There is no way to defend Donald Trump's behavior last week, when, after pouring gasoline for months, he lit a match and set the insurrection fire. And, by and large, Republicans aren't even trying. Instead, the Republican arguments against impeaching the president for a second time largely cite "concerns" — or what might be better described as threats — that any effort to hold Trump accountable for his behavior may anger an already angry mob, leading to more violence.
"A vote to impeach would further divide this nation, a vote to impeach will further fan the flames," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R.-Calif., warned after admitting during Wednesday's impeachment debate that Trump bore responsibility for the insurrection last week. Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., made a similar argument, saying impeachment will "further the unrest" and "possibly incite more violence."
Sen. Lindsey Graham echoed the same argument on Wednesday, saying impeachment "could invite further violence." On Fox Business Thursday, one day after Trump was impeached, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro went even further, arguing that the "Democratic Party did violence to this country by attacking a president who I believe was legally elected on November 3."
Of course, Trump lost the Nov. 3 election to Joe Biden by 74 electoral votes, the exact number he won by in 2016. Yet his team continues to amplify the foundational lie that lead to last week's violent desecration of the U.S. Capitol. In addition, multiple Republicans have spent the days since whining about Trump being "canceled," callously acting as if the loss of his Twitter account is the real crime while ignoring the ones he incited, like beating a cop to death with a fire extinguisher during a treacherous riot.
The flaws in this let-the-terrorists win argument should be immediately evident.
For one thing, Trump supporters already violently tried to overthrow the government — not because Trump was being impeached, but because they reject the results of a democratic election and believe Trump should be illegally installed as an authoritarian leader.
Republican logic would suggest that democracy itself should be thrown out because a small number of bullies demand it. They certainly wouldn't accept this logic if foreign terrorists attacked the U.S. Capitol, and so it shouldn't be taken seriously now.
But more to the point, there is no evidence that the mayhem was caused because of anger over Trump facing consequences for any of his numerous corrupt or criminal acts. On the contrary, the overwhelming evidence shows that impunity fueled the Capitol riot. The insurrectionists acted out of a belief that neither they nor the president they love would ever face any repercussions.
That the insurrectionists were confident they would never face a single, solitary consequence has been one of the most remarkable — and remarked upon — aspects of this entire ordeal. Very few of the attackers bothered to cover their faces. On the contrary, many of them photographed and live-streamed the event, after spending weeks online publicly planning the attempted coup. In fact, the only reason many of the participants are facing arrest now is they were so public about their role in the assault.
But while this behavior initially seems baffling, a deeper examination shows that it makes a lot of sense. After all, for five years, Trump supporters have watched their beloved president run roughshod over all the rules and norms of D.C. with nary a consequence for it. He lies without repercussion. He openly colluded with Russia to cheat in the election and got away with lying about it. His lawbreaking started during the campaign when he conspired with his lawyer to illegally pay off mistresses for their silence. His entire presidency has been defined by his open criminality, from his obstruction of justice during the Russia investigation to the extortion scheme against the Ukrainian president that got him impeached the first time to his post-election efforts to steal the election by pressuring and even threatening state and local election officials.
Despite Trump being a shameless and avid criminal, he has yet to face anything resembling a real punishment. He was impeached for the Ukrainian extortion scheme, but the thoroughly corrupt GOP decided to acquit him, despite his obvious guilt. People around Trump went to prison — including his campaign manager Paul Manafort and his lawyer Michael Cohen — but he skated away, scot-free.
Of course a lot of Trump's supporters started to imagine he had almost god-like powers shielding him from the normal sanctions people can expect for committing crimes. And a lot of them started to imagine that they, too, could do whatever they wanted, no matter how violent or seditious, as long as they did it for Trump.
It's also important to note the race and class privilege that fueled the impunity of the Capitol rioters.
"They were business owners, CEOs, state legislators, police officers, active and retired service members, real-estate brokers, stay-at-home dads, and, I assume, some Proud Boys," Adam Serwer writes at the Atlantic.
People, in other words, who have grown accustomed to the idea that their race and economic status shields them from accountability. In their world, going to jail is for other people — lower class people, people of color, leftists — and not "respectable" people like themselves. It's why so many were pouty about COVID-19 restrictions and mask-wearing. Responsibility to your community is for those other people, in their view, and not for the likes of them.
The only way to stop the violence is to strip Trump and his followers of their sense of impunity. The only way that happens is with, heaven forbid, actual sanctions for their actions.
Obviously, everything Republicans say is pure bad faith, which is why all this concern trolling — or really, threats — about "fanning the flames" shouldn't be taken seriously. But what should be taken seriously is the impunity with which Trump and his minions operate. This has gone on too long, and the riot at the Capitol was the result. If there's any hope of stemming the tide of violence, consequences — real ones — need to start flowing. People who participated in the riots need to be prosecuted. Any members of Congress who incited the riot or, as some are alleging, assisted the insurrectionists, need to be investigated and prosecuted.
And above all other things, Trump needs to be punished.
The impeachment is a good start, but it's not enough, especially since there's little chance of the Senate, which is still half-Republican, convicting him. Trump has been impeached before and got right back to criming, empowered by his unjust acquittal. As painful as it may be for Joe Biden to admit this, the newly elected president needs to unleash the Department of Justice on Trump, both for his role in the insurrection and for all his crimes prior to it.
Trump and his supporters staged a coup against the U.S. government because they thought they could get away with it. The only way to keep them from doing it again is to make sure they know there's a price to pay — by extracting it.