Remember when we had a president who was unpredictable, abrasive and volatile?
It seems so long ago — but it wasn’t.
Remember when we had a president who lied about matters great and small, from weather maps to the severity of a deadly pandemic, leading to hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths? Remember his Big Lie — about winning an election that he actually lost?
Remember when a group of his supporters held a giant rally on Jan. 6 on Capitol Hill with a plan to overthrow the election results? Remember how this president urged his followers to “fight like hell” on his behalf?
Remember the ensuing chaos — damaged property, members of Congress chased into hiding, a functional gallows erected on the premises?
Remember how five people, including Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, died as a result of the attack?
Remember how this president was initially condemned for his role in instigating the attack, including by many prominent members of his own party? Remember how our own Sen. Richard Burr said, “The president bears responsibility for today’s events by promoting the unfounded conspiracy theories that have led to this point”?
Remember how this president was impeached for a second time by the U.S. House?
This president’s second trial, on the single charge of incitement of insurrection, begins Tuesday. If he is convicted, a separate vote could be taken to determine whether he would be allowed to run for office in the future.
His defense team plans to argue that the First Amendment protected his speech, and he shouldn’t be held responsible for the Capitol riot because he didn’t specifically order the mob to “engage in destructive behavior.”
But his prosecutors say his guilt is evident — and the Republicans know it.
Skeptics say that Trump won’t be convicted — there aren’t enough Republicans willing to risk the displeasure of the party’s base.
But skeptics also said he’d never be elected in the first place, so you never know.
In the meantime, hundreds of insurrectionists — and the evidence points to Trump supporters, not antifa, who specifically hunted for Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — are now being arrested and prosecuted.
And voting technology company Smartmatic is suing Fox News, three of its hosts and two former lawyers for Trump — Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell — for $2.7 billion for falsely claiming that it helped steal the election.
So somebody is being held responsible.
Just not the ringleader.
But however the trial goes, it’s not going to be as consequential as the Republican Party’s inevitable choice, as Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska has said, between “conservatism and madness.”
Sasse, a Republican, on Thursday released a five-minute video in which he made a case for holding the former president accountable for the Capitol riot — and for moving on to a larger issue.
“Personality cults aren’t conservative,” he said. “Conspiracy theories aren’t conservative. Lying that an election has been stolen is not conservative.”
“Politics isn’t about the weird worship of one dude,” he said. He calls for a return to core conservative beliefs.
Of course, the Republican Party’s affection for conspiracy theories didn’t begin or end with the former president.
Their continuing pull is evidenced by the recent drama surrounding Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. It’s there in AM radio and cable TV shows that specialize in spinning elaborate but incredible yarns. It’s still there in the obscene claims of QAnon, which remain prominent in the lives of many despite its many prophecies failing to materialize.
This is the Republican dilemma: Its representatives want to garner the support of, frankly, gullible and unsophisticated people with fantastical claims while wearing a veneer of devotion to conservatism.
It must choose.
If it doesn’t choose, that will itself be a choice.
The Democratic Party has its own share of firebrands and wishful thinkers — though less prominent and less numerous. “Let he who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”
But as Sasse said, “Jan. 6 is going to leave a scar.” It’s up to Republicans whether that scar will be a sign of permanent damage or of healing.