The most apt parallel for the second impeachment of Donald Trump may not be any other of the three previous presidential impeachments, including his own just over a year ago. It may instead be the PATRIOT Act, which was passed in the heated emotional aftermath of the September 11 attacks, with negligible debate afforded to the long-term implications of what Congress was enacting. Reason and deliberation had given way to a collective desire for security and revenge, and thus the most sweeping curtailment of civil liberties in the modern historical record was approved. Those who departed from the swiftly assembled consensus could expect to be denounced as sympathisers to terrorists.
Likewise, if you deign to raise concerns about the implications of this sudden impeachment sequel — or any of the other extraordinary actions taken in the past week, such as an ongoing corporate censorship purge of unprecedented proportions — you can expect to be accused of defending or supporting the “domestic terrorists” who carried out the mob attack on the Capitol.
Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, rationalised rushing through Wednesday’s impeachment resolution at spell-binding speed — by far the fastest impeachment process ever — on the grounds that Trump posed a “clear and present danger” to the country, and needed to be removed immediately. “Imminent threats” of various stripes also have a long history of being cited to justify sweeping emergency action, such as the invasion of Iraq. Often upon further inspection, the purported “threat” turns out to have been not so “imminent”, or in fact to have never existed at all.
But as rushed as the impeachment was, if the purported emergency conditions were truly so dire as Pelosi maintained, she could have theoretically summoned the House to convene the day after the mob attack and impeach Trump right away. Congress convened the very next day after the attack on Pearl Harbor to declare war on Japan, for example. Instead, Pelosi waited a full week, and gave everyone the weekend off in the interim. Trump, alleged to be in the process of orchestrating a violent “coup”, was allowed to remain in office unimpeded with access to the nuclear codes for seven days.
Nonetheless, with a total of two hours of perfunctory debate — and no hearings, fact-finding or meditation on the relevant Constitutional Law considerations — Trump was impeached for the second time. As such, the text of the impeachment article will now be permanently embedded in the fabric of American governance.
One wonders who even had a chance to actually sit down and read it. The article, which charges Trump with “incitement of insurrection”, is far-reaching in its potential implications. “Incitement” is an extremely narrowly circumscribed doctrine in US law, and for good reason: anyone who engages in inflammatory but protected political speech could theoretically be said to have engaged in criminally punishable “incitement” without the shield of the First Amendment. If someone who hears your speech chooses on their volition to engage in violent or criminal conduct, you in almost all circumstances cannot be prosecuted.
This new impeachment changes that equilibrium. The one quote cited from Trump in the article to demonstrate his alleged “inciting” speech was: ‘‘If you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore.’’ That line — which could have been uttered by Trump in about a thousand different contexts over the past five years — is alleged to have “foreseeably resulted in… lawless action”.
I witnessed countless instances of political speech expressed by activists, journalists, and others during last summer’s protests and riots which under the same standard could have been deemed to have “foreseeably resulted” in “lawless action”, such as attacks on police or destruction of property. But there was always a presumption that the speech was nonetheless protected under the First Amendment. The new “Trump standard” codified by this impeachment could have drastic implications for the the future, should it be applied more widely throughout US jurisprudence. Impeachable “incitement” is also unlikely ever to include statements by a president “encouraging” violence by way of, say, military force.
Still, Trump’s statements on 6 January — just like a seemingly infinite number of others over the past five-plus years — could surely be worthy of political rebuke or censure. Indeed, Trump has already been rebuked. He’s been roundly condemned by his own party and administration. His main communications platform, Twitter, has banished him. His high-profile supporters are being systematically nuked from social media writ large. He’s been made to issue several humiliating statements conceding defeat and “disavowing” the MAGA mob which marched in his name. The bozo rioters at the Capitol were undoubtedly inflamed by a barrage of lies and conspiratorial delusions that Trump churned out on an almost hourly basis since losing the election — that’s beyond dispute.
But it was still clear pretty soon after the mob intrusion began last week that the most significant consequences from what occurred would arise not from the intrusion itself, which was dispersed by agents of the state in a matter of hours. Rather, the real consequences would stem from the predictably rash over-reaction. The more extreme the characterisation of last Wednesday’s events, the more emotional ammunition that lawmakers have to demand whatever extreme remedial action they had been ideologically committed to pursuing anyway. This goes well beyond the expedited impeachment, and into the corporate censorship purge which has now radically altered the principles undergirding the open internet.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the most high-profile member of the Left-wing Congressional “#squad”, has claimed that she narrowly escaped assassination at the Capitol and has thus been “traumatised”. Evidently she will be publicly working through this “trauma” on Instagram. It is also her contention that half of the House of Representatives (over 200 people) had been on the verge of mass execution. This style of political rhetoric has already been marshalled by “AOC” and others to demand corporate censorship on a vast scale, and successfully so; last week she tweeted pressure on Apple and Google to expel the alternative social media platform Parler from their app stores, and the corporations quickly obliged.
Amazon, falling like a domino, then completely terminated Parler from its web hosting service — effectively killing the site. As perhaps the country’s most influential Democrat by online following, AOC is someone who these tech corporations have an interest in appeasing, especially as Democrats enter full control of the federal government on 20 January. Her exceedingly dramatic recounting of what transpired during the mob intrusion is a powerful tool in her arsenal.
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney further declared from the floor of the House that Trump had “wilfully incited an armed insurrection”. Which is again another curious characterisation, because while a Capitol Police officer was in fact killed in the melee, the only person against whom armed, deadly force was used against was Ashli Babbitt, a Trump-supporting Afghanistan and Iraq War veteran who was shot dead at point-blank range by an officer.
Any rational observer who has the capacity to detach from the temporary passions of the moment should be able to recognise that the United States government was never at risk of being “overthrown” by the chaotic band of yahoos who stormed the Capitol. All they accomplished was to delay the certification of Joe Biden’s victory by a few hours. They also humiliated the man they apparently thought they were valiantly coming to the defence of; even Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader of the House, took to the floor during the impeachment session to declare that “Antifa” was not to blame for the chaos which unfolded, and blamed Trump as bearing responsibility for the events. Indeed, the full force of state and federal law enforcement power is now being deployed against the intruders, and many — perhaps hundreds — will be going to prison.
Reminiscent of the post 9/11 period, the “crisis” of the past week has been seized upon to execute a pre-existing agenda. Impeachment, purges, the militarisation and lockdown of the Capitol — it’s only the beginning, and it’s all happening with hardly even a peep of criticism or moment for reflection. Given this historical continuity with the events of 2001, it was therefore fitting when Steny Hoyer, the Democratic Majority Leader in the House, went out of his way Wednesday afternoon to herald the valour of Liz Cheney — daughter of the architect of US policy after 9/11, Dick — who was one of the ten Republicans to vote along with Democrats to impeach.