Emotions were raw during Wednesday’s House impeachment debate, but Republicans were in a conciliatory mood. That is, they were in the mood for Democrats to conciliate them, Donald Trump and his aggrieved followers.
A group of House Republicans signed a letter opposing impeachment “in the spirit of healing.” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, worried that it was “not healthy for the nation.” Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., warned that the effort to remove Trump could “further divide and inflame our nation.”
At least one GOP member quoted Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…” The implication was that Lincoln would favor compromise with his adversaries in the interest of national unity.
But it was in the interest of national unity that he refused to compromise with slave states.
“The work we are in” referred to the task of killing rebel soldiers until their leaders gave up their unconscionable cause. To that end, Lincoln chose to fight a horrendous war that killed some 750,000 Americans.
He could have avoided the bloodshed by letting the Southern states leave. He could have ended it by negotiating a peace settlement. He knew there was a time for healing — and it came only after the insurrectionists who refused to accept the 1860 election had been ruthlessly subdued. The Dalai Lama he was not.
Healing is a welcome process, but it doesn’t come about from ignoring the affliction. You don’t heal a severe wound by leaving it alone. You don’t save a gangrenous limb by eschewing amputation. You can’t recover from a malignant tumor until the cancer has been cut out.
The assault on the U.S. Capitol was aimed at coercing the Senate from carrying out its constitutional duty to affirm the presidential election results. Some of the attackers apparently wanted to harm members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence. It was a symptom of a grave national malady, which has caused many people to believe nonsense and threaten violence to keep their grip on power.
Their leaders would prefer not to address the root causes of what happened on Jan. 6. Eight Republican senators and 147 House members called on Congress to overturn the election results. They helped perpetuate the fantastical claim that the election was stolen.
Some of them had also stoked venomous furies. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., encouraged his followers to “lightly threaten” their elected representatives. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., said of the Jan. 6 joint session, “This is our 1776 moment.” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who led the decertification effort, likened a crowd of supporters to “the patriots who gathered at Bunker Hill.”
For people who had done so much to sow anger and violence to preach the virtues of unity is merely a way of ducking blame. It is meant to relieve them of responsibility for their combustible language without obligating them to refrain from it in the future. Cruz and other members of Congress who are guilty of reckless rhetoric and false claims deserve to be censured, not excused.
Letting Trump go unpunished, either by removing him from the presidency and banning him from future office or by subjecting him to criminal prosecution, would have the unhealthy effect of encouraging future presidents to break the law and abuse their powers.
Forgiving his incitement of violence would encourage his followers to redouble their efforts to terrorize elected officials. Last month, Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling, who works for the Republican secretary of state, urged Trump to tone down his denunciations: “Someone’s going to get killed.” On Jan. 6, people were killed.
The Civil War parallel is relevant in ways Trump’s allies would rather forget. Reconstruction failed not because the federal government was too harsh in its treatment of the secessionist states but because it was too forgiving. Lincoln would not have wanted to let charity for white Southerners empower their malice toward Black Southerners.
He was not one to let misguided kindness weaken his resolve to overcome evil. Democrats would do well to remember his response in April 1865 to a note from Gen. Philip Sheridan saying, “If the thing is pressed I think Lee will surrender.” Replied Lincoln: “Let the thing be pressed.”