The lessons of impeachment

Crowds arrive for the
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: Crowds arrive for the "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Trump supporters gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Despite a mountain of irrefutable evidence that Donald Trump was guilty of inciting an insurrection, the U.S. Senate acquitted him.

History will record this vote as a shameful abdication on the part of Republican senators. Only seven of them had the decency and the respect for our democracy to vote to convict: Richard Burr of North Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

In a singular act of cowardice, Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell voted to acquit Trump and then proceeded to excoriate him for his “disgraceful dereliction of duty.” McConnell knew Trump was guilty as hell but hid behind a legal fig leaf to acquit him. If McConnell had the courage of his convictions, he might have been able to bring enough of his colleagues around not only to give Trump what he deserved and to spare the country the possibility that Trump will ever be able to run for office again but also to send a message, loud and clear, to any future president that assaulting our democracy will not be tolerated.

This urgent message has now not been sent. That is the most tragic lesson of this impeachment trial.

Let us not divert our eyes from how grave the assault on our democracy was on Jan. 6, and from the character of that assault.

I don’t use the term “insurrection” to refer to what happened on Jan. 6. As my friend Allen Ruff has noted, “insurrection” is a value-neutral term. In our history, there were slave insurrections, for instance.

This wasn’t so much an insurrection as it was a putsch — a fascist coup attempt. We should not lose sight of the fact that this was a far right, white supremacist crowd that stormed the Capitol. The stormtroopers were flying the Confederate flag and using the “N” word and one was wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” shirt.

Convicting Trump would have dealt a blow to this fascist movement in America. But now that movement will probably claim vindication and keep growing. That is the scariest lesson of this impeachment trial.

The most embarrassing lesson of this impeachment trial, for Wisconsinites anyway, is that we have a raving lunatic representing us in the U.S. Senate, and his name is Ron Johnson.

Just hours before the impeachment trial began, Johnson went on Fox News to try to blame Speaker Nancy Pelosi, of all people, even though the mob was trying to hunt her down on Jan. 6. Doing his Joe McCarthy imitation, Johnson said, of the impeachment trial: “Is this another diversionary operation? Is this meant to deflect away from potentially what the speaker knew and when she knew it? I don’t know, but I’m suspicious.”

And as the trial was drawing to a close, he went on Twitter to repeat this groundless and tangential accusation, writing: “There is much to be investigated + many questions unanswered regarding Capitol Hill security on 1/6. What did Speaker Pelosi know about security preparations?”

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As to the merits of the impeachment case, Johnson was gullible as all get out. “The president’s lawyers blew the House manager case out of the water,” he said. “They legally eviscerated them.” 

No one else, except maybe Sean Hannity, thought that.

Johnson also made a fool of himself on the floor of the Senate, on the last day of the trial, when he picked a fight with Romney over the vote to call witnesses. Reporters described Johnson as furious and quoted him as saying he would “blame” Romney for any negative fallout.

Fortunately, our other senator, Tammy Baldwin, recognized Trump as the toxic threat that he is. “Trump incited a violent insurrection against the will of the people, Congress, and our Democracy,” she wrote on Twitter after her vote to convict. “He did nothing to stop it and tried to steal the election on the big lie that it was stolen from him. Trump should be held accountable, so I voted to hold him accountable.”

As the curtain fell on the impeachment trial, and the Senators raced off to their one-week vacations, they left us with a country still ripped apart by the dangerous demagogue who is in temporary exile in Mar-a-Lago and by the vile prejudices he exploited and fanned.

We’ve had the tragedy. Now it may return as farce – or, if we’re not careful, as something even more lethal to democracy.