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OPINION | RANDALL B. WOODS: A time of reckoning

by RANDALL B. WOODS SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | January 17, 2021 at 8:15 a.m.

In the 2020 presidential election, 74 million Americans voted for Donald Trump. Whether or not they knew what they would be subjecting their country to then, they certainly know now.

The crisis the United States faces is not about blue states vs. red states. It is not about conservatism or liberalism. It is not about the Second Amendment or Roe v. Wade. It is about the rule of law, the sanctity of the democratic process, the integrity of institutions that guarantee us all security and opportunity.

When America gained independence from Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris in 1783, it was the first republic of any significance to exist since the days of ancient Greece and Rome.

In a world of divine-right monarchies, the United States was a pariah. The very notion of popular rule was anathema to the European powers. Hard on the heels of the American Revolution came the storming of the Bastille in France. What followed was a limited democracy that deteriorated into the Reign of Terror and thence into the imperial reign of Napoleon Bonaparte.

In the midst of all this, the Founders attempted to create a government in which the interests and prejudices of agriculturalists and mechanics on one hand and bankers and merchants on the other could be reconciled.

The Declaration of Independence articulated the Republic's ideals (Jefferson attempted to include a clause providing for the abolition of slavery but was defeated). The Constitution, which established a three-branch government and a system of checks and balances accompanied by a Bill of Rights, was intended to avoid the excesses of monarchy/aristocracy and unbridled direct democracy.

At the core of the system was the notion that the average citizen was, even if not so inclined, capable of identifying his interests with that of the nation as a whole, and to sacrifice those interests to the greater good when necessary. America was and is an imagined country; we are supposedly loyal to an idea and a system of government intended to give substance to the notion that all men are equal.

That was manifestly not true, so in the aftermath of the birth of this unique nation, there began an unending struggle as to who is entitled to citizenship and what rights and duties citizenship involve. Our history, then, has been largely one of a flawed people struggling to realize a laudable ideal.

From Federalist efforts to separate the states of the northeast from the Union during the War of 1812 to the temporary breakup of the Union in 1861 to various far-left and far-right movements in the late 19th and 20th centuries, there have existed seditious threats to the Constitution and Declaration. We currently face an assault on the nation's democratic processes and institutions equal in magnitude to any they have ever confronted.

The ongoing attempt to discredit legitimate elections and prevent the inauguration of a duly elected president and vice president by force is an existential crisis. Make no mistake, sedition and armed insurrection are popular not just with Donald Trump, white nationalists, and QAnon conspiracy theorists. If you drive westward from where I live in Fayetteville through Oklahoma and then south into Texas, you will encounter a steady stream of pro-Trump signs and Confederate flags.

During the last half of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st there emerged soul-crushing controversies over abortion rights, gun safety, gay marriage, prayer in the schools, climate change, and public vs. private education. These kinds of divisions have always been with us.

Witness the 1920s with its cultural and political wars: Prohibition, women's liberation, anti-Catholicism, a burgeoning Ku Klux Klan, and violent labor-management disputes. But with minor exceptions there was no call to overthrow the Constitution, and certainly not one encouraged and organized by a sitting president of the United States. At this time and in this place, there needs to be accountability.

Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon in 1974 is not comparable to the present situation. Nixon's crimes were egregious: political espionage by means of criminal burglary, widespread violation of the civil liberties of American citizens, and so on. But at the time, the country was deeply divided over Vietnam and coming off a decade of urban unrest. Impeaching and indicting Nixon would have served no useful purpose.

The situation at present is much more dire. It was and is possible to tolerate some of Trump's policies no matter how strongly one disagrees with them, but attempts to undermine a free press, groundless questioning of legitimate elections, efforts to prevent voters from casting ballots, cronyism, subtle and not so subtle support for white supremacists, efforts to politicize the justice system, and incitement to assault on one of the three branches of the federal government are beyond the pale.

We see the words "healing" and "reconciliation" bandied about. We are not wounded; we are intractably divided. There can be no reconciliation as long as one side is attempting to overthrow the very system that makes reconciliation and compromise possible.

Trump's actions have played into the hands not only of American proto-fascists but of the nation's authoritarian enemies around the globe. Since the beginning of the Republic, totalitarian regimes have viewed both the idea and the reality of America with all its imperfections and conflicts as a mortal threat.

China, Russia, and Iran are overjoyed at what appears to be American democracy in chaos. Donald Trump has been Vladimir Putin's dream come true.

The impeachment process is imperative not only because Trump, both as an individual and an icon, deserves civil and legal punishment, but also because it will reveal which Americans support the rule of law, the institutions established by the United States Constitution, and the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and which do not.

Randall B. Woods is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of the forthcoming "John Quincy Adams: A Man for the Whole People." The opinions expressed in this essay are his and his alone.

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