For two whole days, the managers from the House of Representatives shaped in meticulous and unavoidable detail exactly how the former president is responsible for the violent and lawless mob’s insurrection as they stormed the Capitol building on January 6th. Each speaker was responsible for another facet of this monumental assemblage of facts, video both seen and previously unseen, direct quotations from the former president. What impressed me as much as the content was the utter seriousness with which these women and men were taking their assignment. I was sure that not only they themselves had devoted countless hours to finding just the right balance between outrage and reasoned argument, but each of their staffs had been instructed to spare no detail that might bolster the general argument.
Watching the faces especially of some Republican Senators who listened attentively, especially on the first day, I felt sure that many of them would have voted to convict had the vote been secret. But it was not secret, so in the end only seven of those Senators stood on principle, followed their oath to obey our Constitution, and risked serious backlash from many in their own party. News in the days following the vote to acquit tell us that is precisely what is happening to the honorable seven–they are being censured by state party officials and may be subjected to more tangible rebuffs or even threats in coming weeks and months.
The managers from the House used every minute allotted to them because they felt the gravity of what they were being asked to do for our country as it veers dangerously off course and away from even the vestiges of democratic principles and behaviors. Then day three dawned and it was time for the former president’s defense attorneys to have equal time to present their case for acquitting their client who refused to appear and give direct testimony about his claimed innocence. Imagine my surprise when, driving in my car to the grocery store mid-afternoon after the defense had begun at noon, I heard that it was over! They had spoken for less than three hours.
As I tried to take in this surprising brevity, two names kept entering my mind–Elizabeth Bennet, a main character in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice and Hannah Arendt, author of The Banality of Evil, her reflections on attending the trial of a former Nazi. Anyone who has read Austen’s novel or seen a movie version of the story will remember that Mrs. Bennet could trivialize the most serious subject matter or moment in her own life or that of her daughters. Her only goal is to marry them off suitably, so she brushes facts away as insignificant pests that slow her down in reaching her goal. She also favored garden parties or strolls along the seashore to a serious conversation about the complexities of human existence. As for Arendt, she is frightened and appalled by her realization that the Nazi on trial was not a looming monstrous figure but rather a simple man who thought he was just doing his job. To have to admit that evil could be purveyed by so banal an actor forced her to understand how a group of people could come to idolize a figure as evil as Adolph Hitler.
By refusing to engage seriously in the second impeachment trial of our make-believe president, those lawyers insulted all of us who were stunned by what we saw unfolding before our eyes on January 6th. They completely brushed off the whole affair, speaking just a little while before resuming their everyday lives. Maybe they had a late afternoon golf match with fellow lawyers or a dinner date for which they needed to hurry home and change into something appropriate to the occasion. What their so short argument before our Senators told me was they knew the outcome before they said a single word, so why “waste” words on so insignificant a case. Not only did their shameful behavior let them thumb their respective legal noses over something many of us consider one of the most serious political subjects–whether to impeach an elected president of the country–but it also confirmed a boast that person made while campaigning for the presidency. Yes, I refer to his saying “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody without losing any voters”–a comment worthy of Elizabeth Bennet and surely one that would strike fear in the heart of Hannah Arendt.