Few consequences existed for going along—for standing with a president for whom many senators and representatives express their private contempt (always private), for describing as “controversial” or “without evidence” views that reporters knew to be flat-out lies, for letting social-media technology become the organizational backbone of disinformation and hate. These behaviors, which erode democratic governance in the long run, have carried too few consequences in the here and now. (Consider how freely GOP politicians and officials start criticizing Trump once they’ve stepped down.) The results of these skewed risk/reward calculations are predictable. Day by day, vote by vote, story by story, people make choices that they won’t be proud of later on.
In her latest Wall Street Journal column, Peggy Noonan, the onetime Ronald Reagan speechwriter, made an impassioned argument for, as she put it, lowering the boom on those directly and indirectly responsible for the desecration of the Capitol. “When something like this happens it tends to be repeated,” she wrote. “It is our job to make sure it is not. And so we should come down like a hammer on all those responsible, moving with brute dispatch against members of the mob and their instigators.”
Those instigators, she wrote, began with Trump but included the congressional Republicans who stood with him and against the peaceful transfer of power, notably Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz. “They are clever men, highly educated, well-credentialed”—Hawley a product of Yale Law School, Cruz of Harvard Law. “Here’s to you, boys. Did you see the broken glass, the crowd roaming the halls like vandals in late Rome, the staff cowering in locked closets and barricading offices? Look on your mighty works and despair.”
Actions should have consequences, and consequences will affect future actions. How could consequences be adjusted after this week? A non-exhaustive starter list:
Impeachment. Nearly two years ago, Yoni Appelbaum argued in an Atlantic cover story that Trump had already far passed the threshold that would justify impeachment. Now any typical week’s news contains several more potential entries in a bill of impeachment. The recent hour-long taped phone call, in which Trump begged and threatened Georgia election officials to change their state’s vote count, is now seemingly forgotten, but it exceeded everything alleged or suspected about Richard Nixon. Trump’s overt incitement to riot, through tweets and in a speech on the morning of January 6, is fresher in memory and was incomparably worse.
Given the calendar, even a successful impeachment effort is not likely to remove Trump from office much faster than the constitutional deadline will. But it will force members of his party to go on the record for him or against him. It would signal to the world, and to our own country, an awareness that something terrible has happened, and cannot happen again. Societies that shrink from, fictionalize, or paper over the ugliest parts of their past invite even uglier episodes. The claims that impeachment would be “divisive,” advanced by many of the same people who tried to overturn the resounding Biden-Harris win, should be “dismissed with prejudice,” as the legal terminology goes. And in practical terms, a successful impeachment, meaning a two-thirds margin for conviction in the Senate, could bar Trump from holding any federal office again—in turn limiting the destructive black-hole effect he could have on the next presidential race.