“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” Irish poet William Butler Yeats voiced his foreboding — of things falling apart — in 1919, after the conclusion of World War I, which for the poet settled little. He imagined a “rough beast” slouching onward, heralding more terror, and those terrors — World War II, the Holocaust — did come to be. “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” he wrote. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
Things seem to be falling apart in America in this post-Trump, mid-pandemic moment. Even with the new Biden-Harris administration in place, though full of conviction, little yet coheres. And yet, and yet: With the just-concluded Senate trial of the second impeachment of former President Donald Trump, in which the “Inciter-in-Chief” was acquitted of inciting a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, why am I feeling this — mild though it is — uplift? Why is my own verdict: The center (American spelling now) is holding?
Because: Some evidence of coherence — sanity, reason, deliberation, organization, even wit — was on view and in play in this trial. Some sense of all the chaos churning our lives these last four years was made — finally. Some ballast was added to the center and it was holding — just barely. (“Center” here is meant not strictly politically, but in the life-made-possible sense.)
The evidence? While most Senate Republicans voted to acquit Trump on the narrow jurisdictional ground that a former President cannot be convicted once he is again a private citizen for crimes and misdemeanors committed while in office (though some conservative legal scholars disagreed), there is little doubt — expressed by numerous Republicans themselves emphatically — that Trump was indeed guilty of inciting the Jan. 6 mob attack.
Notably, seven (7) Republicans broke rank with their cult-ridden party to voice their verdict — “Guilty” — for all to hear. While a two-thirds vote was needed to convict, 57 votes of “Guilty” is a whole lot of guilty (versus the 43 votes to acquit, barely.) Credit to senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, Pat Toomey, and the two surprises, Richard Burr and Bill Cassidy. These centrists will face retribution from their party and a possible primary from their far-right, but courage such as theirs is needed — lots of it — if the Republican party is to be returned to any semblance of sanity.
In his poem of things falling apart, Yeats (also here and here) expressed some hope (or is it trepidation?): “Surely some revelation is at hand.” He was speaking apocryphally — his poem is titled “The Second Coming.” But, taking hope wherever we can now, there were revelations — two in particular — in this trial that, if built upon, can add more ballast to the center. The first revelation was expected; the second, totally not.
Jamie Raskin, the Maryland Congressman who led the House impeachment managers in a presentation universally regarded (even by Republicans) as by far the stronger one, embodies all the above virtues, and then some — sanity, reason, deliberation, organization, even wit — that we desperately need now. A Constitutional law professor for over a quarter-century, Raskin dazzled with his knowledge of the law (which depth, for me, had the restorative effect that, yes, there is law and it can rule again). All of which he put, not in academese, but ordinary language, notably when, re Trump’s incitement, he demolished the defense’s insistence on Trump’s free-speech rights, using this analogy: “It’s more like a case where the town fire chief, who’s paid to put out fires, sends a mob, not to yell fire in a crowded theater, but to actually set the theater on fire. And who then, when the fire alarms go off and the calls start flooding into the fire department asking for help, does nothing but sit back, encourage the mob to continue its rampage and watch the fire spread on TV with glee and delight.” (I thought of Emerson: “Nothing so astonishes as common sense and plain dealing.”)
Importantly, Raskin made the moral point, too, noting the simple wrongness of Trump’s behavior, especially his incitement of the Jan. 6 insurrection (“Inciter-in-Chief” is Raskin’s formulation). Exhorting Republicans to convict, he quoted the Bible (Exodus), “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.” Raskin is not of the political center but of the left. As he explained to the British newspaper The Guardian: “It’s not my ambition to be in the political centre, which blows around with the wind. It’s my ambition to be in the moral centre and that’s why I call myself a progressive because I think our job is to find what’s right, the best that we can, and then bring the political centre to us.”
Inescapably, Raskin’s recent personal tragedy — the suicide of his only son (named after early patriot Tom Paine) — entered in: The day after the son was buried, the insurrection took place. But Raskin made clear: “I’m not going to lose my son at the end of 2020 and lose my country and my republic in 2021. It’s not going to happen.” At trial he related an exchange with a daughter who was with him in the Capitol Jan. 6: When he promised her they’d return someday, she said, heartbreakingly, “Dad, I don’t want to return to the Capitol.” Turning to the assembled body, Raskin said: “Senators, this cannot be our future.” Raskin’s deep reading of American history and love for it should inspire us in both (the reading and the love). All these virtues were reflected in the entire House team.
