One after the other, the president’s defenders rose to the podium in the House chamber on Wednesday, trying to head off an inevitable vote for impeachment with one of the most transparently cynical gambits in recent memory.
We can’t impeach a president who incited a violent insurrection in which five people died, they argued, because it would further divide us, and what the nation needs now is to heal, to move on, to come together. Not by holding the inciter-in-chief accountable for sending a deadly mob to the Capitol and forcing some of these very legislators to flee for their lives, but by yet again letting him escape any consequences for his heinous actions.
The very leaders who refused to accept the results of a free and fair election, who themselves trucked in the falsehoods and debunked conspiracy theories about a stolen vote and oncoming tyranny — the lies that fueled the Capitol assault — were now preaching the gospel of unity. And they did it with straight faces.
It was gaslighting raised to an art form.
For example, Madison Cawthorn, the newly elected congressman from North Carolina, urged Democrats to “vote against this divisive impeachment and realize that dividing America will not save this republic.”
That is pretty rich, given that MAGA diehard Cawthorn was all-in on the effort to overturn the results of the presidential election, even helping to whip up the mob at the rally before the insurrection. His first tweet after winning his House seat was “Cry more, lib.”
Here’s the thing about unity: To achieve it, you have to believe in a common good. And most members of this Republican Party have demonstrated over and over that they simply don’t.
Nowhere was that more vivid than in the secure location to which hundreds of legislators and staffers fled after the president’s goons breached the Capitol last week.
There, the ringleaders of attempts to undermine our democracy huddled with their colleagues, all of whose lives had been put at risk by the lies they’d been telling just moments before. Video from inside the crowded room shows the malefactors looking nonchalant. They were also maskless, in the midst of a pandemic. When one of their colleagues tried to hand them masks, they refused, smirking.
“It wasn’t all Republicans, just the organizers of the revolt,” said Representative Seth Moulton, who was one of the last to arrive in the room where hundreds took refuge. “They were clearly proud not to be wearing masks.”
Masks protect not just the wearer, of course, but others too. It is the simplest way to say “I understand and I care.” But even in extremis, the antimask brigade were fully committed to their rejection of science, and of the common good. Even as the terrifying consequences of their refusal to acknowledge reality were playing out around them, they doubled down.
Some did so with particular zeal.
An angry Moulton snapped pictures of the congressional quislings, precipitating a clash with Republican Mary Miller, the first-term representative from Illinois who had quoted Hitler approvingly at a “Save the Republic” rally the day before.
“She came up and started screaming at me, inches from my face, spittle coming out of her mouth,” Moulton recalled. She said that she didn’t need to wear a mask, that COVID only kills 1 percent anyway, and that she wasn’t contagious, according to Moulton (Miller’s spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment).
“Maybe she didn’t want people to see them putting their colleagues in danger,” Moulton said of his snapshots. That seems unlikely, given that endangering others is a mainstream GOP brand these days.
The Salem Democrat is convinced history will one day judge Republicans like Miller harshly, and that eventually “they will be viewed not only as idiots but as — ” and here he used an unprintable but entirely accurate descriptor. It might be a while.
Others in our delegation looked upon the truculent denialism of the maskless and decided to take their chances somewhere else.
“I didn’t stay in that room long,” said Representative Lori Trahan, a Westford Democrat. “I was horrified, and I went back to my office before they had contained what was going on in the Capitol. It was trading one crisis for another, but this was another super-spreader event I didn’t want to be in.”
Faced with a choice between being exposed to the virus or to a violent mob, Representative Ayanna Pressley made the same decision. “The second I realized our ‘safe room’ from the violent white supremacist mob included treasonous, white supremacist, anti-masker Members of Congress who incited the mob in the first place, I exited,” the Boston Democrat tweeted later.
A Pressley aide told the Globe that the panic buttons in her office had been torn out, making that choice even more dangerous. On Wednesday, Pressley announced that her husband had tested positive for the virus. In a press release, she called out her mask-averse Republican colleagues whose “arrogant disregard for the lives of others is infuriating, but not surprising.”
Those who refused masks in that crowded room clearly don’t care to grapple with how their decisions affect others. Just as they don’t care to grapple with how undermining our democracy with lies leads to insurrection and lasting damage to their fellow Americans. When your entire philosophy consists of staying in power and owning the libs — even when that turns deadly — you forfeit the right to make appeals to unity and healing.
Just 10 of the 211 Republicans in the House voted to join Democrats on Wednesday in impeaching President Trump for inciting insurrection. Led by Wyoming’s Liz Cheney, they withstood pressure from Trump, risked losing votes from his base, and stood up to the very real threats that prevented some of their less brave colleagues from voting their consciences, fearful that doing so might bring harm to their families (ponder that for a second).
The courage of Cheney et al. is laudable. It is also too little, too late. For years, Republicans of conscience watched their party’s devotion to individualism metastasize into something destructive and deadly. They stood by while their colleagues made a mockery of the values and the Constitution they profess to hold dear. They rationalized corrosions of norms and inexcusable injustices in the interests of maintaining power. They were largely silent on the malfeasance and indecencies of the rogue elephant in the White House.
And there clearly aren’t enough of them to right the GOP now.
Unity? That appeal, coming from a party now defined by lies, just might be the biggest one of all.
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.