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Trump impeachment trial risks further division

  • 21 January 2021
  At the beginning of each new year, it is tempting to believe that the previous year can be filed, its lessons learned, and the coming year begun as an unmarked page. That romantic hope, however, is always soon disappointed.

This year, for example, it was reasonable to reflect back on 2020 as the year of wrestling with the COVID-19 and as the end of the Trump presidency. A year of disruption, from which much had been learned, leaving the approaching 2021 a time of serenity and new beginnings. Come mid-January, however, Australians found themselves cancelling holiday plans, calculating how to cross state boarders, facing lockdown and quarantine.

Similarly, for people in the United States the hope that the election might mark the beginning of a less fractured polity sank in polemic over the result of the election and in the violent occupation of the Capitol. Infections and deaths from COVID mounted and impeachment proceedings were launched against President Trump.

The reappearance of the disturbances of 2020 reinforces the need to remember the lessons learned from them. The first lesson was that, if a society is to meet the threat of the coronavirus people need to look beyond their own individual interests to the good of the whole community, beginning with its most vulnerable members. They needed to accept limitations on their freedom of movement, of association and of economic activity. The welfare of society could not be guaranteed by untrammelled personal liberty or by economic competition between competitive individuals. It required governments to act authoritatively to ensure the common good.   

The second lesson, learned from the United States experience, was of the danger of polarisation. The election campaign made clear how many Americans made central the things that divided them from one another, lost sight of their shared national identity and shared humanity and withdrew from engagement with those who differed from them in wealth, religion, education and opinions. Politics was about power and not about persuasion. This made impossible the concerted national effort necessary to respond to the coronavirus and other threats to society. In the face of polarisation and the social paralysis it engendered, the need for mutual respect, empathy, negotiation, civility and concern for the common good became evident. These values needed to be embodied both in the policies and the political relationships of the new government.  

Both these lessons emphasise the importance for us as individuals, representatives of groups,