It’s easy, after an exhausting four years, for even progressives and liberals to throw their hands up on the topic of impeachment and say, “screw it, let’s move on.” Trump has been defeated, his role in our national nightmare will be massively reduced in a week’s time, and viewed a certain way, further action against him can look unnecessary or even harmful.
And that mindset, to which I admit I’ve succumbed more than once since the attack on the Capitol by a group of right-wing fanatics, is toxic to our democracy. Our norms have been steadily eroded to such an unthinkable degree over the last four years that it can be hard to understand what’s serious, what’s dangerous, and what’s just the latest frightening bit of political outrage theater. But let’s state this simply: If you play a role in encouraging a treasonous attack on the government of the United States of America, you cannot get away with it.
You cannot get away with it.
If you do, if the opposition lets it slide due to fear or fatigue or because it’s the path of least resistance, you have sown the seeds of something terrible, and one day—maybe even one day soon—you’re going to have to reap the whirlwind. This is not simply a matter of “moving on.” There is no moving on from what happened at the U.S. Capitol, and unless there’s serious accountability for those who undertook the violence and for the man who incited it, we’re broadcasting a message that deep down, it’s either not that important or—worse—we no longer have the strength to fight it.
To be a citizen in this country is to feel politically impotent almost all the time, and Democrats in Congress have seemed to embody this impotence in critical moment after critical moment. But to fail to act now is to make that impotence permanent, and undeniable, and to grant a moral victory to the lunatic fringe.
That’s not mere philosophy, either; once you concede that ground, you can’t get it back, and if there’s one thing Republicans have proven adept at over the last 40 years or more, it’s occupying lost ground and pushing ever rightward. Their extremist wing, embodied by the MAGA crowd, Q-Anon, anti-vaxxers, and every other hateful sector on the militant right will behave exactly the same way. We’re already past the point of putting this genie back in the bottle, but to fail at this critical hour will be to tacitly enable all the very real, very practical nightmares to come.
Look at the state of things in Congress this week:
Here you have a president who is so devoid of empathy or true patriotism that he’s willing to exploit the incoherent rage of his followers to tacitly threaten members of his own party who might otherwise break ranks and vote to impeach. Not only have they long been silenced by fear of losing those significant chunks of their base who are Trump loyalists, but now they actually have to fear being called out by the president in a way that threatens their lives and the lives of their families.
As the Washington Post noted, there’s a very good chance that we’re in for a long and violent insurgency from Trump’s most radical supporters, and that the storming of the Capitol was far from an isolated incident. That possibility makes it crucial that the U.S. government sets the correct tone now—it’s a matter of looking forward, not backward. And if the new insurgency senses weakness, well, to quote Lenin, “if you find mush, you push.”
It goes well beyond the symbolic. It’s not hyperbole to say that removing Trump from office and prosecuting him means everything to the near future of America. In a note to Nancy Pelosi in which he refused to invoke the 25th amendment, Mike Pence used language about “lowering the temperature” that we’ve heard quite a bit recently. Again, it’s tempting to think along those lines; “if we let it go, maybe Trump’s people will cool down.”
That’s not how this works. That’s not how bullies and autocrats work. Placatory measures teach them one lesson, which is that their enemies aren’t strong enough to stop them and they should continue their push for absolute power. It’s how it worked with fascists in Germany, and it’s how it will work here. It’s how it has worked here, actually, with decades of Republican policy that has gradually (and sometimes suddenly) stripped power from working people, widened the wealth gap, and destroyed social safety nets. All along, the failure of the Democrats to provide a proper alternative has hastened our national rightward slide, to the point that many of the people who should be inherent enemies of Republican economic measures are now their most loyal foot soldiers. That’s the price of concession as a reflex reaction. That’s the price of weakness.
The House successfully impeached Donald Trump on Wednesday, which is a solid start. Mitch McConnell, true to form, has refused to convene the Senate despite his apparent willingness to convict, so the entire measure is on hold until Jan. 19, a day before Biden’s inauguration. Doesn’t matter. Everything above still applies, and whenever they have a chance to push the conviction, Democrats must. The same is true for criminal charges after he steps down. There can be no pardon, no forgiveness, no sense that it’s better to just let it go and hope for the best.
If we’ve learned anything from the Trump years, there is no “best” here. We live in a country that’s polarized to the point of near hopelessness, and it’s going to take a major battle to ensure that we one day come out of the morass, and that the version of America that emerges is one that can take care of its people and doesn’t fall prey to the cruelty that’s raging through our culture on the right. You can’t win that battle if you don’t fight, and to give up now would be to hearten the opposition and let them know that you are deflated, and that in the long run, they will win.
That word, “win,” has been the centerpiece of Trump’s presidency from the start of his first campaign. It may seem ridiculous today to believe that the people who stormed the Capitol could ever seize power in America on a broader scale, but it’s worth remembering that historically, great revolutions have been carried out and won by fewer people. The 2020 election showed us that Trump has widespread support, and anyone who was watched the man act knows that he’ll continue to be the spiritual leader of the MAGA movement. He can’t stand the fact that he lost, he can’t stand to be out of the spotlight, and those two factors guarantee that he’ll use his pulpit to incite more violence and further the narrative that the election was stolen. Whether we like it or not, we have to treat this as a robust movement, and one with at least some degree of support among law enforcement and the military. Sleep on this, and the potential of a fascist coup rises dramatically.
You can’t stop it if you don’t fight, and whether Democrats want to fully embrace the truth or not, the fight has already begun. It’s imperative, at this critical juncture, that it’s not just one side doing the fighting.