WASHINGTON — Not since the dark days of the Civil War and its aftermath has Washington seen a day quite like Wednesday.
In a Capitol bristling with heavily armed soldiers and newly installed metal detectors, with the physical wreckage of last week’s siege cleaned up but the emotional and political wreckage still on display, the president of the United States was impeached for trying to topple American democracy.
Somehow, it felt like the preordained coda of a presidency that repeatedly pressed all limits and frayed the bonds of the body politic. With less than a week to go, President Donald Trump’s term is climaxing in a spasm of violence and recrimination at a time when the country has fractured deeply and lost a sense of itself. Notions of truth and reality have been atomized. Faith in the system has eroded. Anger is the one common ground.
As if it were not enough that Trump became the only president impeached twice or that lawmakers were trying to remove him with just a week left in his term, Washington devolved into a miasma of suspicion and conflict. A Democratic member of Congress accused Republican colleagues of helping the mob last week scout the building in advance. Republican members complained about security measures intended to keep guns off the House floor.
All of which was taking place against the backdrop of a pandemic that, while attention has drifted away, has grown catastrophically worse in the closing weeks of Trump’s presidency.
More than 4,400 people in the United States died of the coronavirus the day before the House vote, more in one day than were killed at Pearl Harbor or on Sept. 11, 2001, or during the Battle of Antietam. Only after several members of Congress were infected during the attack on the Capitol and new rules were put in place did they finally consistently wear masks during Wednesday’s debate.
Historians have struggled to define this moment. They compare it with other periods of enormous challenge like the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil War, the McCarthy era and Watergate. They recall the caning of Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate and the operation to sneak Abraham Lincoln into Washington for his inauguration for fear of an attack.
They cite the horrific year of 1968 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated while campuses and inner cities erupted over the Vietnam War and civil rights. Or the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, when further violent death on a mass scale seemed inevitable. And yet none of them is quite comparable.
“I wish I could give you a wise analogy, but I honestly don’t think anything quite like this has happened before,” said Geoffrey C. Ward, one of the nation’s most venerable historians. “If you’d told me that a president of the United States would have encouraged a delusional mob to march on our Capitol howling for blood, I would have said you were deluded.”
Jay Winik, a prominent chronicler of the Civil War and other periods of strife, likewise said there was no exact analog. “This is an extraordinary moment, virtually unparalleled in history,” he said. “It’s hard to find another time when the glue that holds us together was coming apart the way it is now.”
All of which leaves the United States’ reputation on the world stage at a low ebb, rendering what President Ronald Reagan liked to call the “shining city on a hill” a scuffed-up case study in the challenges that even a mature democratic power can face.
“The historical moment when we were a model is basically over,” said Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian of authoritarianism. “We now have to earn our credibility again, which might not be such a bad thing.”
At the Capitol on Wednesday, the scene evoked memories of Baghdad’s Green Zone during the Iraq War. Troops were bivouacked in the Capitol for the first time since the Confederates threatened to march across the Potomac.
The debate over Trump’s fate played out in the same House chamber where just a week earlier security officers drew their guns and barricaded the doors while lawmakers threw themselves to the floor or fled out the back to escape a marauding horde of Trump supporters. The outrage over that breach still hung in the air. So did the fear.
But the shock had ebbed to some extent and the debate at times felt numbingly familiar. Most lawmakers quickly retreated back to their partisan corners.
As Democrats demanded accountability, many Republicans pushed back and assailed them for a rush to judgment without hearings or evidence or even much debate. Trump’s accusers cited his inflammatory words at a rally just before the attack. His defenders cited provocative words by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Maxine Waters and even Robert De Niro and Madonna to maintain there was a double standard.
That the comparisons were apples and oranges did not matter so much as the prisms through which they were reflected. Trump sought to overturn a democratic election that he lost with false claims of widespread fraud, pressuring other Republicans and even his vice president to go along with him and dispatching an unruly crowd of supporters to march on the Capitol and “fight like hell.” But his allies complained that he had long been the target of what they considered unfair partisan attacks and investigations.
“Donald Trump is the most dangerous man to ever occupy the Oval Office,” declared Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas.
“The left in America has incited far more political violence than the right,” declared Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.
The starkly different vantage points encapsulated America in the Trump era. At one point, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic majority leader, expressed exasperation at the other side’s depiction of events. “You’re not living in the same country I am,” he exclaimed. And on that, at least, everyone could agree.
Trump offered no defense for himself, choosing to all but ignore the momentous events taking place. After the vote he released a five-minute video message in which he offered a more expansive denunciation of last week’s violence and disavowed those who carried it out. “If you do any of these things, you are not supporting our movement, you are attacking it,” he said.
But he expressed no regret or any sense that he had any responsibility for any of this by stoking the politics of division not just last week but for four years. And while he did not explicitly mention impeachment, he complained about “the unprecedented assault on free speech,” referring presumably to Twitter’s suspension of his account and actions against allies who helped him try to block the ratification of the election results.
Unlike Trump’s first impeachment for pressuring Ukraine to help tarnish Democrats, some in his party abandoned him this time. In the end, 10 House Republicans joined every Democrat to approve the sole article of impeachment, led by Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking Republican. It was a testament to how much the party has changed under Trump that the Cheney family, once considered ideological provocateurs themselves, emerged in this moment as defenders of traditional Republicanism.
Ten breakaway Republicans were not that many compared with the 197 party members who voted against impeachment. On the other hand, it was 10 more than voted to impeach Trump in December 2019 — and the most members of a president’s own party to support impeachment in American history.
Other Republicans sought to draw a more nuanced line, agreeing that Trump bore responsibility for inciting the mob while maintaining that it either did not amount to an impeachable offense or that it was unwise, unnecessary and divisive to pursue just days before President-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office.
“That doesn’t mean the president is free from fault,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican minority leader and one of Trump’s most stalwart allies, said as he spoke against impeachment. “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.”
Still, the fealty that so many House Republicans demonstrated for a president who lost reelection and has done so much to damage their own party was striking. “If the overwhelming majority of the elected representatives to one of the two American parties cannot reject the hold of a demagogue even after he overtly schemed to reverse an election and in doing so threatened their very lives, well, we have a long road ahead,” said Frank Bowman, an impeachment scholar at the University of Missouri law school.
Brenda Wineapple, author of “The Impeachers” about President Andrew Johnson’s trial in 1868, said she recognized in Wednesday’s debate some of the arguments made then against conviction — that it would be a bad precedent, that it would only further divide the country. She also saw another echo, a desire to move beyond Johnson to his anticipated successor, Ulysses S. Grant, who like Biden was seen as a healing figure.
“It gives me hope,” she said. “We’ve got to have hope.”
But to the extent that the United States is in need of repair, it is a project that may be overwhelming for any president without a broader consensus across party lines. Trump may be impeached but he will almost surely finish out the last week of his term and he does not plan to slink away in shame or ignominy as other one-term losers have done, potentially making him a residual force, even if a diminished one.
Moreover, the people who see his defeat as a call to arms remain a force. Security officials are bolstering troops in Washington for Biden’s inauguration next week, worried about a repeat of the invasion of the Capitol. After Trump falsely told them again and again that the election was stolen, polls suggest that millions of Americans believe him.
“On the eve of the 1940 election, FDR said that democracy is more than just a word — ‘It is a living thing — a human thing — compounded of brains and muscles and heart and soul,’” said Susan Dunn, a historian at Williams College and biographer of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Now, she said, after the events of the last days and years, “we know that democracies are fragile, and the brains and soul of our democracy are at grave risk.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.