Commentary: Trump, Hard Truths, and Consequences

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Posted: Jan 12, 2021 12:30 PM
Commentary: Trump, Hard Truths, and Consequences

Source: AP Photo/John Minchillo

Last Wednesday, the United States Capitol was stormed by a mob dominated by right-wing militia members, conspiracy theorists, and other assorted Trump supporters.  They smashed windows, stole property, and sent more than a dozen police officers to the hospital, killing one of them (another responding officer subsequently took his own life).  One particularly horrific video depicted these self-stylized "patriots" savagely beating an officer with objects including an American flag pole, as onlookers and participants chanted "U-S-A."  They committed these grave offenses in order to disrupt the constitutionally-mandated counting of electoral college votes, certified by each state, by members of Congress.  Think of it: These rioters laid siege to America's legislative chambers as a means of violently and criminally interrupting an essential component of our republic's sacred ritual of transferring power peacefully, following a free and fair election.  And they succeeded, albeit temporarily.  After a lengthy delay, order was restored, the count was completed, and the stage was set for the next president to take office, on schedule.  Those who participated in the melee are being arrested and charged.  All should pay.  Some should pay dearly.

The person most responsible for this disgraceful desecration is the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump.  For months, he has seeded and cultivated the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him, beginning on election night.  As his campaign's legal team filed a flurry of legal challenges over the ensuing weeks, Trump and some of his most prominent backers advanced wild and baseless accusations.  They failed spectacularly in court because the evidence they endlessly promised was imminently forthcoming did not exist.  Afforded high-profile opportunities to prove their claims in courts of law, including before judges appointed by the president himself, they either lost in routs or punted -- not even attempting to match their public rhetoric with their supposed 'evidence' (and lying about why).  They definitively and repeatedly proved themselves totally willing to lie to their supporters, but not to judges, the latter of which has legal consequences.  In spite of this string of legal humiliations, their lie -- that the election was 'stolen' via corruption and fraud -- lived on, amplified with increasing intensity by the man by whom and for whom it was conjured in the first place.  The same man whose pride simply could not countenance or acknowledge an electoral defeat.  And thus an alternate, false reality was erected like scaffolding around his ego.  Many partisans who implicitly trust whatever he tells them have evidently found a fairy tale about cheating preferable to grappling with the cold, hard reality of a loss.  

Passionate, ill-informed feelings aside, the empirical truth is that Donald Trump was beaten by Joe Biden.  Any irregularities or fraudulent ballots, which are present in virtually all major elections, and must be minimized to the greatest extent possible, did not occur on a scale anywhere close to large or systemic enough to have impacted the outcome in any of the closely-contested states Trump lost -- let alone enough of them to tip the overall election result.  Yet the president made a decision to keep lying about this, over and over again, apparently convincing just enough of his supporters in one key state as to allow Democrats to sweep a pair of critical runoff elections and win back majority control of the US Senate.  Then, having encouraged his most ardent loyalists to rally in Washington on the day of the formal electoral count, he addressed thousands of them as Congress prepared to execute its constitutionally-prescribed duties.  A sampling of his words:

We won this election and we won it by a landslide. This was not a close election. You know I say sometimes jokingly, but there's no joke about it. I have been into elections. I won them both and the second one I won much bigger than the first, okay? Almost 75 million people voted for our campaign, the most of any incumbent president by far in the history of our country; 12 million more than four years ago...There's never been anything like this. We will not let them silence your voices. We're not going to let it happen. Not going to let it happen...If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election...All Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the states to recertify, and we become president, and you are the happiest people...Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us. And if he doesn't, that will be a sad day for our country because you're sworn to uphold our constitution.

Now it is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy. And after this, we're going to walk down and I'll be there with you. We're going to walk down -- We're going to walk down. Anyone you want, but I think right here, we're going to walk down to the Capitol -- And we're going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women and we're probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them. Because you'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong... We are going to the Capitol, and we are going to try and give--the Democrats are hopeless, they are never voting for anything, not even one vote but we are going to try--give our Republicans, the weak ones because the strong ones don't need any of our help, we're try--going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country. So let's walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Some Trump defenders will hasten to note that he mentioned marching "peacefully" on precisely one fleeting occasion during his remarks, but his appeals for "strength" over "weakness" were emphasized again and again.  At the same rally, erstwhile hero turned disgraced attorney Rudy Giuliani also told the gathered throng that the fabricated election 'controversy' must be resolved with a "trial by combat."  None of this was subtle.  The crowd's most fanatical elements got the message loud and clear.  They trudged over to the Capitol building to act as enforcers of a lie, demanding that Congress undertake a quixotic and profoundly undemocratic action to effectively nullify an election.  If and when that failed, they would insist that the Vice President exercise nonexistent powers to unilaterally toss out the certified electoral vote count.  All of this insanity came in service of a groundless, embarrassingly unproven, pernicious, and ultimately lethal lie -- chiefly and shamelessly promulgated by the president, and cravenly indulged or abetted by some members of Congress and other influential figures.  

