Senate Republicans are now gearing up to acquit Trump in an impeachment trial on the specious rationale that putting a former officeholder on trial is unconstitutional, even though legal scholars, including some from the conservative Federalist Society, have broadly affirmed the constitutionality of such a proceeding.
While this argument is their most recent political tactic, we have to recognize and never forget the original plea many Republicans made for not pursuing Trump’s impeachment. The mantra many Republicans echoed cried that impeaching Trump would, in the typifying words of Tennessee Republican Representative Tim Burchett, “only worsen divisions, rather than uniting us.” Ohio Republican Representative Jim Jordan argued the move would “not promote ‘unity and healing.’” Virginia Republican Representative Bon Good called impeachment “offensive to the record number of law abiding Americans who voted for Trump.”
The calls of other Republicans revealed the implicit threat behind these putative benign pleas for unity and healing. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy asserted, “A vote to impeach would further divide this nation, a vote to impeach will further fan the flames.” Representative Debbie Lesko predicted impeachment would “further the unrest” and “possibly incite more violence.” Senator Lindsey Graham also insisted that impeachment “could invite further violence.”
So, the Republicans’ position is basically that we should refrain from holding Trump accountable for inspiring the murderous and overtly racist mob that stormed the Capitol for fear of offending and perhaps further inflaming racist and anti-Semitic violence against Americans, against America itself.
The Republicans are telling us we all just need to walk on eggshells and keep quiet lest we upset the bigoted and homicidal domestic terrorists who threaten us. It is analogous to telling a victim of domestic violence she should be careful not to anger or offend her partner lest she trigger his abuse. The responsibility, according to Republicans, is on those of us who oppose and see ourselves as victims of white supremacy to seek a rapprochement or reconciliation with the domestic terrorists who practice it.
In short, the Republicans are forwarding the same policy of appeasement that Britain espoused in the 1930s with regard to Adolph Hitler’s aggressive and unchecked expansionist aims, as he took over the Rhineland and annexed Austria.
And lest you deem this comparison an exaggeration, keep in mind that the members of the violent mob invading the Capitol waved Confederate and Nazi flags and wore garb featuring Nazi propaganda, such as a sweatshirt featuring the words “Camp Auschwitz.”
And let’s not forget Trump’s careful rhetoric that has promoted genocide at home. Even when he doesn’t execute policy, he inspires and mobilizes his racist army to action, as we saw both in the mass shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue and in El Paso. In both cases the shooters deployed Trump’s language of “invasion” to rationalize the mass killing of Jewish people and those of Mexican descent, respectively.
The pivot by Republicans from challenging Trump’s impeachment on the basis that it doesn’t promote unity and healing to attempting to dismiss it on constitutional grounds is effectively to evade and silence, to short-circuit, any possibly meaningful discussion and condemnation of racism, anti-Semitism, and terrorism in America—and thus to legitimize and normalize them as somehow acceptable belief systems, sets of practices, and political positions in a democratic culture and system.
Let’s not talk about the appropriateness, even legality, of inciting white supremacist violence against the nation and its people; let’s instead talk about the constitutionality of whether or not a president who has left office can be still be put on trial.
Underneath these political tactics, this shifting of the grounds of debate, remains the basic premise contained in the Republicans’ original plea of not offending those who voted for Trump.
It basically means, don’t rock the racist boat that Republicans still largely captain in courting American voters. Let’s not forget Lee Atwater’s 1981 interview in which he made clear the conservative agenda embodied in the Southern Strategy, which involved replacing the “n-word” with coded terms like “state’s rights,” “small government, “ and “tax cuts.”
Thomas Friedman has written hopefully that the ousting of Trump will somehow bring to the fore “principled” Republicans who are not part of Trump’s cult.
But Trump’s removal is only taking away the cover behind which Republicans, principled or otherwise, disguised their principles. We are seeing Republicans who held office long before Trump’s presidency refusing to hold Trump accountable for fomenting white supremacist violence and to speak out against and condemn racism, anti-Semitism, and the assault on democracy in the name of bigotry and downright virulent hate.
Instead, these Republicans, who repeatedly tell us it’s Trump’s “style” and not his “substance” they reject, effectively support deadly hateful politics as fitting within an acceptable democratic discourse, telling us we must allow and recognize its legitimacy in the name of healing and unity.
The massacres at the Tree of Life synagogue and the El Paso Walmart, as well as the violence at the Capitol, are really just acceptable democratic practices born of acceptable political positions in a democracy.
It’s ok to hold and act on beliefs that deny others basic human rights and even their lives in a democracy, the Republican would have us believe.
Nazism and racism should just be part of our mainstream political discourse in our wonderful democracy, the Republicans effectively tell us, just as Trump told us in the summer of 2017, after torch-carrying marchers shouted “Jews will not replace,” that there were “fine people” on both sides.
Let it proceed unchecked, the say. We wouldn’t want to offend any voters, they tell us. I guess they don’t care about offending people of color and Jewish people in America—or they don’t actually see them as legitimate voters.
The Republicans, indeed, would like their votes not to matter, just as they act like their lives don’t matter.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.