Few events of the last three years seem more ominous than last week’s attempt by 30 Republican congressmen to force their way into a closed hearing before the several House committees taking testimony in connection with the impeachment inquiry.
“Force” is probably not the right word. Some reports say that the congressmen “stormed” the hearing room, and the House Sergeant at Arms was called.
But there was no apparent pushing or shoving. The hearing was held up for five hours, but eventually the Republicans settled for public statements, in which, one by one, they chastised the Democrats for conducting a clandestine investigation without due process.
The House Minority Whip, Steve Scalise, surrounded by stern-faced colleagues, characterized the hearing as a secret “Soviet-style scam,” carried out “behind closed doors.”
The congressmen’s melodramatic complaints are easily exposed for their hollowness and bald-faced hypocrisy. There’s nothing unusual or nefarious about closed-door congressional hearings, and there are, indeed, sound reasons for keeping testimony private at this stage of any investigation.
The legitimacy of the congressmen’s efforts to crash the hearing is further undercut by the fact that some 45 Republicans — about 25% of all Republicans in the House — were already authorized to attend the hearing, including some of the ones who were attempting to “storm” the event.
So the Republicans’ justifications for pushing their way into the hearing room shouldn’t be particularly convincing to a fair-minded observer.
In fact, the event could easily be dismissed as a soon-forgotten publicity stunt meant merely to distract us from the extraordinary testimony of public servants that is coming to light in this investigation.
But it’s the sheer physicality of the event that makes me uneasy. It’s not hard to imagine that this incident could have turned into a pushing and shoving match. Blows might have been launched and landed. Lips might have been busted and eyes blackened.
Certainly our politics has taken an ugly turn with its hyper-partisanship, misrepresentation and name-calling.
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But once we abandon discussion, argument, discourse and attempts at rules-based reconciliation, once we cross the line into physical confrontation, what has become of our republic?
Of course it would hardly have been the first time that our elected representatives have come to blows.
The most famous incident of physical violence in Congress occurred on May 22, 1856, when Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina used a cane to beat Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts into unconsciousness on the Senate floor over Sumner’s anti-slavery activism. Sumner survived, but five years later, the Civil War began.
Some elements of our society talk almost longingly about the prospect of a second civil war. Mostly this talk can be dismissed as the fantasies of an insecure, disgruntled fringe.
But last week a Major League Baseball umpire — a profession that calls for judgment and deliberation — tweeted: “I will be buying an AR-15 tomorrow, because if you impeach MY PRESIDENT this way, YOU WILL HAVE ANOTHER CIVAL (sic) WAR!!!”
The umpire subsequently apologized, but he admits that he cannot “unsay those words.”
Nor can he easily extinguish the close-to-the-surface emotions that prompted them. Indeed, President Donald Trump himself has been willing to tweet casually about “a Civil War like fracture” if he is removed from office via impeachment.
This is why nudging up next to the line that separates us from physical violence — as the 30 Republicans did in the capitol last week — is so dangerous.
It is impossible to imagine that Trump will graciously relinquish the White House, whether after impeachment or a defeat at the polls.
He will claim victimhood in language that his most devoted followers will hear clearly. The extent to which this sort of language stokes the passions of the many angry men in our country with guns is not clear.
It is dangerous to blithely assume that some version of a second civil war is impossible. So is the idea that the Trump era will end quietly and without bloodshed. Republicans, please be careful. Once things get physical, we are in perilous territory.