With little more than a week left in his tenure, President Donald Trump now faces the prospect of a second impeachment. The indictment before the House of Representatives involves a singular charge: “incitement of insurrection.” The president’s incitement “foreseeably resulted in” “lawless action at the Capitol,” which “injured and killed law enforcement personnel, menaced Members of Congress, the Vice President, and Congressional personnel.” While many of the president’s allies in the legislature oppose this punitive measure, the kind of organized opposition to Trump’s censure that characterized impeachment proceedings a year ago has melted away.
The House GOP’s leadership will not put any pressure on their members to vote against the article. GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney described the measure before them as “a vote of conscience.” And though the number of Republican defectors against Trump in the House may amount to just a handful, there will be defectors.
In the Senate, which will ultimately determine Trump’s fate, Republicans such as Lisa Murkowski, Ben Sasse, and Mitt Romney have already indicated that they are inclined to consider convicting the president. Most in the Senate Republican conference are, however, keeping their cards close for now. Trump’s removal from office on the back of a Republican revolt remains an unlikely prospect. Still, the president’s conduct has clearly put more fear into the hearts of Republican lawmakers than alienating Trump’s base voters ever could.
And yet, many within the Republican firmament would prefer to keep their heads down, move on, and chalk the events of January 6 up to an act of God. These Republicans have settled on the notion that the president’s impeachment would “further divide the country.” As RNC chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel put it, “our country desperately needs to heal and unify.” Trump himself has called a second impeachment “dangerous,” and Republican lawmakers have an acute understanding of what he means.
Passions have not cooled in the days since the siege of the Capitol Building. The situation has arguably grown worse. Both Republican and Democratic officeholders have been subjected to “intensifying” personal threats, and lawmakers have reportedly been advised that the purchase of a bulletproof vest is a prudent expenditure. The FBI has warned law-enforcement agencies around the country to prepare for the possibility of armed demonstrations and potentially insurrectionary events in all 50 states. What’s more, an overwhelming police presence around the legislatures these demonstrators are expected to target will not dissuade them. An armed confrontation with uniformed authorities is precisely what they want.
According to Republican Rep. Peter Meijer, the Republican lawmakers who still refused to certify November’s election results even after the Capitol riot “feared for family members” if they didn’t vote with the president. “Our expectation is that somebody will try to kill us,” he added. “That is the scenario that many of us are preparing for.” Republican lawmakers, in particular, have been targeted with harassment by menacing gangs of pro-Trump protesters in public—even those who spent most of the last four years seeking the president’s favor. “It’s going to be like this forever, wherever you go, for the rest of your life,” one bitter activist barked into Sen. Lindsey Graham’s face. Some of the GOP’s more impetuously demagogic members—like freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who petitioned his constituents to “lightly threaten” his colleagues—seem to think this unwieldy beast will not one day come for them, too. If the president’s recent behavior is any indication, this is a terrible miscalculation.
“If you read my speech,” the president told reporters when asked about the remarks he made to the crowd that proceeded to storm the Capitol, “people thought that what I said was totally appropriate.” We can reasonably infer from these comments that the president will continue with the sort of incitement that produced the events of January 6. We can further assume that Republicans believe they will have a gun to their heads for the foreseeable future.
That alone justifies the pursuit of the president’s impeachment and removal from office. Neither willful blindness nor robust displays of law enforcement are enough to successfully manacle the animal spirits into which the president tapped. Only lasting legal mechanisms can reestablish the unthinkability of using a mob to seek the redress of political grievances.
And yet, anyone possessed of a modicum of empathy or charity can understand the Republican predicament. Indeed, we must because it is our own predicament, too. The instinct to punish Republicans who share, to whatever degree, the president’s culpability for the present crisis is fully graspable. The temptation to invoke obscure constitutional provisions to purge those Republican lawmakers from Congress, one to which some in the Democratic caucus have succumbed, would be cathartic. For Democrats, the obvious political imperative is to tether the GOP to this unpopular president by forcing Republicans to vote in Trump’s favor—to deny them an off-ramp from this exigent emergency, to corner them and make them suffer the consequences of their actions. That would be a satisfying outcome, but it would invite longer-term consequences of the sort no one should welcome.
What would indulging our instincts for revenge get us? Would it chasten Republican lawmakers or force them to retreat to the protection of their partisan base? Would the impulse to tar the majority of the House GOP conference and the handful of senators who backed up Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud with the stain of insurrection weaken or strengthen the president’s grip on the Republican Party? Would a campaign aimed at choking off the channels through which Trump exerts his influence over Republican voters render him impotent or further convince his voters that their persecution is real and existential?
What is this impeachment push designed to achieve? Is the objective only to punish Trump and his allies? It cannot be because that near-term objective is probably unattainable, and its pursuit will only make that outcome less likely. If, however, the objective is to reestablish the inviolable tenet that this government’s legitimacy is not contingent on the size of the crowd arrayed against it, that is a more attainable goal. It will not satisfy those who want to discipline the irresponsible lawmakers who brought us to this point, but the outcomes they would prefer are both unlikely and counterproductive. This week, Congress must concern itself not with the next ten days but the next ten years, and its members must do so with magnanimity as well as resolve in their hearts. Anything less won’t just fail, but it may set the stage for the next mob. And next time, we may not be so lucky.