OP-ED: Sure, we all want unity. But it has to be based on a shared understanding of facts
President Joe Biden was practically upstaged by a phenomenal young poet at his own inauguration, but it is his words that still ring in my ears:
"I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy," Biden said. "I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real…. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart."
"Unity" appeared in his speech eight times. That was no surprise.
After four years of the most divisive and duplicitous president this country has ever known, the unity theme was practically preordained. After a deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol that was incited by lies, the unity theme was mandatory.
But what, exactly, does unity mean? Is it the same as bipartisanship? Does it mean that everybody needs to give a little to get a little? Does it mean that all is forgiven as we move away from the disastrous Trump era?
To me, unity means that we need to get back to a set of common beliefs about the country. It doesn't mean we have to agree with each other. It means we have to agree on a certain set of facts and stop living in separate realities. Since those common beliefs must be rooted in truth, one party is going to have to work a hell of a lot harder than the other.
To achieve unity, we have to agree that Trump lost decisively (both in the Electoral College and the popular vote), that the virus is real and will keep wreaking havoc on the economy until we deal with it, and that racism is a daily and damaging fact of American life. We have to agree that rioters who stormed the Capitol and caused mayhem must be punished, and that any leader who incited them must be held to account.
Even the most partisan Republican on the planet, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, intimated as much last week: "The mob was fed lies," McConnell said on the Senate floor. "They were provoked by the president and other powerful people. And they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like."
With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi transmitting the article of Trump's second impeachment to the Senate this week, we will see exactly how committed McConnell is to enforcing the rule of law.
Already we have seen the House's most hypocritical member, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, backtrack on Trump's role in the Jan. 6 debacle.
Two weeks ago, McCarthy blamed Trump for the Capitol riot. "The president bears responsibility for (the) attack on Congress by mob rioters," McCarthy said on the House floor. "He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding. These facts require immediate action by President Trump."
By Jan. 20, he'd had a significant change of heart. "I don't believe he provoked it if you listen to what he said at the rally," McCarthy told reporters.
For the record, Trump spoke for an hour and 13 minutes, and there was one point, 18 minutes in, where he seemed to urge the protesters to remain peaceful. "I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building," he said, "to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard." But then, for nearly another hour, he delivered a litany of lies and false accusations aimed at whipping the crowd into a frenzy. "If you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore," he said, and "you'll never take back our country with weakness."
If unity is the goal, the impeachment trial presents a golden opportunity for Republicans to recommit themselves to a fact-based shared reality and finally stand against Trump's corrosive style and his inexplicable hold on his party.
For many, it will be a struggle. Some prominent Republicans couldn't even hear Biden's simple condemnation of racism and nativism as anything but a veiled attack on the GOP. If we can't even agree that racism should be condemned, I'm not sure how we get to unity.
"If you read his speech and listen to it carefully," Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul told "Fox News Primetime," "much of it is thinly veiled innuendo calling us white supremacists, calling us racists, calling us every name in the book, calling us people who don't tell the truth."
Well. Given that Paul was the only senator who opposed last year's "Emmett Till Antilynching Act"— which would finally make lynching a federal crime — it's not really a surprise that Biden's speech put him on the defensive.
Some have made the mistake of conflating unity with lockstep political agreement. McCarthy said, for instance, that Biden's executive orders last week — shielding "Dreamers" from deportation, putting a stop to the Keystone XL pipeline, rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accord — "are not the achievements that I think Americans want to see out of Washington and unity." This disingenuous take comes despite Biden's overwhelming support among the great majority of American voters, who, one presumes, in voting for Biden, signaled support for exactly those things.
And yet, signs of hope abound.
Look to Republican officials like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who refused to rig the election for Trump, and Republican-appointed judges who tossed out dozens of bogus cases alleging election fraud. If the Trump fever is really to break, more Republicans like the 10 House members who just voted to impeach again, and Sen. Mitt Romney, the only Republican senator willing to convict Trump the first time around, will have to break rank. And I think some will. CNN reported Friday that "dozens of influential Republicans ... including former top Trump administration officials" have been "quietly lobbying" Republican members of Congress to convict Trump during his second impeachment trial.
Unity may be a hard concept to pin down. But to get anywhere close to it, we must struggle toward the truth and away from the dangerous political lies that have brought us to this unfortunate place.