No one can fault the work ethic of today’s Republican Party. In the hours and days after rioters stormed the Capitol in the name of Donald Trump, members of the president’s party began to construct their defense. Yes, the violence was terrible, and sure, Trump had contributed, and above all, God bless the Capitol Police. But it’s clear already that there is a point beyond which the party will not go. Impeachment, most Republicans have insisted, is unnecessary, even divisive. Democrats are “placing a desire for vengeance above the best interests of the country,” complained Kevin Brady, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee. A handful of Republicans even sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging her to drop the notion of impeachment altogether, in the interest of “healing and fidelity to the Constitution.”
For now, House Democrats aren’t listening. They introduced articles of impeachment on Monday. But their Republican colleagues swiftly blocked a measure calling on Vice-President Mike Pence and members of the Cabinet to remove the president via the 25th Amendment. This obstruction is of limited use as the measure will simply advance to a full floor vote, which Republicans stand to lose. But the effort is revelatory. The party’s priority isn’t democracy or even the prevention of future violence. Instead, Republicans are intent on impunity. For themselves and for their followers, too.
Although congressional Republicans aren’t unanimously opposed to impeachment, dissenting voices are so few that their comparatively moderate views make them the party’s new fringe. Mainstream Republican opinion is meaningfully indistinguishable from Trump’s own rhetoric. Party members can condemn last Wednesday’s violence as much as they want, but as long as they block any form of accountability for Trump, their declarations are worth little. And though it’s true that Trump has only a few days left in power, impeachment is more than a symbolic effort. If successful, it wouldn’t just remove Trump from power; it would block him from ever holding office again, thus making an otherwise inevitable 2024 campaign impossible. Even if that weren’t the case — if impeachment could only ever be a performative display of outrage — the effort would still be valuable. Symbols have meaning, after all. That’s the entire point. In this case, the meaning is a show of intolerance for presidential behavior that cost at least five lives.
But it’s not hard to understand why impeachment is further than most Republican lawmakers want to go. If Trump is so unworthy of office that he must be removed, his enablers also deserve greater scrutiny. The president did not incite a riot on his own. He had help. In the years before last week’s violence, Republicans were only too pleased to blame domestic unrest on the left: Black Lives Matter protesters, Democrats, and antifa. Although right-wing violence is clearly the real domestic threat, the Republican Party could hardly admit its own complicity and relied instead on a handful of scapegoats. When Trump lost the election to Joe Biden, Republicans were there to soothe the president’s wounded ego. Many were only too happy to agree with Trump that the election had been stolen by Democrats, in order to make Biden out to be an illegitimate president. Some took more direct action. Over a dozen Republican state legislators attended last Wednesday’s rally before it became a riot. West Virginia delegate Derrick Evans was later charged for allegedly taking over the Capitol with a mob and has since resigned. Among Republicans, #StoptheSteal was a group effort.
By pleading for unity now, Republicans merely try to disguise their intentions. They want clemency, and with it, a return to the status quo. Nobody can blame Trump’s enablers for expecting a pass, because accountability has never interested Washington. The administration of George W. Bush tortured and murdered its way through the Muslim-majority world for eight years, and justice is still absent. This month, Bush will even join President-elect Biden at Arlington National Cemetery to lay wreaths on the graves Bush put there.
Yesterday’s impunity set today’s expectations, but even by the standards of the past, the Republican Party’s interest in unity possesses a dangerous edge. In the wake of the riot, the statements and tweets and letters that party members put out read more like hostage threats: Back away from democracy, and no one else has to get hurt. The problem, then, is much bigger than Trump, and impeachment is only one step in what must be a long and comprehensive process. On Monday, Representative Cori Bush of Missouri introduced a resolution to expel Republicans who objected to last week’s certification of Biden’s election win on the grounds of sedition. Her resolution comes closer than impeachment to address the threat the GOP presents.
But politics cannot continue as usual. The Democratic Party should understand that by now. The first two years of Biden’s presidency will be enormously consequential, and if his party is to make the most of this opportunity, it will have to develop a coherent ideological identity. It can’t run away from “socialism” and pray that the GOP stops blaming antifa for right-wing violence. The times do not call for meek spirits or big tents or civility. The public deserves something better: a true champion of the poor and vulnerable. Democrats have to break Republican power every way they can imagine, and they can start by making sure there is a price for complicity with Trump. At the same time, the party will have to build up its own base through basic democracy reforms and a sweepingly pro-worker, anti-poverty platform that shows voters how little the GOP cares for them. There can be no unity without accountability, no healing without pain.