Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
How does a country recover from four years of virulent acrimony? The urgent need to heal America’s divisions, to “end this uncivil war,” stood at the center of President Joe Biden’s stirring inaugural speech. He implored Americans to “open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”
The sentiment is not just lofty and moving, it is pragmatic and necessary. A country that cannot resolve its disagreements peacefully cannot succeed. A nation that cannot come together to tackle grave crises is inevitably destined to grow weaker.
But winged words, appeals to national unity and national greatness, however inspiring, do not erase the reality of a country so divided that not only have political leaders in Washington found it increasingly difficult to work together in a time of crisis, but across the land, family members and former friends have grown apart over political differences.
And now, a country with more urgent problems than it has front burners, is about to live through yet another jaw-clenching experience. With the House of Representatives formally delivering to the Senate the article of impeachment against former president Donald Trump on Monday evening, the clock starts ticking toward a February 9 trial sure to raise the temperature that only just started coming down after Trump, the chief stoker of flames, at last exited the stage.
All the while, new information about Trump’s efforts to overturn the election continue to emerge. According to The New York Times, he considered replacing the acting attorney general with a Trump loyalist and using the Department of Justice to flip the election outcome in Georgia. He also, according to the Wall Street Journal, pressured the Justice Department to ask the Supreme Court to invalidate Biden’s win.
Evidence of his unprecedented transgressions keeps mounting, and with this new information comes new questions: Are national reconciliation and a presidential impeachment trial mutually exclusive? Is the second Trump impeachment compatible with Biden’s exhortation to healing?
In the short run, the impeachment trial is likely to intensify the very emotions Biden seeks to calm. But genuine reconciliation requires arriving at a common truth, a common reality. We cannot sing “Kumbaya,” or “Amazing Grace,”and hope that our teary eyes are lastingly followed by soothed souls.
What America needs is a truth and reconciliation process, the method countries that went to war against themselves have used. But there’s a reason truth comes before reconciliation.
Eventually, when Trump’s hold on the Republican Party eases – when all those who insist on perpetuating the big lie and defending a man who brought so many once-unthinkable calamities upon the nation either become weaker or tire of promoting lies – the United States should set up a nonpartisan panel to preside over a national reckoning of what transpired over the past four years.
But we’re not there yet. And the impeachment trial, which offers the possibility of beginning the process, is unlikely to offer that much needed national journey to a shared fact-based reality.
For now, too many in the Congress still defend the former president despite having witnessed firsthand far more than just the January 6 assault on the Capitol that was at least instigated by the president, or his monthslong effort to overturn an election that he reportedly acknowledged he lost within the privacy of the Oval Office.
Over the course of four years, the members of Congress and the American people watched a president drive a bulldozer through the fraying bonds that held the nation together. Remember his former defense secretary, James Mattis, denouncing Trump as a threat to the Constitution months before the election?
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people,” he lamented. “He tries to divide us.” Trump had just used the military to crush a peaceful protest in order to stage a grotesque photo op.
During his presidency, Trump didn’t just try to divide America, he attacked the foundations of the country, stoked extremism and cuddled neo-Nazis and racists. “Very fine people,” he called people on both sides after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville during the first year of his presidency. And in his final weeks in office, he told his insurrectionist mob of supporters at the Capitol, “We love you.”
Trump didn’t just rend the nation asunder and he didn’t just show his disdain for the Constitution and free press even before taking office with his verbal battering of the media, “the enemy of the people.” He did much more damage.
During his self-dealing administration, possibly the most corrupt in US history, based on his over 3,700 conflicts of interest reported by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, he personally interfered not only with the independence of the judiciary, but with efforts to save lives during a global pandemic.
Trump’s bizarre combination of interference and negligence prevented the country from mounting an effective defense against the pandemic, resulting in a death toll that will likely soon top half a million Americans, far more than died during World War II. We don’t know how many of them would be alive if Trump had behaved differently, or if anyone else had been president. But some, probably many, of the deaths would not have occurred without Trump’s negligence.
It is also likely that the five people who died at the Capitol on January 6 would be alive today if Trump had acted differently.
These are only some of the facts that Americans will eventually come to accept about his deadly, poisonous presidency. When that happens, when there’s truth, there can be genuine reconciliation.
If there’s an uncharacteristic upsurge of courage among Republicans, the Senate trial might surprise us and make progress toward that moment. But for now, some Republican leaders who briefly acknowledged reality about Trump’s culpability in the Capitol riot are already backtracking. But the trial proceedings should illuminate the undeniable truth and eventually it will help us heal.
Impeachment managers should call witnesses, including fellow members of Congress who felt the threat of Trump’s rampaging goons. It will also be important to hear from officials like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who can describe the pressure he felt from Trump’s insistence that he “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s victory in his state, and others who were pressured or lost their jobs because of Trump’s machinations. Above all, Americans should hear from those with direct knowledge of Trump’s involvement in the coup attempt of January 6.
The trial will help establish the record for when willingness to face the truth arrives.
Until then, Biden will have to plant seeds of unity one by one, program by program, hoping that as he works to repair the devastation caused by Trump’s destructive rule, he can strengthen American democracy enough to withstand the next assault, whether from Trump or from one of his acolytes.
Soaring speeches may soften some hardened hearts, but they’re not enough to open everyone’s eyes to unpleasant truths, or to stiffen the spines of politicians calculating what’s best for them rather than for the country.