In the coming days, as the smoke settles on the bloody coup attempt that President Trump orchestrated last week, and as the Biden administration settles in, we will probably hear how it is a time for America to heal its wounds, to bridge chasms rather than deepen them.
We’ll be reminded that we are strongest when we come together. We will be warned to step back from the brink of civil war and begin the painful work of reconciliation. We’ll hear that impeaching Trump will inflame passions rather than soothe them, that it will make him a martyr to his enraged devotees, that it will get in the way of COVID-19 relief, that it will be a distraction from realizing President Biden’s agenda. We’ll be asked to let history judge Trump rather than mire ourselves in the treacherous process of punishing him.
“After the abhorrent violence we saw last week, our country desperately needs to heal and unify. I have concerns that impeachment proceedings will only divide us further," RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel says, when asked how the party feels about Trump being impeached.— Josh Dawsey (@jdawsey1) January 11, 2021
These exhortations will get traction — because Biden’s political brand places much emphasis on finding common ground, because many of us would like to stop focusing on Trump, and because talk of unity can provide cover for many in the Republican Party who wish to minimize their role in propping up and egging on the outgoing president.
And yet, such calls are empty. Reconciliation, healing, bridging divides — all require a sense that we are still part of the same political project. They assume that the idea of “we the people” still makes sense, that, though holding bitterly opposing views, there is still a degree of solidarity between us and we can imagine a future together. But these assumptions have all been called into question by recent events. The Trump supporter rampaging through the Capitol clad in a Viking hat may be part of the same political project as Senator Josh Hawley, but those two don’t share a project with Black Lives Matter protesters, or the two newly elected US senators from Georgia. And it doesn’t look like the passage of time will bring these contingents closer.
We don’t need to heal, reconcile, come together, or realize that what unites us is greater than what divides us. These are disingenuous, and probably illegitimate goals for a large, diverse republic to pursue. What we need is to learn to tolerate each other. Not unifying, not conciliating, not finding the “better angels of our nature,” just tolerating. To tolerate aspirin or penicillin means you can take them without suffering a terrible reaction. For us to tolerate each other means that we can be in close proximity to those we fundamentally disagree with and not kill each other.
But being able to tolerate each other requires putting in place some basic ground rules. To tolerate each other we need a clear sense of what we won’t tolerate. If we are going to live peacefully alongside people we strongly dislike, we have to agree on what can’t be done, no matter how angry we become. A president fomenting insurrection against the institutions of his own country is one of those things. Rejecting the results of a legitimate election and violently disrupting the process for certifying the vote is another. Unleashing extraordinary force on peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in Seattle and Washington and elsewhere but treating the murderous mob that invaded the Capitol with utmost gentleness is a third.
And so, the president must be removed, impeached, prosecuted so that we once again have clarity on what is simply not allowed. The pro-Trump mob of insurrectionists who heeded him must be put on trial for the same reason. And our local and federal law enforcement agencies need to be called out for the breathtaking double standard they are practicing.
This kind of accountability is not a hindrance to reconciliation or unity. Reconciliation and unity are not on the table. It is, rather, the condition for our ability to stand each other. Toleration — figuring out how to be in each other’s presence without dying — is a tall enough order. We are far enough from anything like it. Let’s worry about the poetics of reconciliation later.
Nir Eisikovits, associate professor of political philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Boston and director of its Applied Ethics Center, is the author of “A Theory of Truces.”