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Time for Consequences

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 1/10/2021 James Fallows
a man looking at the camera © Jim Watson / AFP / Getty

The most immediate challenge any new president faces is deciding what not to do. For Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the catastrophes of the past four days have not radically changed the way they should make those choices. One week ago, it was imperative that they mainly look forward, to the public-health, economic, and foreign-affairs emergencies that they are inheriting. That is still their duty and imperative now. But for the rest of the government, and much of society, the barbaric and potentially catastrophic storming of the U.S. Capitol, and the culpability of public and private figures who egged the mob on, demand a response. The response of Congress should be to impeach; that of law enforcement should be to arrest and prosecute every participant who can be identified; and that of civil society should be to ensure that there are consequences for those who chose violence and fascism at a decisive moment in the country’s history. Usually “letting bygones be bygones” is wise advice for individuals and for societies. Not in this case.

In the current issue of The Atlantic, I quote Jack Watson, who was centrally involved in two presidential transitions, on the imbalance between the countless hopes, goals, and ambitions with which any new presidency begins, and the handful of challenges it simply cannot ignore. “You have to separate what must be done, soon, from all the other things you might want to do later in the administration,” Watson said.

For this new president and vice president, clearheadedness about this choice is more important, and more difficult, than it was for nearly any of their predecessors. It’s more important because they are moving into a house that’s on fire. They are taking responsibility for a range of emergencies not seen since Franklin D. Roosevelt followed Herbert Hoover in 1933, and exceeded only by what Abraham Lincoln faced in 1861. Just a few items on a very long list are a surging pandemic, a damaged and unsustainably imbalanced economy, and a governing system whose basic principles are under direct attack and whose operational competence has been hollowed out.

And their decisions are harder than for most new administrations, because in addition to looking forward, to all the problems they are now supposed to solve, they must look backward, to reckoning with what Donald Trump and his enablers have done. As I said in the magazine article, “As he prepares to occupy the White House, President-elect Joe Biden faces a decision rare in American history: what to do about the man who has just left office, whose personal corruption, disdain for the Constitution, and destructive mismanagement of the federal government are without precedent.”

[Tom Nichols: Trump’s Removal Is Taking Too Long]

In that article, which was completed two months ago, just after the election, I set out a triage system for how the Biden-Harris team should make these choices. To boil it down, I argued:

  • On matters of corruption, they should leave the work to state-government authorities, in New York and elsewhere, who already have investigations under way. And for possible violations of federal law, from ignoring the Hatch Act to impeding the U.S. Postal Service, they should appoint an eminent, independent attorney general, and also inspectors general in the executive-level departments, and leave the rest to them. (I did not name Merrick Garland in this article but had in mind someone like him.)
  • On corrosion of federal competence, from the State Department to the CDC, a new president can and must act directly and immediately. Of the 4,000 political-appointment positions in the executive branch, some 3,000 do not require Senate confirmation. The Biden team can and should get them in place, right away. And because the victories of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia have put the Democrats in control of the Senate, Biden can get the other 1,000 in position without undue delay.
  • On the catastrophes of this era, from pandemic management to the rise of white-supremacist violence, I suggested longer-term responses a new administration could authorize and encourage. These would include the creation of top-level national commissions, on the model of the Kerner Commission on racial justice in the 1960s or the 9/11 Commission after the attacks of 2001, as the least polarizing, most promising ways to deal with white-hot public crises. (For more on what commissions can and cannot do, see the article.)

All of that was “before”—before a sitting president and several U.S. senators (and the wife of a sitting Supreme Court justice) cheered on an insurrectionist horde, before that horde broke into the Capitol and rubbed excrement along its walls, before the Confederate flag was trooped inside a space that had been the seat of Union government. And before eight U.S. senators and 139 representatives—all Republicans, the representatives making up most of the GOP delegation in the House—voted to overturn Electoral College results, for the first time in American history. Now it is “after.” How has the calculation changed?

For Biden and Harris, the right path remains what it had been. Their main job is to cope with the emergencies at hand. Vaccines and resources to deal with the pandemic. Relief, renewal, and innovation to address the grossly uneven effects of economic collapse. Investments, vision, and coordination to make “Build back better” more than just a slogan. The nation’s recovery depends on their focus on such tasks—not to mention their political fortunes, and the Democratic Party’s.

