Albuquerque Journal

We must convict Trump so ‘Jan. 6’ isn’t a rallying cry

- MICHAEL GERSON Columnist Email michaelger­

WASHINGTON — As we move away from the events of Jan. 6, many elected Republican­s seem to be settling on a strategy of collective amnesia. Some propose to forget the unpleasant past in the cause of national “healing.” Others adduce a thin constituti­onal argument against the impeachmen­t of a former president — a position that would effectivel­y grant immunity from impeachmen­t to every president during his last few months in office, when the opportunit­y to subvert an election is greatest.

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 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 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, Missouri, and Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas, — 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.

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