneys general created in 2014, made robocalls encouraging people to attend the Wednesday rally and “stop the steal.” A Republican member of the West Virginia House of Delegates was even among those who stormed the Capitol (he has since resigned his seat).
The inescapable conclusion is that the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party is no longer a fringe. It’s the party. For decades, members of the GOP elite have believed that leaders committed to tax cuts and deregulation could maintain control over their coalition by indulging its crank elements on what they saw as minor points and deceiving them on others. Trump’s election made clear, however, that the popular constituency for free trade and free markets in today’s America is vanishingly small. And so the party’s elite has become increasingly beholden to violent extremists, culminating ― so far ― in Wednesday’s outrage.
Not all of these extremists, of course, think of themselves as murderous neo-Nazis. Early news reports were filled with stories and images of people who infiltrated the Capitol gawking at its opulence like tourists, or patiently explaining various conspiracy theories to reporters rather than assaulting them (though other members of the mob did attack journalists).
But the attack on the Capitol made clear that once-disparate elements of the conservative coalition have fused into a common culture with a violent hostility to the American government at its core. The Proud Boys knelt in prayer before storming the barricades as Confederate flags intermingled with a Jesus 2020 banner. Militant fascists, devout white evangelicals, disaffected working people and ultrarich small business owners recited QAnon lies to each other.
Each of these different factions initially rallied to Trump for different reasons, citing different grievances, some real and some imagined, some motivated by hate and some by frustration. Trump has cemented them as a political unit and persuaded them that American democracy itself is their enemy.
Trump may well be right, in a sense. Wednesday’s naked violence will make it still more difficult for his coalition to reach anything like a national majority. Trump lost the popular vote by more than 3 million in 2016. In 2020 he lost by 7 million. It is not hard to imagine a near-future in which the Trump coalition won’t need to believe a demagogue’s lies to be motivated into action against democracy, but will instead reason their way to it out of political self-interest.
In this they would be imitating Republican leaders, who got in bed with Trump back in 2016 knowing he was their best bet for achieving long-standing conservative economic and foreign policy goals.
They got what they wanted, and American democracy is paying the price. If the political system cannot or will not hold the instigators of Wednesday’s horrors accountable, more leaders will make that calculation in the future, with a more violent movement behind them.
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