WASHINGTON – Not since the dark days of the Civil War and its aftermath, Washington hasn’t seen a day like Wednesday.
In a Capitol bristling with heavily armed soldiers and newly installed metal detectors, with the physical wreckage of the siege from last week cleared up but the emotional and political wreckage still exposed, the President of the United States has been impeached for attempting to overthrow American democracy.
Somehow it sounded like the pre-established coda of a presidency that repeatedly pushed all boundaries and erased the ties of the body politic. Less than a week away, President Trump’s tenure culminates in violence and recriminations at a time when the country has fractured deeply and lost its sense of itself. The notions of truth and reality have been atomized. Faith in the system has eroded. Anger is the only common ground.
As if it wasn’t enough that Mr. Trump became the only president twice impeached or that lawmakers were trying to impeach him within days of his term in office, Washington has become a miasma of suspicion and conflict. A Democratic congressman accused fellow Republicans of helping crowds last week explore the building in advance. Some Republican members bypassed magnetometers meant to keep guns on the floor of the House or continued to operate even after they were triggered.
All of this was taking place against the backdrop of a pandemic which, as attention worsened, escalated catastrophically in the final weeks of Mr. Trump’s presidency.
More than 4,400 people in the United States have died from the coronavirus the day before the House vote, more in a day than those killed in Pearl Harbor or on September 11, 2001, or in the Battle of Antietam. It was only after several members of Congress were infected in the attack on the Capitol and new rules were put in place that they finally systematically wore masks during Wednesday’s debate.
Historians have struggled to define this moment. They compare it to other times of enormous challenge like the Great Depression, World War II, Civil War, the McCarthy era, and Watergate. They recall the beating of Charles Sumner on the Senate floor and the operation to sneak Abraham Lincoln into Washington for his inauguration for fear of an attack.
They cite the horrific year of 1968 when Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated as campuses and city centers crumbled over the Vietnam War and civil rights. And they think of the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when further large-scale violent deaths seemed inevitable. And yet, none of them are quite the same.
“I wish I could give you a wise analogy, but honestly I don’t think anything like this has happened before,” said Geoffrey C. Ward, one of the country’s most venerable historians. “If you had told me that a President of the United States would have encouraged a delusional crowd to walk on our Capitol, screaming blood, I would have said you were cheated.
Jay Winik, a prominent columnist of the Civil War and other periods of conflict, also said there was no exact analog. “This is an extraordinary moment, virtually unprecedented in history,” he said. “It’s hard to find another moment when the glue that binds us together was falling apart like it is now.
All of this leaves America’s reputation on the world stage at a low level, making what President Ronald Reagan liked to call the “shining city on a hill” a scuffed case study of the challenges that even a mature democratic power. can face.
“The historic moment when we were a role model is fundamentally over,” said Timothy Snyder, an authoritarian historian at Yale. “We now need to regain our credibility, which may not be such a bad thing.”
At the Capitol on Wednesday, the scene evoked memories of Baghdad’s green zone during the Iraq war. The troops were bivouacked in the Capitol for the first time since the Confederates threatened to cross the Potomac.
The debate over Mr. Trump’s fate took place in the same chamber of the House where, just a week earlier, security officers drew their guns and barricaded doors as lawmakers threw themselves to the ground or fled from behind to escape a marauding horde of Trump supporters. The indignation aroused by this breach still hovered in the air. Fear too.
But the shock had abated to some extent, and the debate seemed familiar at times. Most lawmakers quickly retreated to their partisan corners.
As Democrats demanded accountability, many Republicans pushed them back and assailed them for a rush to trial without hearings or evidence, or even much debate. Trump’s accusers quoted his inflammatory words at a rally just before the attack. Its supporters have cited provocative remarks by President Nancy Pelosi, Representative Maxine Waters and even Robert De Niro and Madonna to claim that there is a double standard.
It mattered less that the comparisons were apples and oranges than the prisms through which they were reflected. Mr Trump sought to overturn a Democratic election he lost with false allegations of widespread fraud, pressuring other Republicans and even his vice president to accompany him and sending an unruly mob of supporters to walk on the Capitol and “fight like hell.” “But his allies complained that he had long been the target of what they saw as unfair partisan attacks and investigations.
“Donald Trump is the most dangerous man to ever occupy the Oval Office,” said Representative Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas.
“The left in America has instigated a lot more political violence than the right,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida.
Extremely disparate views encapsulated America during the Trump era. At one point, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the leader of the Democratic majority, expressed his exasperation at the description of events on the other side. “You don’t live in the same country as me,” he exclaimed. And on that, at least, everyone could agree.
Mr. Trump offered no defense for himself, choosing from all but to ignore the momentous events unfolding in the House chamber. After the vote, he posted a five-minute video message in which he offered a broader denunciation of last week’s violence and disowned those who led it. “If you do any of these things, you don’t support our movement, you attack it,” he said.
Unlike Mr Trump’s first indictment for pressuring Ukraine to help tarnish Democrats, some members of his party dropped him this time around. In the end, 10 House Republicans joined with every Democrat in approving the one impeachment article, led by Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-tier Republican. It was a testament to how much the party has changed under Mr. Trump that the Cheney family, once seen as ideological provocateurs themselves, have now emerged as defenders of mainstream republicanism.
Ten separatist Republicans were not as numerous as the 197 party members who voted against impeachment. On the flip side, it was 10 more than the vote to impeach Mr. Trump in December 2019 – and most members of a president’s own party support impeachment in American history.
Other Republicans have sought to draw a more nuanced line, agreeing that Mr. Trump bears the responsibility of inciting the crowd while maintaining that it is not an impenetrable offense or that it is not wise, unnecessary and divisive. to continue a few days before the elected president. Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes the oath of office.
“That doesn’t mean the president is free from all fault,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, Republican minority leader and one of Mr. Trump’s staunch allies, as he spoke against dismissal. “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately reported the crowd when he saw what was going on.
Yet the loyalty that so many House Republicans have shown for a president who lost reelection and done so much to harm their own party was striking. “If the overwhelming majority of elected officials from either of the two American parties cannot reject the hold of a demagogue even after he has openly planned to overturn an election and in so doing threatened their very lives, eh well, we’ve got a long way to go, ”said Frank O. Bowman III, an impeachment researcher at the University of Missouri School of Law.
Brenda Wineapple, the author of “The Impeachers” on the trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868, said she recognized in Wednesday’s debate some of the arguments made against the conviction then – that it would be a bad precedent, that it would only further divide the country.
She also saw another echo, a desire to move beyond the polarizing Johnson to his long-awaited successor, Ulysses S. Grant, who, like Mr Biden, was seen as a healing figure. “It gives me hope,” she said. “We must have hope.”
But insofar as the United States is in need of repairs, it is a project that can be overwhelming for any president without a broader consensus across party lines. Mr Trump may be impeached but he will almost surely complete the last week of his term and he has no intention of falling into shame or ignominy like other losers in the long run, which could make him a residual force in American life, even if it is diminished.
In addition, the people who see his defeat as a call to arms remain a force. Security officials are stepping up troops in Washington for Mr Biden’s inauguration next week, worried about a repeat of the Capitol invasion. After Mr. Trump falsely told his supporters that the election was stolen, polls suggest millions of Americans believe him.
“On the eve of the 1940 elections, the FDR declared that democracy was more than a word – ‘It is a living thing – a human thing – made up of brains, muscles and heart and soul,’ said Susan Dunn, historian at Williams College and biographer of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Now, she said, after the events of the past few days and years, “we know that democracies are fragile and that the brains and soul of our democracy are under serious threat.”