Op-Ed: The Importance of Collective Discomfort

A now known Thomas Webster, retired NYPD and violent Trump supporter assaults Metro PD Officer Rathbun - No. 3855 at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. This image was used as photographic evidence by Rep. Joaquin Castro on Feb. 10, 2021, as part of the case against former President Trump. The Metropolitan Police Department, Congressman Joaquin Castro, has been contacted for comment. (Photo/Julian Leshay)

Yesterday, Saturday, February 13, I drank my morning coffee while watching C-SPAN. I expected to bear witness to the closing arguments of former President Trump’s second senate impeachment trial. I braced for impact, expecting the end of our fairy tale quest to find 17 Republican senators who might convict Trump of violent insurrection against the government of the United States to be disappointing. (We found seven Republicans.) I, like many, prepared myself for the end of this process, and instead, was greeted with the unexpected: A vote to call witnesses. Between the vote and the closing remarks, I listened to the callers phoning into C-SPAN to share their thoughts on this process. Many callers, especially Republicans, demanded to end the trial, stop investigations, stop talking about what happened, and move on already. In their heated voices, I heard a wellspring of discomfort and demand that we not be forced to face it. Like many things these days, the responses were painful and predictable.

Following the inauguration of President Joe Biden, I wrote an op-ed published last Sunday, January 31st, on the inauguration of a bifurcated moment. This moment would consist of two parts - an urgent desire to move forward and address the problems facing us now, at the same time that we need to reckon with the past and the events that led to the violent insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. Like it or not, that moment is here. Rather than trying to run from it, as I heard from the callers, I’m asking that we sit with our collective discomfort and unpack it. I’ll start the process for us by digesting the past few days of the impeachment trial and what it immediately means for facing our discomfort.

Over the past five days, the House Impeachment Managers walked us through the most horrific and violent truths of our political state. Rep. Jamie Raskin’s (D-Maryland) personal recounting of the events of January 6 and Del. Stacey Plaskett's (D-USVI) skillful prosecution, including her calling out the racist overtones of the defense’s case, were some of the most persuasive and damning arguments against the former President. Rep. Joaquin Castro’s (D-Texas) presentation on the riot’s mission to kill Vice President Mike Pence and violence against police officers, drawing on Julian Leshay’s own photographic journalism, was terrifying, documenting the President’s dereliction to care for his duties to the country and even disregard for his own allies. This proof of wrongdoing on the part of Trump is more than enough to convict him, but for the cowardice of 43 Republican senators who would not.

Photography presented by Congressman Castro with credit to Julian Leshay (bottom left corner) on Feb. 10, 2021, as part of the second impeachment trial against former President Trump.

The evidence and the acquittal illustrate that a conviction alone could not heal us. An end to the trial does not mean we wake up to a community of care - we have to work through our discomfort with our society in order to cultivate care. A society that allows the victims of the crime to cherish their own power more than the lives we lost, the trust in a democracy that was breached, and their own wellbeing and that of their fellow workers is not healed by a guilty or not guilty verdict. The acquittal itself is not just cowardice born by fear of an autocratic leader; it is cowardice driven by fear of what we might learn about ourselves if we have to face our shame and be vulnerable about the harm we cause in the name of power. To start caring for each other means we must be brave enough to sit with discomfort. The trial was a start to that, not an end.

While we listened to a skillful prosecution, we’ve also heard the defense. The ludicrous case of the defense was only amusing because of the farce of its messengers and claims. Otherwise, it was terrifying and discomforting. The substance of the defense rested on four claims: 1) The House Impeachment Managers failed to make their case; 2) The case they made is null because it does not adhere to the rules and overreaches; 3) Trump could never be responsible for the actions of others who choose to act based on their interpretation of what he said in his formal leadership role, and 4) The trial was so brazenly political it must be thrown out.

We can throw out the first claim on face value. Even Republican senators like Sen. Bill Cassidy (Louisiana) and Marco Rubio (Florida) have praised the impeachment managers for the quality of their case. The claims of procedural overreach and rule-breaking were false, despite the fact that they offered the 43 senators they needed to vote not guilty, on grounds that the Senate did not have jurisdiction to decide the case. It’s the third and fourth claims though that is the most discomforting, even with the close of the trial. Like a Twilight Zone version of Bill Clinton’s grand jury, “it depends on the meaning of the word ‘is’” testimony, the defense’s whole case seemingly hinged on the former President’s invocation of the word “peacefully” in his rally prior to the violent insurrection. What they asked senators and the American public was to ignore all context of Trump’s action. To believe what they said and not what we read and witnessed since Donald Trump started his 2016 campaign and escalated his demands that his followers take violent actions on his behalf after he lost his re-election campaign.

We teach our students in writing classes to pay attention to context clues - the language the author uses and the actions that follow - to understand the intent of the author, the meaning of the text, and to predict what might happen next. The defense asked us to throw out all our education in order to relieve President Trump from accountability for his words and the actions that followed. These demands should not only make us uncomfortable but angry. We do not operate in a world without context, and without context, we cannot wrestle with the discomfort of the riot itself - how we got to that moment, who drove us to that point, and the trauma that ensued. We must demand context for our collective consciousness to heal.

The final discomfort that we must confront right now is the desire to shrug this whole affair off as irrelevant and petty because it was political. To be engaged in civic life is to be involved in politics. A violent insurrection against the United States government, which is supposed to represent the will of the people, is a political assault against us. The solution must also be political. It was this impeachment trial. It is elections. It is a return to legislating on behalf of the American public. Sullying the word political and the idea of politics is a tool intended to drive us away from involvement in the political process. Should we shy from politics, the events that led to a president being positioned to invite treason against his own country will repeat themselves. We must rebuke the final claim of the defense that the political nature of the trial makes it irrelevant. A political event demands a political response, no matter how discomforting that may feel.

In his rebuttal to the defense’s closing statements today, Rep. Raskin responded to statements that we have no precedent on which to convict Trump on inciting violent insurrection against the Congress of the United States:

“I suppose that’s true,” Raskin said, “because it never occurred to any other president of the United States - from George Washington to John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison to James Monroe to Abraham Lincoln to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush to Barack Obama - to incite a violent insurrection against the union. You're right, we've got no precedent for that.”

That the defense would think this is a win for them is perplexing. That 43 Republicans in the Senate would think that it means that they cannot act boldly in the face of such bold impropriety is equally disquieting. As a public, it means that while the case is closed, our work is not done. So I ask you again, C-SPAN callers and not, to buck the precedence of moving fast through the discomfort. Instead, identify it, feel it, name it, and settle in. The bifurcated moment is still here. This is our work to do. Let’s do it collectively, together.

(Writing by Sara Sands, Photograph and description by Julian Leshay, Editing by Alie Pierce)

This article has been edited to add updated caption information to Julian Leshay's Photograph.

Editor’s Note: On Feb. 10, 2021, Rep. Joaquin Castro used Julian Leshay’s photographic evidence as part of the evidence against former President Trump. The Metropolitan Police Department, Congressman Joaquin Castro, and Danny Meza, Deputy Chief of Staff for Congressman Joaquin Castro have been contacted for comment.

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