There’s an old half curse/half blessing of unknown origin that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” I was reminded of it the other day while doing some mental wool gathering of my own “times” spanning the second half of the 20th century through nearly a quarter of the 21st. And I was of course thinking, well, they certainly have not been short of interest.
Then I started mentally ticking off some of the notable, dramatic events most readily presenting themselves for consideration. (I should note that this list— stricktly my own, yours might be different—is limited to the crises that most stood out and challenged the very foundation and identity of our nation; many momentous events occurred of a far more positive hue, but that’s another blog post…)
First: the stamping upon the world’s consciousness of the true reach of the atomic age as schoolchildren (I was one of them) dove under desks in regular nuclear bomb drills designed to…do what, exactly? Perhaps save our lives if we were far enough from the blast’s epicenter, only to allow for a more ghastly death from radiation poisoning in subsequent days?
I remember the absurdity of that entire exercise beginning to impress itself upon me even then.
This time the assault came from within, executed by our own people, planned, inspired and led by the sitting president himself in a desperate, relentless, and still remorseless bid to hold onto power.
And then came the race riots of the 1960s and the horror and debacle of the Vietnam War, all of which revealed a nation far more at war with itself than with any foreign power.
The assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK, all their rhetoric of hope seemingly turned to dust in the brute fact of their murders in a nation that now truly appeared to be coming apart at the seams.
Followed just a few years later by the impeachment and ultimate resignation of a paranoid president brought down by the coverup of a cheap bit of campaign chicanery.
The Iran hostage crisis, the Bush-Gore election stand-off, the horror of 9/11, the 2007 global financial crisis, the hollowing out of the working class.
All of it leading to the rise of Donald Trump, with its destruction of norms in our political and cultural discourse the likes of which we had never seen before.
And then: January 6.
It is a day, to borrow Franklin Roosevelt’s phrase after the attack on Pearl Harbor, “that will live in infamy,” with one dramatic and excruciating difference:
This time the assault came from within, executed by our own people, planned, inspired and led by the sitting president himself in a desperate, relentless, and still remorseless bid to hold onto power in direct violation of our Constitution and our nearly 250-year-history as a beacon of democracy beholden to the rule of law.
By those lights, it is clearly the worst of all the other dramatic, difficult events alluded to above.
And now the president who was incontestably the driving force behind it is in the crosshairs of various investigators who will ultimately be answering the question on the collective lips of a good part of our nation: “Where do we go from here?”
Many words have and will continue to be spent grappling with that question. And though it is a tortuous one in many respects, in the end, I simply do not see how we can or should avoid the prosecution of Donald Trump if we are to retain our identity as a democratic nation where no one—not even presidents—is above the law.
Yes, there are potentially explosive downsides to taking that course.
Would it more deeply divide an already grievously divided nation? Almost certainly.
Might it cause outbreaks of violence from the same kind of extremists who attacked the Capitol on January 6?
Yes again. We need only look to the continuing activities of armed militias such as the “Oathkeepers,” the “Proud Boys” and others who are now more organized and mainstreamed than ever before and would be ready to take up arms all over again on behalf of their hero, this time with likely more lethal results.
Prosecution might ignite those flames, and conviction burst them into a raging wildfire, particularly if Trump himself were to call for violence.
Three even worse scenarios loom.
One: Trump is charged but acquitted at trial, his heroism in the eyes of supporters at even more stratospheric heights, him newly empowered and out for vengeance against every one of his detractors. That is a real risk of proceeding with prosecution, no doubt.
Two: He is convicted and jailed amidst a campaign in which he is a leading Republican candidate or even the nominee. A martyr-drenched campaign from a prison cell is so cringe-worthy as to defy the imagination in a country as riven as this one is.
Third: He is prosecuted, acquitted, runs and loses the election again. Having paid no cost for his 2020 malfeasance, what chance is there that Trump would accept his defeat and retire quietly to Mar-a-Lago in 2024? I would say close to none, with all the dire implications of subsequent violence referenced above.
Those are almost the worst possible things that could happen to our country—with one exception.
And that is to avoid prosecuting the case simply because we are afraid of the backlash that might ensue.
Given the enormous weight of evidence we were able to observe first-hand and then hear elaborated in wrenching detail by the January 6 congressional committee, not to pursue charges commensurate with Trump’s direct plotting, planning and incitement of that day’s violence would leave us with an irretrievably broken democracy.
It would effectively signal the end of the rule of law, almost guaranteeing that some future president—maybe him in 2024!—will also use the power of his or her office to malign effect, because the legal constraints our Constitution imposes will have been proven unequal to the challenge Trump successfully executed against it.
And: It will declare open season for lawless, norm-free politicians of Trump’s ilk and even worse, who are emboldened to pursue similar or even darker agendas, our democracy as we know it effectively neutered, “free” in name only.
The stakes are that enormous, and no blithe dismissals of them as “Trump derangement syndrome” can minimize or rationalize them. We are clearly at the most dangerous point in this nation’s history since the Civil War. It is essential to bear that in mind in the weeks and months ahead as this momentous decision looms for Attorney General Merrick Garland and his Department of Justice.
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