Alan Zendell, February 13, 2021
Yesterday was Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I remember when February 12th was a national holiday except for a few southern states. HBO remembered, and they’ve been showing the 2012 film Lincoln wherein Daniel Day-Lewis brought Lincoln to life so convincingly, we might have wondered if we were watching history through a time warp. The film documented the fight to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery in the United States.
There is so much stark similarity between what occurred in January 1865 and January 2021, watching it again was a valuable wake-up call, reminding me that the struggle between White Supremacy and decency has been part of our history for more than 300 years. The recreated voices of House Democrats of the time (they were the racists back then) openly declared that the words “all men are created equal” were never intended to include Negroes (or women, for that matter.) Those same Democrats also made the argument Trumpers have made about Hispanic immigrants. If Lincoln was allowed to free four million (!) slaves, it would steal jobs from hard-working white men.
The anger, intensity, and hatred that prevailed after four years of Civil War exceeded anything we heard in Congress this week, but there was an important difference. Right or wrong, moral or immoral, the men (there were no women) in the 1865 Congress sincerely meant what they said. Slavery was the basis of the South’s agricultural economy, and shocking as it sounds, it never occurred to most southerners back then that a slave’s right to live free and prosper was worth upsetting the established order.
Today, in the Senate, as the political future of a treasonous former president was debated, we saw craven self-interest and cowardice instead. The Senate voted to acquit Donald Trump, not because of deeply held beliefs, moral imperatives, or conscience. It was because nothing mattered more to the forty-three Senators who voted to acquit than staying in power, which meant not angering the millions of Trump supporters who still believe the Big Lie and threatened to punish anyone who voted to convict.
The fight to pass the 13th Amendment was vicious. Lame duck Democrats were still able to vote, and Lincoln needed to convince at least twenty of them to change their minds. That was accomplished by promising them patronage jobs after their terms expired. But the last critical votes were conscience driven. Enough Representatives who believed slavery was evil had the courage to vote against their own racist party.
The Senate’s failure to convict Donald Trump was exactly the opposite. It was a concession to the power of the mob, acquiescence to the terror of a cultish vocal minority who were sold a complete falsehood and called to arms. It was a disgrace and an insult not only to the country but to the ideals of a once proud Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln, the same Republican Party that had the integrity to force Richard Nixon from office. Nixon’s crime, a failed attempt to fix the 1972 election and then cover up the intent, were trivial compared to the actions of Donald Trump.
A failed attempt to cheat in a presidential election pales before organizing and inciting insurrection. The majority of Americans must understand that the Senate did not speak for them. If Donald Trump attempts to resurrect his political career, I’m confident they will stop him. They also must deal with the clear evidence that integrity is not a quality valued by forty-three of the fifty Republicans in the Senate. Only we the voters can fix that when they ask to be re-elected.
After the acquittal, Mitch McConnell delivered a speech in which he sounded more like a prosecutor than a defender. Despite having voted for acquittal, he held Trump responsible for everything he had been accused of in the Article of Impeachment. He condemned Trump’s actions in the strongest terms, but claimed that the Constitution does not empower the Senate to convict a former president, despite the great majority of legal scholars who disagree.
It makes my head spin that McConnell said Trump was guilty as charged but still voted “not guilty.” He seemed to be attempting to convince Americans that Trump disqualified himself from ever holding office again, and encouraged criminal prosecution for his actions. McConnell convicted Trump unconditionally with his informal words, yet voted to acquit him based on a technical argument in which he is clearly in the minority.
I take heart from the seven Republicans who voted their conscience to protect the nation, but we still have a serious problem as long as Senators like Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, and Lindsey Graham aren’t made to pay a political price for their refusal to do so.