In the wake of the January 6th insurrection, there has been an unmistakable theme in remarks by Republicans: unity.
Senator Lindsey Graham said, “It is past time for all of us to try to heal our country and move forward.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, “Impeaching the President with just 12 days left will only divide our country more.” Senator Ted Cruz said, “We must come together and put this anger and division behind us.” On the floor of the Senate, Senator Ron Johnson argued against an impeachment trial for former President Trump by asking, “Will it heal? Will it unify?” (His answer: “It will not.”) In an interview on Fox News, Senator Marco Rubio agreed that an impeachment trial would involve “stirring it up again,” which would be “bad for the country.” The Huffington Post reports that, in the days since Biden’s inauguration, “unity” has been used as a rhetorical shield against policies ranging from rejoining the Paris Climate Accord to reversing the military’s ban on transgender servive members and restoring national monuments.
Perhaps the similarities of these talking points is mere coincidence; more likely it’s a coordinated strategy. In either case, it’s worth pausing to point out the rank disingenuousness and cynicism at play. Given the way that the Republican party has operated in recent years, it should have long forfeited any standing to preach unity. And the fact that so many high-profile members are doing so with a straight face is more telling than the message itself.
Republicans have been practicing a politics of divisiveness for years. Sarah Palin campaigned for the vice presidency by claiming that certain parts of the country were “real,” and implying that millions of Americans were somehow fake or phony. For years, Republicans have refused to budge on gun policy, despite our ongoing scourge of mass shootings. They have, in large numbers, staked out extreme positions on climate change that stand at odds with the overwhelming scientific consensus. They spent more time investigating the 2012 attack at the U.S. embassy in Benghazi than Congress spent examining the attacks on September 11. They “long pushed back against any effort to raise the federal minimum wage.” They waged a decades-long campaign to make it harder for people to vote, through voter ID laws, shutting down polling places, slowing down the mail, and other methods. These are not the actions of a part that cares about unity.
With the rise of Donald Trump, this taste for partisanship went into overdrive. Trump was divisiveness personified: a lying, insulting, press-bashing, racist demagogue who boasted of groping women, praised dictators and authoritarian rulers, and displayed a chilling indifference to democratic norms. As president, he threatened to withhold coronavirus aid to states that embraced policies he disliked, insulted cities and civil rights heroes, and often picked fights — with the NFL, the pope, Meryl Streep — that little connection to his presidential (or presidential-campaign) duties.
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Conflict seemed to fuel him. And, with a few exceptions, the Republican party embraced him wholeheartedly. They remained largely silent when he attacked the press; when he refused to release his taxes; when he attacked judges, law enforcement, and seemingly anyone who opposed him. During his presidency, Republicans appeared with him at rallies, celebrated legislative victories alongside him, and voted overwhelmingly in favor of a Supreme Court justice who was strikingly partisan in his confirmation hearing, and did it again year in fast-tracked confirmation process that baldly contradicted their past comments about proper confirmation procedure. When Trump was impeached for the first time, Republicans circled the ranks, refused to call witnesses, and voted en masse to acquit him. During his presidency, the political news site FiveThirtyEight tracked the frequency with which members of Congress voted in line with Trump’s positions. The vast majority of Republicans in Congress have “Trump Scores” of more than 80 percent, and even some of his most supposedly strident critics, like Mitt Romney and Jeff Flake, have easily passing grades (75 percent and 81.3 percent, respectively).
With the 2020 election, this embrace between the party and their fighter-in-chief grew tighter. As Trump strayed further and further from the truth, and seemed ever-more determined to overturn a fair election and undermine the will of 81 million Americans who voted for his opponent (unity!), Republicans were all too happy to play along. They joked about a second Trump term. Dozens signed on to a bogus, dangerous lawsuit challenging the election results. They evaded questions about the election results. The official GOP Twitter account approvingly tweeted baseless claims by one of Trump’s most radical attorneys.
Then came the events of January 6th: the deaths, the damage, the harrowing on-the-scene accounts. Listening to Republicans, you might forget that this was a coordinated, deadly attack on our most sacred government building in an effort to undermine our most sacred rites of our democracy: the presidential election. It was, literally and figuratively, an attack at the heart of our nation. And now, as we are faced with decisions about how to process this event, Republicans are calling for unity.
This strategy is all almost too brazen to call hypocritical, although it most certainly is a staggering, awe-inspiring, madness-inducing display of hypocrisy. (Notably, Lindsey Graham couldn’t even hold the “unity” line before lapsing into blaming Nancy Pelosi for the attack.) But this isn’t a reason to ignore their words. Built into the GOP pleas for “unity” is a demand to minimize January 6th, to move on expeditiously, and to not peer too closely at the ways that these elected officials themselves provoked and abetted this attack. It’s a self-defense strategy with a thin spray-on layer of harmony.
But on another, more disturbing level, these calls for “unity” are also an announcement that Republicans intend to march further into the realm of unreality, even after the departure of Donald Trump. Trump was an anti-reality president who lied unceasingly and unabashedly embraced conspiracy theories. His approach to reality was distilled in one particularly chilling quote: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
As Trump departs the stage, Republicans haven’t expressed out their intent to deceive quite so explicitly. But to anyone with eyes and ears and even the most modest memory, these calls for “unity” amount to the same thing. In fact, they’re one of the clearest reminders of why it’s so hard to actually unite with them.