[Read: Americans Were Worried About the Wrong Threat]

The new president and vice president can’t afford to look back. The rest of us have to. The person with the most individual responsibility for this week’s carnage is, of course, Trump. He is stained, culpable, unfit, and forever disgraced. But that is who he has always been—as I argued in 152 “Time Capsule” installments during his 2016 rise, and as he prefigured in his appalling American Carnage” inaugural address.

Trump could not have fulfilled his dark potential without a complaisant, also culpable supporting cast. That includes a political organization that converted itself from the “Grand Old Party” to a group of “Vichy Republicans,” who cowered rather than standing up to Trump. It includes a highly partisan press claque that magnified Trump’s lies (as Margaret Sullivan has again emphasized), and a self-consciously nonpartisan mainstream press that seemed terrified of using the word lie. (The safe-harbor alternative was without evidence. In other times, this would have given us, “Without evidence, Soviets claim to have landed first on the moon,” or “Without evidence, Richard Nixon claims not to be a crook.”) And it includes social-media companies, notably Facebook and Twitter, that have knowingly been crucial parts of the ecosystem of disinformation. Twitter provided Trump a megaphone for lies and incitement for nearly a decade, until its overdue but welcome decision to deny him an untrammeled platform. Facebook’s own employees have protested the role it played.

These groups acted as they did because they feared the consequences of doing otherwise. The GOP and Fox News info system feared the wrath of Trump and the passions of the base he kept ever more fervently riled up. (The blunt refusal to cower to Trump, by resolutely conservative GOP election officials in Georgia, has drawn so much attention because it is so rare.) The mainstream media acted as they did largely because of a culture that feared criticism for “taking sides.” The social-media companies feared giving up the convenient pose that they were strictly “platforms,” as opposed to being “publishers,” and therefore could not be held responsible for what appeared on their sites. (This is apart from the numerous signs of shared worldview between Donald Trump and his allies, and prominent Facebook officials, including Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Thiel, and Joel Kaplan. Zuckerberg’s role is of course all-important: In addition to being Facebook’s chairman and CEO, he personally controls more than 50 percent of the company’s entire “voting shares,” giving him unconstrained one-man decision-making power over arguably the most influential media outlet in the world.)

Few consequences existed for going along—for standing with a president for whom many senators and representatives express their private contempt (always private), for describing as “controversial” or “without evidence” views that reporters knew to be flat-out lies, for letting social-media technology become the organizational backbone of disinformation and hate. These behaviors, which erode democratic governance in the long run, have carried too few consequences in the here and now. (Consider how freely GOP politicians and officials start criticizing Trump once they’ve stepped down.) The results of these skewed risk/reward calculations are predictable. Day by day, vote by vote, story by story, people make choices that they won’t be proud of later on.

In her latest Wall Street Journal column, Peggy Noonan, the onetime Ronald Reagan speechwriter, made an impassioned argument for, as she put it, lowering the boom on those directly and indirectly responsible for the desecration of the Capitol. “When something like this happens it tends to be repeated,” she wrote. “It is our job to make sure it is not. And so we should come down like a hammer on all those responsible, moving with brute dispatch against members of the mob and their instigators.”

Those instigators, she wrote, began with Trump but included the congressional Republicans who stood with him and against the peaceful transfer of power, notably Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz. “They are clever men, highly educated, well-credentialed”—Hawley a product of Yale Law School, Cruz of Harvard Law. “Here’s to you, boys. Did you see the broken glass, the crowd roaming the halls like vandals in late Rome, the staff cowering in locked closets and barricading offices? Look on your mighty works and despair.”

Actions should have consequences, and consequences will affect future actions. How could consequences be adjusted after this week? A non-exhaustive starter list:

Impeachment. Nearly two years ago, Yoni Appelbaum argued in an Atlantic cover story that Trump had already far passed the threshold that would justify impeachment. Now any typical week’s news contains several more potential entries in a bill of impeachment. The recent hour-long taped phone call, in which Trump begged and threatened Georgia election officials to change their state’s vote count, is now seemingly forgotten, but it exceeded everything alleged or suspected about Richard Nixon. Trump’s overt incitement to riot, through tweets and in a speech on the morning of January 6, is fresher in memory and was incomparably worse.

