The assessment by Congressional Republicans (and some of the public) that this week’s historic second impeachment of President Trump is “divisive” isn’t entirely wrong. The action is literally divisive, in that it will cause Trump supporters to resent further punishment for their actions, which will manifest later when they have either justifiable or perceived “points” to score against the opponents of Trump.
It’s also divisive in that it will make at least some of President Trump’s critics feel increased moral superiority about their opponent sinking to further depths, especially since many of them feel he wasn’t sufficiently punished for past transgressions.
All that said, being a divisive action doesn’t make it unjust or inadvisable.
It does mean that those who wished to hold Trump accountable considered (among other negatives) that it would be divisive, but felt that it was an important enough consequence to deliver anyway.
I don’t pretend that all those who voted for impeachment did so of pure moral heart. Some of that motivation may have been for the aforementioned “retribution”, though given the extreme, historically unprecedented intrusion in the US Capitol, Trump supporters can no longer reasonably hide behind the claim that he is punished solely because his opponents want to publicly shame him without cause. In other words, after the events of last week, the Master of the Gray Area can no longer simply claim that he is being “witch-hunted”. Many people surely voted for impeachment because they were utterly shaken by the extreme events, and saw an inevitable need to use what powers they have to send a clear signal that words — even hints — have extremely powerful and historical impact.
In addition, a simple claim of “divisiveness” is rarely, if ever, a reason to avoid a public consequence for actions that a society collectively deems to be out-of-bounds.
Because President Trump’s extreme narcissism gives him a sad, childlike demeanor in my mind, I’ll use a parental metaphor. When a child breaks a rule (such as staying out past curfew), that parent must weigh several factors in deciding how to deliver consequences. Three main considerations are: How “bad” is this rule-breaking on the scale (from “forgot to say ‘thank you’” to “stole from the school charity fund”); what has this child done in the past (in other words, have I warned them five previous times to not break curfew, or have they never once broken a single guideline?); and, what do I reasonably expect this child’s behavior might be in the future (what harm can come to them if they break curfew again, or worse, do something unwise while breaking curfew?)
The more extreme the rule-breaking (either very minor, or very major), the easier it is to make a judgement call about the corresponding consequences without feeling the inevitable guilt about wielding authority, the fear that the consequence won’t work, or worse, will backfire. Likewise, the more obviously repetitive, or obviously harmful, the easier it is for parents to feel “insulated” by the inevitable cries of “unfairness” that will come from the child, along with a parade of various excuses, explanations, blame, and other attempts to avoid consequence.
Of course, these attempts to avoid consequences by the child aren’t just predictable, they’re biological: in other words, they are a perfectly normal part of human behavior. Most people start out voraciously fighting consequences like bedtimes, groundings, and the like — think the toddler screaming and crying themselves to sleep after an hour. Most people also ultimately learn through this process how to both endure and even avoid consequences by agreeing to rules, gaining power themselves, or even working to change the various authority structures in their lives. In fact, the more a child receives safe and reasonable consequences — despite the “divisiveness” of grounding a child or taking away their toy — the sooner they learn how to collaborate with or change power dynamics.
In that way, the divisiveness of consequences is actually a feature, not a bug. It’s a part of the process that is rarely permanent and doesn’t need to be shameful. It also doesn’t damn the receiver to a life of subservience; nor does it give the receiver a right to retribution or revenge. In fact, the increasing tendency to feel morally empowered simply by receiving consequences for actions is a terrifying trend that we must work to stop normalizing.
I don’t believe that most Democrats took much pleasure from choosing to impeach President Trump with a week left in his term, any more than a parent fights their strongest instincts to punish their beloved child. Democrats have an incoming President who has preached unity; they control both the House and Senate; and they have much bigger challenges in terms of the global pandemic and the crises of racial justice and climate action. It doesn’t help their party, won’t take him out of office, and yes, it will cause divisiveness that will threaten those who disagree with them and risk further disagreement.
Like parents, Congressional Democrats (and Republicans) who voted for impeachment also have no guarantees about the outcomes of it as a given consequence. They used their best judgement and must trust that punishment is temporary, is effective, and regardless of expected results, is above all the right signal to send about what we as a national family consider to be right and wrong.