As Jamelle Bouie observes, Trump’s acquittal after being impeached for inciting an insurrection is hardly unprecedented:
Neither group is blameless, but the problem goes beyond our political elites, however fearful, timid or craven they happen to be. This isn’t the first time the United States has struggled to hold insurrectionists accountable for their actions.
Consider our Civil War.
Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy and the commander in chief of forces that killed more than 360,000 American troops, died a free man. Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, died a free man as well. Alexander Stephens, the Confederate vice president, whose “cornerstone” speech defined the secessionist cause, served five terms in Congress after the war and also died a free man. Nor was this trio an exception. Other, less prominent Confederates were also able to escape any real punishment.
Most of the leaders of the deadliest insurrection in American history died free men, pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in the first years of Reconstruction and released from federal custody — if they were arrested in the first place. Howell Cobb of Georgia, for example, was the president of the secession convention, a drafter of the Confederate Constitution, a member of the Confederate Congress and an officer in the Confederate Army. He died while on vacation in New York, three years after the war ended. Some of these men would show contrition. But more typical were those who moved smoothly from open rebellion to opposition to Reconstruction to serving as propagandists for what would become the “Lost Cause.”
Whether rebels (or “rebels”) are likely to be sanctioned depends on whether they’re rebelling for or against white supremacy:
Put a little differently, Johnson’s willingness to hold former Confederates responsible was tempered by both ideology and the realities of partisan politics. The Southern planter class may have been disloyal, but it still represented the kind of citizen Johnson believed should rule, as well as the kind of voter he hoped to attract.
This is an important point. The United States has never struggled to punish those radicals who stood against hierarchy and domination. Whether you were a labor radical, Black revolutionary or left-wing militant, to attempt to upset existing class and social relations — or, at times, to even associate with people who held those ideas — was to court state repression. The two Red Scares of the 20th century are evidence enough of this fact.
When a perceived internal enemy is a threat to the established hierarchy, the state springs into action. But when the challenge is in defense of those hierarchies, the incentive often runs in the other direction, out of ideological affinity or the potential for political gain or both.
Donald Trump will be the 2024 Republican nominee if he’s alive, which really draws a line under this.