Given the calendar, even a successful impeachment effort is not likely to remove Trump from office much faster than the constitutional deadline will. But it will force members of his party to go on the record for him or against him. It would signal to the world, and to our own country, an awareness that something terrible has happened, and cannot happen again. Societies that shrink from, fictionalize, or paper over the ugliest parts of their past invite even uglier episodes. The claims that impeachment would be “divisive,” advanced by many of the same people who tried to overturn the resounding Biden-Harris win, should be “dismissed with prejudice,” as the legal terminology goes. And in practical terms, a successful impeachment, meaning a two-thirds margin for conviction in the Senate, could bar Trump from holding any federal office again—in turn limiting the destructive black-hole effect he could have on the next presidential race.

The House will consider bills of impeachment tomorrow. It should pass them. The Senate should vote to convict. If, in his final days as Senate majority leader, the ineffable Mitch McConnell refuses to bring the measure to a vote, then Republican senators who present themselves as principled—Mitt Romney? Lisa Murkowski? Ben Sasse? Pat Toomey? Susan Collins?—should agree to caucus with the Democrats for the remaining days until January 20, thus making Chuck Schumer the majority leader, with power to set the schedule. They can always switch back later, if they’d like to rejoin the GOP in its new, post-Georgia minority-party status. (Schumer will, of course, become the majority leader anyway, and McConnell the leader of the minority, after Harris is sworn in as vice president and the 50–50 Senate lineup shifts to the Democrats’ favor.)

Reputation. This matters to people, in practical and emotional terms. Cabinet members and White House staffers are discovering that Trump has at last gone “too far,” and are trying to leap from his diminishing ice floe back onto firmer ground. Resigning “on principle” at this point is a cheap stunt and should be seen as such. It is worse than a stunt for Cabinet members, including Elaine Chao and Betsy DeVos, in that it spares them the obligation of taking a side in a Twenty-Fifth Amendment vote to remove Trump from office. Having stayed with Trump, and having lied or dissembled on his behalf, should lastingly stain his associates’ reputations.

In an extraordinary video he released today, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who grew up in post-Nazi Austria, likened the violence at the Capitol to the anti-Semitic Kristallnacht rampage of 1938, “which was carried out by the Nazi equivalent of the Proud Boys.” Schwarzenegger said that Trump was most to blame for the lies and hatred that led to the violence. But, he added, “what are we make of those elected officials who have enabled his lies and his treachery?”

The time to stand against Trump was early in 2016, when he was taking over the party; or later that year, when he was en route to taking control of the government; or at latest the beginning of 2020, when Romney was the only Republican member of the House or Senate to vote to remove him from power. Seeing the light when the light has become blinding does not count. (Alexandra Petri of The Washington Post has a typically brilliant new column on this theme: “I see no choice but to resign from this Death Star as it begins to explode.”) Senators Cruz and Hawley might prefer to be known for other things, but the dominant item on their résumé should always be their role in the disaster of January 6.

[Evelyn Douek: Trump Is Banned. Who Is Next?]

The press and social media. Having written 1,000 times in recent years about the mainstream press’s dangerous attachment to “both sides” reportage, I will not write today installment 1,001. Instead I will point toward related analyses from Margaret Sullivan, Jay Rosen, Greg Sargent, and Eric Boehlert, to name a few. The “established” press, and the new digital and social media, has not caught up with the realities of this era—and has to adapt much more quickly than it has so far. (In The Atlantic, Evelyn Douek has a new essay on the practical steps social-media companies should take.) Otherwise only the final two words of Zuckerberg’s notorious “Move fast and break things” dictum will describe its effect.

The mechanics of democracy. The Vichy Republican efforts of the past year have been in direct service of Donald Trump. But their indirect targets have been the fundamentals of American democracy as a whole, of which the most important is a willingness by the losers to respect an election’s outcome. Al Gore’s concession, after his 5–4 defeat in the infamous Bush v. Gore ruling of 2000, is the extreme case of fealty to this principle. Trump’s relentless war against the 2020 outcome is the opposite extreme. As I write, it now appears that Trump will, in the end, give up office, or be forced from it. But (as the Duke of Wellington is supposed to have said after the Battle of Waterloo) it was a close-run thing. The outcome was never guaranteed.

Democracy is not self-maintaining. It has come close to breaking down. Beverly Gage and Emily Bazelon have a new article in The New York Times with specific proposals for preserving it. Once again, I’ll recommend this report, from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, on proposals that are both sweeping and practical.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s main contribution to the defense of democracy should be to faithfully execute the office they have democratically attained. The rest of us need to get to work on these other fronts.

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