A couple of days after the Capitol Hill riot, it was announced that outgoing United States President Donald Trump would not be attending his successor’s inauguration. Then-president elect Joe Biden described it as, “one of the few things he and I have ever agreed on. It’s a good thing him not showing up.”
In the U.S. tradition, ex-presidents, not least the one whose term has just ended, show up for the installation of the new head of state. Mr. Trump’s non-appearance wasn’t just unusual, it also reinforced how the leader of one of America’s two parties was still refusing to find common ground in common citizenship.
And for all that, Mr. Trump’s non-appearance was, as Mr. Biden put it, a good thing. Good, under the circumstances. Which are not good.
That’s the best way to think about what’s been happening this week in the U.S. Senate, as it debates the fate of an impeached president already out of office. The situation is without precedent, and a distraction for the Biden administration. It’s also a necessary and good thing – under the circumstances.
The circumstances are that Mr. Trump’s chaotic time in office ended in an election defeat, which he spent the following weeks trying to overturn by hook or by crook, culminating in a “stop the steal” rally in Washington as Congress went about the rote formalities of certifying the vote.
He urged his followers to march on the Capitol, to compel Congress to somehow overturn the election. And in a typical Trumpian move, he suggested the mob’s ire be directed at his heretofore loyal deputy, vice-president Mike Pence, who betrayed the boss by acknowledging that he lacked the magic power to void election results.
As with almost all things Trump, the attempted coup d’état was half-witted and half-baked, with Mr. Trump happy to issue urgings from a distance but too much of a chicken to risk his own skin on the ground. He didn’t lead the storming of the Capitol in person; instead, he retired to the White House to watch it on TV. It was like some 2021 take on the bunker scenes from Downfall.
He told millions of Americans that the election was illegitimate, while hinting that true patriots could save the country – and keep him in power – by overthrowing the government. As many who stormed the Capitol chanted, it would be “1776” all over again.
Of course someone like that should never again be allowed to run for the highest public office of the most powerful country on Earth. Canadians may not get a vote in U.S. elections, but we’ve certainly got a dog in this fight.
Canada is not the U.S. – different political institutions, different history, different problems. But the two cultures have never been closer, as a result of which their news, their touchstones and their hot-button obsessions are increasingly being consumed by Canadians as if they were ours. Which means that, in effect, they are. The course of U.S. politics has an outsized influence on Canadian politics, and Canada.
Convicting an impeached U.S. president after he has left office is, like so many things in this saga, unprecedented. The U.S. Constitution’s impeachment clause is normally an emergency lever for removal between elections, and Mr. Trump has already been removed by voters. In normal circumstances, any further charges would be left to the courts.
However, a conviction by the Senate would end the risk of Mr. Trump becoming president again in 2024. That is no small thing. The trial is also forcing at least some in the Republican Party to face their demons.
But even if Mr. Trump disappears, the sense will remain among many Americans that the people on the other side are not just different, but the enemy. The culture has never been so polarized or so hostile. Millions feel like the other side wishes for their demise. It is a very dangerous thing for a representative democracy when citizens believe that those who vote differently are not neighbours with whom they have superficial disagreements atop a foundation of shared assumptions, but rather people with whom they share little, and wish to share less.
Mr. Trump did not create this whirlwind. He spent four years churning it up, but mostly he was just reaping what was already blowing about. And for all Americans, whether Democrats or Republicans – especially Republicans – that is the real issue.
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