After the chaotic violence was unleashed, the president eventually got around to encouraging his horde to stand down, flattering them and again repeating the 'stolen election' mendacity several times, for good measure.  He reportedly did not check in on the well being of his unfailingly loyal Vice President, who was swept to a secure location by body guards as thugs roamed the halls of the legislature they invaded, chanting "hang Mike Pence."  The President and Vice President would not speak at all for the better part of a week.  At long last on the evening after the bloodshed, Trump released a short video quasi-conceding, declining to reiterate his dangerous lies, allowing that a new administration will take office on January 20th, and committing to an orderly transition.  He separately declared that he would not attend Joe Biden's inauguration, the first such boycott by an American president in more than 150 years.  

More destruction is currently being plotted or encouraged.  The president should be doing everything he can to discourage any more senseless violence being carried out in the name of a bogus cause he invented as a personal salve.  Despite his newly-restricted social media platform (like others, I'm troubled by the head-spinning flurry of de-platforming decisions by tech companies, especially after this recent episode), he still wields a powerful megaphone.  A major factor in this endeavor ought to include explicitly acknowledging that he was, in fact, defeated in a legitimate election.  I realize this is highly unrealistic, given his established modus operandi (see update).  Every Republican who wishes to remain even remotely worthy of remaining in a position of power should publicly recognize that same fundamental truth about the election.  This constitutes the absolute bare minimum.  Meanwhile, a second impeachment is now upon us (I opposed the first, despite recognizing the president's abuse of power), as talk of other alternatives, such as a formal censure, swirls.  From my perspective, Trump unequivocally committed impeachable acts and deserves the disrepute of becoming America's first twice-impeached president.  Calls for "unity" ring hollow from members of Congress who voted to reject the counting of accurately-allocated electors, especially after the riot.  One can't 'never mind' what we all just witnessed.

But must the needed accountability come in the form of a mostly-partisan impeachment, a conviction vote (likely unsuccessful, possibly delayed by months), and a potential follow-on vote to bar Trump from holding federal office again?  I can't bring myself to actively oppose any of those prospects, frankly, but I also won't dismiss arguments that perhaps the first step of our sorely-needed healing process might involve allowing Trump to simply exit the White House in a matter of days, his approval ratings in tatters, to await history's harsh judgment.  Decisions about consequences must not be driven by fear of how the mob might react, of course (and yes, infuriating and damaging Left/media double standards on mob violence undoubtedly exist).  Violent agitators and their allies don't get to start a fire then complain about "divisive" gasoline being poured onto it.  But for the tens of millions of Americans who voted for Trump -- yet who reject the conspiratorial lies and the violence we saw last week -- it's possible that a procedural de-escalation might help shepherd in something approaching a return to normalcy.  Maybe that's naive.

What about the argument that impeachment is needed here as a punitive act, to make an important point?  And what about this valid question: If inciting -- I use that word in the colloquial sense, not the legal one  -- a violent mob to disrupt the electoral vote count isn't worthy of an impeachment, what is?  I have no snappy or persuasive counterpoints to offer, aside from merely sharing my sense that a harsh (and almost certainly more bipartisan) resolution of censure may be the better course of action under the circumstances, even as I fully agree that the presidential conduct in question is impeachable.  As I wrestle with this, I'd direct you to this, this, this, this, and this -- divergent views that have influenced my thinking on this matter. What about the matter of officially voting to prevent Trump from holding high office in the future?  My concern is that this step would be seen as more politically-motivated than anything else by many of his supporters -- arising, they'd say, from Democratic fear and Republican self-interest.  Truthfully, if the Republican Party and its electorate are demented enough to re-nominate this man in 2024, they should be permitted to self-immolate.  That's their choice to make.

Finally, a personal note: As someone who lodged protest votes in the last two presidential elections, rather than pull the lever for the nominee of the party with which I most closely align, I fear an ugly battle over the future of that party lies ahead. It threatens to pit those who still believe Trump's insidious election lie (or pretend to) against those who don't.  Perhaps I'm wrong; maybe focused opposition to total Democratic control over the next few years will usher the GOP to its next chapter.  We'll see.  In the meantime, I personally choose not to become a Democrat, a party that is hostile to far too many of my core beliefs to earn my support.  I also decline to follow the principled lead of others to explicitly sever ties to the Republican Party, which I view as a tainted vessel.  My goal as both a concerned citizen and a conservative-leaning journalist and analyst is to continue to express my views with transparency and intellectual honesty.  My hope is that even those who disagree with my opinions and conclusions can at least respect them, and if they cannot, so be it.  Even as we collectively live through this dark chapter in this nation's history, my prayer is that we never lose sight of the incredible historical blessing we enjoy as citizens of the greatest country in the history of the world -- and that we do our duty to help keep and protect this precious, extraordinary republic we've been gifted.

UPDATE - Rather than belatedly correcting the record and evincing any semblance of contrition, the president seems to be going the menacing, 'rioters' veto' route today, warning against impeachment advocates inflaming the "tremendous anger" and "danger" he himself has generated and fanned.  He's unapologetic.  If anything, this may convince more Republicans to vote yes on impeachment.