In a matter of two hours – the time Tuesday between the filings of those who want to convict former president Donald Trump in next week’s Senate impeachment trial and those who want to ensure he is acquitted – the vastly different perspectives of two Americas were laid bare.
One side’s filing charged that Mr. Trump “incited a violent mob to attack the United States Capitol.” The other side’s filing “denied that President Trump incited the crowd to engage in destructive action.”
The farsighted 18th-century founders of the American Republic knew that great divisions would open in the government they created. They knew that from time to time lawmakers would feel the need to remove the president from office. They worked to create what they thought was a “more perfect Union,” and three words later in the revered Preamble to the Constitution they spoke of their hope to “insure domestic Tranquility.”
Next week’s impeachment trial of Mr. Trump is in large measure the outgrowth of the failure of their 21st-century heirs to produce American unity and, in early January, of an unprecedented breakdown in domestic tranquility.
In truth, the two Americas represented in the colliding impeachment-trial briefs released Tuesday grow out of two nearly irreconcilable Americas, in a breach so severe that both of these Americas have employed the phrase “I want to take my country back” in the same political era.
That phrase was on the lips of liberals and Democrats who, from 2017 to the beginning of this year, looked in horror at Mr. Trump’s policies at the Mexican border, his war against the mainstream press, his battle against long-tenured bureaucrats and diplomats, and his contempt for the very international institutions that his presidential predecessors built and that sustained U.S. power and prosperity. That phrase, too, was on the lips of the rioters who stormed the Capitol.
As early as April, 2019, Joe Biden, speaking in Boston, said, “We will take back this country.” Addressing a rally Jan. 6 outside the White House ellipse, Mr. Trump told supporters who later marched to the Capitol, “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”
That locution underlines the great divisions that have produced the two Americas that will be in contention next week, when 67 votes will be required to convict the former president and open the gates to a separate measure requiring only 50 Senate votes to ban Mr. Trump from holding federal office, including the presidency, again.
“There are an awful lot of people who feel that the ‘privilege train’ passed them by,” said Michael Murphy, who teaches a leadership seminar at Carnegie Mellon University. “There is a groundswell of people who think their opportunities have been robbed, and they don’t like that the world has turned to diversity and inclusion. And there were [a separate group] of people when Trump was president who felt alienated.”
Division and alienation are inherent in any democratic system, and the United States has experienced both in its history.
Divisions over the very question of American independence sent tens of thousands of loyalists to Canada. Separate divisions over slavery contaminated politics throughout the first half of the 19th century, eventually causing the Civil War. The prominent American democratic socialist Michael Harrington wrote a 1962 book called The Other America that won the attention of, among many others, president John F. Kennedy. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly used the phrase “The Other America” in speeches in 1967 and 1968, and, speaking at Michigan’s Grosse Pointe South High School in one of America’s wealthiest communities a month before he was assassinated, said, “There are literally two Americas.”
The theme has echoed repeatedly across the country.
In his landmark speech before the Democratic National Convention in 1984, governor Mario Cuomo of New York lectured president Ronald Reagan, saying “You ought to know that this nation is more ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ than it is just a ‘Shining City on a Hill.’ " In his speech accepting the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 2004, John Edwards said, “We still live in a country where there are two different Americas – one, for all of those people who have lived the American dream and don’t have to worry, and another for most Americans, everybody else who struggle to make ends meet every single day.”
Mr. Edwards’s diagnosis – and his premonitions of the eventual Trump base – remain relevant. It was played out Tuesday and it will continue next week, when the perspectives and perceptions of the two Americas have their fateful collision on the Senate floor.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.