My Turn: A bridge to a more perfect union

For the Monitor
Published: 2/22/2021 6:15:15 AM

Even though the majority of the United States Senate voted in favor of the article of impeachment against Donald Trump, it fell short of the two-thirds needed for him to be convicted.

One of the results, analysts suggest, is that Trump will remain a powerful influence on the Republican Party as well as an inspiration to his avid followers.

It seems that the threats from domestic terrorists will continue to use the words of Trump and his followers to justify their aggression. The advocates of white supremacy and the loyalists to the primacy of individual freedom over America’s well-being will continue to feel supported.

Therefore, it is important to face into these distortions of American patriotism by studying the methods that have be used to bring the country to this season of confusion about truth, trust, and abuse of power.

The impeachment hearings illustrated at least three flaws in the attempts to prosecute or defend the person charged. There was a lack of attention to context, the power of words, and equivocation.

The context includes not just the storming of the Capitol building but reaches back several years. It involves Trump’s pattern over the years of encouraging white nationalism, interpreting policies from a self-centered prospective, and blustery bullying against any who disagree with him.

The context involves Trump’s complicity with the growing culture of anti-government, an increase in armed paramilitary groups, and the pandemic of conspiracy theories.

The context includes statements like Rudy Giuliani saying, “I’m willing to stake my reputation” on the fact that there is election fraud: “Let’s have trial by combat.”

Identifying the context can give understanding to the speech and actions of the then-President Trump on the day of the incursion on the Capitol building. His tweets and speeches consistently line up with his supporters and his perception of “the good people” who stand with him; those whom he told, “Stand back and stand by.”

There has also been a confusion about the power of words. It is common knowledge that an individual is not free to call out “fire” in a theater where there is no fire. But less understood is the reality that the words of a designated leader have exceedingly more power and influence than the words of an ordinary citizen.

It is a given by virtue of the office. Therefore, leaders have the obligation to use their freedom of speech judiciously. They are not ordinary citizens. They are not free to abuse their power by speaking untruths or inciting destructive actions. The lawyers for the defense, while arguing the president had full freedom of speech, neglected to acknowledge the power citizens give to a president’s words.

Finally, it is important to deconstruct equivocation when it is used. Equivocation misleads by claiming both sides of a position may be true.

For example, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, voted in support of Trump while at the same time stating Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for the attack on the Capitol and accused him of “a disgraceful dereliction of duty.” He tried to have it both ways, attempting to mislead people into believing he supported only what each of them thought was right.

Trump often answered a question from the press with equivocation, suggesting two different answers and then saying, “We will see what happens!” He said to the crowd on Jan. 6, “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore… I’ll be with you on your walk to the Capitol.” At another point he said, “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.”

The equivocation covered both possibilities: violence or peacefulness. People could hear what they wanted to hear and act accordingly. Or they might choose to understand his words either literally or metaphorically.

Another example of intentional deception is given in the defense of the recently proposed amendment to the New Hampshire Constitution assuring the right to carry guns, sponsored by Rep. Terry Roy.

Supporters of the bill say that a person free to reveal they have a firearm will allow the de-escalation of a confrontation. They equivocate by associating the presence of firearms with de-escalation, when it is well known that firearms increase tensions.

It is the non-threatening presence of calm, understanding, and empathy that reduce tensions. The ancient tradition of handshaking was a way to reduce threat and demonstrate a weapon was not being held.

The divide among us is crippling our democracy. Americans need a bridge of more civil communications that includes the context of history, beliefs, values, and aspirations.

The bridge must include the recognition that the words often have more power than anticipated.

And finally, the New England-style covered bridge needs large windows to let the sun shine in to expose equivocation and give energy to straight compassionate conversation. The strength of this bridge may be the road to cross the American divide and lead to a new burst of democracy and freedom for all of its people.

(John Buttrick of Concord can be reached at johndbuttrick@gmail.com.)


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