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Trump’s mob sinned against the US nation. That cannot be forgotten

The former President's efforts to discredit the democratic process, without evidence, before the result was even known

There was never really any doubt about the outcome of the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump. Neither of the two opposing camps in Congress, or any major American political commentator, had suggested that enough of the Senate’s Republican members would agree to convict - whatever evidence or arguments were presented to them, and he was duly acquitted on Saturday night. So what was the point? Given the irreconcilable enmity between the parties which will be fed by what could be portrayed as an exercise in partisan showmanship, what useful purpose was to be served?

This is the view I hear repeatedly in British circles - both from people who were once Trump apologists and, perhaps more surprisingly, those who have always detested him. Why not move on? Just put this ugly misadventure behind you, bury it as a dark chapter in the nation’s history and proceed with the proper business of the day - tackling the pandemic and, if you are inclined to support it, enacting Joe Biden’s presidential programme.

Let me try to explain, in terms that possibly only Americans can fully appreciate, why this had to be done: why what happened on that day at the Capitol was so unimaginably terrible - and Trump’s behaviour such an outrage to America’s political values - that it cannot be allowed simply to fade into irrelevance. Every moment of it, recorded on those appalling video clips that the Congressional managers assembled to accompany their prosecution, must be preserved in the national memory.

This is not just to ensure that, as the Democrats keep saying, “this can never happen again” but to serve as a lesson in what America stands for - because what happened, and what the former President did, threatened to undermine the country’s founding principles in a way that has not happened since the Civil War. (The presence of Confederate flags in the storming of the Capitol was no coincidence.) But it is important to note that those violent scenes were just the culmination of the attack on constitutional government, not the totality of it.

Trump had, throughout the election campaign, claimed that if he lost, that could only mean that the vote had been rigged and the presidency stolen. He was discrediting the democratic process, without evidence, even before the result was known. This was a premeditated, systematic undermining of confidence in the integrity of the electoral system. For this alone, he could be accused of seditious intent, quite apart from his diatribe on the day of the infamous attack. So the claim by his legal defence team that he could not be held responsible for inciting the riot on the grounds that many of its most violent ringleaders had planned their actions before that inflammatory speech evaded the point.

Their only other substantive argument was over whether a man who was no longer in office could be impeached since, by definition, impeachment involves removal from office. But this objection ran into murky waters over the obvious consequence: he committed the act in question while he was still president, when he could not be prosecuted as an ordinary citizen (but only impeached by Congress).

To accept the logic that he could not now be impeached because he was no longer in office would mean that a president could commit any crime (bank robbery? murder?) in the interregnum between officially losing an election and leaving office, without being susceptible to either kind of prosecution. It was just the kind of ambiguity that American constitutional lawyers love to debate. This sort of argument about the precise meaning of the Constitution is another thing that British observers find bemusing.

The sacred significance of that great document is rather mystifying to those who have not been taught - from their earliest schooldays - to revere it. To have any hope of understanding this reverence, it is necessary to grasp that the United States has no pre-democratic history: unlike almost all Old World countries, it has no collective recollection of monarchic or aristocratic rule, no unifying memory of a national identity that precedes its present institutions. The reason that the “founding fathers” are invoked as if they were prophets is because they literally created a nation - based on legal principles guaranteeing freedom and justice as it was then understood - which had never previously existed.

The Constitution is not just a set of governing rules: it is the statement of America’s raison d’etre, and the one thing that binds a population of displaced and disparate people together. That is why the desecration of the building where its legislature sits, and the threat to the lives of those who were elected there, was more than an act of criminal violence: it was a sin against the spirit of the nation.

Revolutionary republics are generally inclined to regard their monuments and institutions as sacred but for the United States, it is especially so because it was a nation created to exemplify what was thought to be the universal human right to democratic liberty. The Democratic congressmen who presented the prosecution case may have seemed, to British ears, to be engaging in sentimental hyperbole when they claimed that these events had damaged America’s standing as a model to the world. But Trump and his mob constituted an existential threat to America’s understanding of itself and its historic purpose. By insisting that only his re-election could qualify as a just outcome, they were elevating one man above the authority of the law which is the first step to totalitarianism.

So was this all just a show with an inevitable ending? A bit of party political gamesmanship designed to divide the Republicans for a generation - or to alienate them from their largest constituency? Possibly, but it was a show worth having nonetheless.

If enough conscientious Republican voters wake up from their trance and think again about what their party once stood for, they might, after all, save themselves. The process of exorcising the Trump phenomenon, perhaps by finding solutions to the problems of the devastated Rust Belt states, could even reinvigorate American political discourse. Or then again, this might be just the beginning of an intractable political nightmare.