Political courage in normal times, in normal democracies, is about reputational risk. It’s a virtue that gets discussed when an elected official breaks with the party on policy matters or publicly questions the conduct of the executive branch. To exhibit this sort of “courage” is to take a calculated risk, to stand on principle at the potential expense of upward mobility within the party, or even of re-election.
These are not trifling matters in normal times, in normal democracies, when the fate of one’s career can hinge on fidelity to the party. But those concerns can’t help but appear trifling now, through the freakishly warped lens of contemporary American politics, where taking a stand against the outgoing President Donald Trump – especially as a Republican – takes political courage that risks not simply reputation, but life.
To think that is an exaggeration is to ignore, for one, what Republican lawmakers themselves told colleagues and reporters ahead of the vote in the House of Representatives Wednesday, when Mr. Trump was impeached a second time, charged with inciting the deadly insurrection at the Capitol a week earlier. Some Republicans said they had received death threats in advance of the proceedings; others worried about Trump loyalists going after their families if they supported impeachment. With pipe bombs found outside the Republican and Democratic national committee headquarters, National Guard troops stationed all over the Capitol and the echo of “Hang Mike Pence” ringing fresh in the rotunda, it’s not hard to see why some lawmakers might have thought that standing on principle could land them face-down.
These are the types of political calculations that Chinese whistleblowers make when they try to spread the word about a deadly new virus or when Russian opposition leaders contemplate returning home after being poisoned for exposing state corruption. In the United States, political courage is supposed to be as serious as choosing between re-election or a cushy, lucrative job in the private sector. It is not supposed to mean voting against impeachment out of fear because the President somehow radicalized everyday people – including off-duty cops, an Olympic gold medalist, a Republican state lawmaker and the CEO of a tech company – to storm the Capitol and attempt a violent insurrection.
Ten Republicans nevertheless broke with their party and President this past week to impeach Mr. Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 riots. All but one of those 10 had also voted to certify the election results a week earlier (Representative Tom Rice is the only Republican who objected to certifying electoral college votes but then voted in favour of impeachment). To be fair, that earlier vote was more of a passive gesture – certifying election results is supposed to be uncontroversial, after all – than actively voting to charge the President with a crime. Yet Representative Liz Cheney, for example, was unequivocal in her decision: “The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack,” she said.
Representative Peter Meijer directly countered the claim of some of his colleagues that impeachment would only further sow divisions among the American electorate. “President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon was a necessary step to move the nation past the wounds of Watergate, but it followed Nixon’s resignation and acceptance of responsibility,” he said in a statement. “Since last week, the President has accepted no responsibility for the violence his rhetoric and actions inspired.”
As far as political calculations go, the vote to impeach was probably less fraught than it might have been even one week ago. Republicans are poised to soon lose all control in Washington. Mr. Trump has lost his ability to amplify his irrational screeds on Twitter and Facebook. Dozens of major companies such as Dow Chemical, Mastercard, Blue Cross and Goldman Sachs have announced they are suspending donations (or will be reviewing their donation policies) to members of Congress who objected to the certification of Joe Biden’s electors. Though recent polling suggests Mr. Trump still enjoys considerable personal support among Republican voters, his influence over the party will inevitably wane as the business of governing carries on without him.
But as a calculation of personal risk, the vote to impeach was a notably serious one for Republican lawmakers who know they will now be viewed as traitors to Mr. Trump’s followers. These supporters are growing desperate, flocking to alternate social media sites to discuss last-ditch efforts to stop what they see as the inauguration of an illegitimate president. And these 10 Republicans have just voluntarily added their names to the list of former allies that have made themselves complicit. Acts of political courage in the United States aren’t supposed to be so existentially dangerous. At its most extreme, the risk should be about having to hang up one’s hat and not about having to strap on a protective vest.
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