The other revelation is — I still can hardly credit it — Mitch McConnell(!), Senate minority leader, who, in his closing speech after (yes) voting to acquit Trump on (again) narrow jurisdictional grounds, declared emphatically: “There is no question — none — that President Trump is practically and morally responsible” for “provoking” (that is, inciting) the Jan. 6 insurrection. This lambaste of Trump, coming near his speech’s opening and following a pro-forma one of Democrat majority leader Chuck Schumer, had me wondering if they were reading each other’s speech by mistake. Fully cognizant that McConnell, when majority leader, enabled so much that is anathema to Democrats (e.g., confirmation of many very conservative judges, including three to the Supreme Court), I still think it is instructive to cite his speech (video here), because the lambaste was so comprehensive.
Calling the Jan. 6 mob “terrorists” and citing their deadly intent (the makeshift gallows), McConnell laid blame: “They did this, because they’d been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on earth.” Citing Trump for a “disgraceful — disgraceful — dereliction of duty,” McConnell said: “The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of this President. And having that belief was a foreseeable consequence of a growing crescendo of false statements and conspiracy theories and reckless hyperbole, which the defeated President kept shouting into the largest megaphone on Planet Earth.” He noted “the entire manufactured atmosphere of looming catastrophe, the increasingly wild myths — myths — about a reverse landslide election that was somehow being stolen, some secret coup, by our now President.” And then, this: He excoriates a President “who seemed determined to either overturn the voters’ decision or else torch our institutions on the way out.” N.B. the term “torch.”
This “unconscionable” behavior of Trump’s did not end with the Jan. 6 assault; it just began. As “these criminals were carrying his banners…and screaming their loyalty to him, it was obvious that only President Trump could end this.” But, he did not: “No, instead…he watched television, happily — happily — as the chaos unfolded.” Moreover, Trump “kept pressing his scheme to overturn the election, even after it was clear to any reasonable observer that Vice-President [Mike] Pence was in serious danger.” Trump then sending a tweet attacking his own Vice-President could “predictably” be interpreted by the mob as “further inspiration to lawlessness and violence.” When Trump began calling for peace, it was, per McConnell, too late and “half-hearted.”
I cite McConnell at length because: As America endeavors to move ahead, we will no doubt continue to hear the “argument” from Trump and Trumpians about stolen elections and the like. Refutation can be drawn from none other than Mitch McConnell. And, importantly: Both McConnell and Raskin, Republican and Democrat, inveighed against the “mobocratic” spirit that Abraham Lincoln warned about. I imagined President Joe Biden took heart at the whole spectacle, that just possibly his mission of unity could come to pass.
Of course McConnell, ultimate political tactician, sought to make political points, as well as the (expedient) moral one of Trump’s culpability. One such point: Clearly hoping to hive off the 74 million Trump voters from Trump, he appealed directly to them by calling attempts to use them as a “human shield” against criticism of Trump “an absurd deflection”: “Seventy-four million Americans did not invade the Capitol,” thereby absolving them of Trump’s blame. Another more devastating point: McConnell went for the jugular, noting Trump can still be “tried and punished” outside the Congress. “Put another way…President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office. He didn’t get away with anything — yet.” He repeated for emphasis: “Yet.” Put another way: Have at it, America, take Trump to court — civil, criminal, public opinion. In his cunning way, McConnell reminded us impeachment is a political event, not a legal one. He also invited America to bury Trump deep in the political wilderness.
Things fall apart. But: If we proceed conscientiously and mindfully, learning the right lessons from our suffering under Trump and the pandemic; if we build on the virtues exhibited by Congressman Raskin and his eminent team; if we can benefit from a saner Republican party enabled by Senator McConnell, maybe — just maybe — America can get to that fabled center again and secure it.
Can the center hold? More to the point: Can we hold it? We have to believe we can.