We all face decisions. When we have to make quick decisions, we rely on our fast, highly intuitive, emotional thinking, following the instincts we’ve honed over time. It is the big, important life decisions that emotion and intuition cannot adequately address.
For most of us, our life-changing, moral-clarity-moment decisions don’t play out on a national stage. But if we think about these decisions in our lives, we see that even when the right path is clear those choices are not always easy. One reason, as explained in Thinking, Fast and Slow, is that our brain finds it more important to have a coherent story in order to ease cognitive processing rather than to look at a range of alternatives that may challenge our basic assumptions. We don’t look for or absorb things that challenge our comfort level.
Which brings me to complicity.
When we are complicit in some action, when we personally benefit or find comfort in taking a certain route, even the moral clarity of a different choice may not be enough to force our hand. I know from personal experience how it acts out in our lives, as we come up with what we believe is a coherent story to avoid challenging our basic assumptions. Often, it is only when we are called to account that we realize that complicity has blinded us to the objective viewpoint and the moral choice that was in front of us all along.
Which brings me to the decisions made today in the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump.
Many commentators have rightly suggested that this was not so much a trial of the former president as it was of the Republican Party. The evidence against Trump was open-and-shut. The House Impeachment Managers, virtually everyone agreed, took a chaotic and horrific day and put the events of January 6th together into a coherent, emotionally searing, and highly believable case. They won praise for handling a difficult task well. As my Congressman and Lead Manager Jamie Raskin described the overwhelming evidence, “If you don’t find this a high crime and misdemeanor today, you have set a new terrible standard for presidential misconduct in the United States of America.”
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, put it clearly when he said, “Donald Trump will be convicted by history, even if he isn’t convicted by the United States Senate.”
But making the right decision is difficult if you are complicit. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and dozens of other Republican Senators proved that point this afternoon.
Sarah Longwell, writing on the conservative website The Bulwark, noted that finding 17 Republican senators to vote for conviction is a “Herculean” task. She was right. Why? Because — contrary to what Mitch McConnell said after the vote — many of them joined the former president in feeding the lie that led to January 6th. Members of the jury are “not just not impartial” but, she notes, “are both witnesses and accomplices to the crime.”
“There is something deeply, cosmically unfair about a group of elites force-feeding voters a lie about a stolen election, bilking them out of their money, demanding with the most overheated rhetoric that they “fight” to save the country — and then avoiding all responsibility while those people are hauled off to jail for doing what they’d been asked to do.…
But, as always, there are different rules for different people and in this case, the law that governs QAnon Shaman Guy has suddenly transmogrified when it comes to Trump. Why? Because of the sheer volume and depth of Republican mendacity. Republicans can’t hold Trump accountable precisely because they were complicit. They actively promoted his lies. And so convicting Trump would be an indictment of their own actions.“
Accountability may have helped some make the correct decision in real time, but others put off that moral reckoning. Yet history — as it generally does for all of us — holds those accountable who knew the right choice yet took a path that they see as more personally convenient or beneficial.
Of course the Minority Leader spun a different and truly disingenuous tale once Trump was found guilty by a bi-partisan majority of 57 senators, only to fall 10 votes short of the required two-thirds threshold for conviction.
In a statement that was clearly more for the donors he needs to return to support what has become a party of seditionists than it was to show moral courage, McConnell — mere moments after voting for acquittal — laid the blame for January 6th squarely at the feet of Donald Trump while hiding behind a false constitutional fig leaf that impeachment was not the right remedy to deal with the crimes of a former president. All the while it was his actions as the Majority Leader at the time that delayed the process and thwarted any possibility of holding the trial while Trump was still president. As with all things McConnell, it was a cold, political calculation that had no basis in constitutional fact or love of the institution of the Senate.
Civil rights historian Diane McWhorter made the point before the vote was taken that history will judge those who choose to vote for acquittal harshly. “As a student of an act of domestic terrorism that shocked the nation nearly 60 years ago, I can give you an idea how things will go for the Republican Party if senators decide to sweep January 6 under the rug and vote to acquit former president Donald Trump.” She writes of Birmingham’s reputation after a church bombing by white vigilantes killed four black girls at Sunday School, “(W)hen the church bombers went unpunished, the stain of their crime on the city became indelible and defining….there’s a sense that it never overcame its fate as the “City of Churches” where children were murdered at worship.”
I don’t pretend to know what may happen as a result of today’s acquittal vote in the Senate. But I do know that it is difficult and takes great moral courage to be objective if you are complicit. That moral courage was missing today from 43 members of the U.S. Senate.
More to come…