It was a little over four years ago when a Clay County woman found herself at the center of a global controversy. Donald Trump had just been elected president, and this woman, elated in the aftermath, made a racist statement on Facebook about outgoing first lady Michelle Obama. The mayor of the town of Clay piled on in the comments.
The reporter covering the story for the Gazette-Mail had been on the job — indeed had been living in West Virginia — for all of a week, and was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the national and, eventual, international response. That’s how I found myself talking about the story to other news outlets, including the BBC, rather than her. By the way, a racist statement, as bad as it is on its own, sounds 10 times worse when it’s repeated back to you by someone with a British accent.
The incident was one of a few across the country that were gaining attention after Trump’s 2016 victory. He had run a campaign of belligerence and cruelty, while selling to his followers that they had been repressed by the niceties of modern American culture. Trump promised to bring back the good old days and, while that meant different things to different people, many took it as no longer having to closet their racism, homophobia or xenophobia. Trump did nothing to discourage that. Quite the opposite.
But while Trump was able to exhibit and encourage such awful behavior and get away with it, many of those he stoked to action often could not. The Clay mayor resigned, and the Clay County woman lost her job. While everyone has a constitutional right to free speech, no one has a constitutional right to employment if an employer doesn’t agree or want to be associated with what was said.
This pattern has repeated itself over the past four years. Trump eggs on the rage and anger of his followers, who are then held accountable for whatever occurs — be it a racist remark or a violent act — while Trump simply moves on to the next head-spinning moment.
It was shocking to see the riot at the U.S. Capitol last week, but, sadly, we shouldn’t have been surprised. Trump has never been held accountable for anything, so why wouldn’t he continue to press the lie that he won an election he lost? Why wouldn’t he whip a crowd into a rage and tell them to march on the Capitol? Why wouldn’t he lean on Vice President Mike Pence to overturn an election, even though the vice president has no such power or authority under the Constitution? Why was Mike Pence surprised that, failing to go along with a coup, Trump lumped him in with the long list of betrayers?
It’s morbidly fascinating to see all of those who participated in the riot shocked to learn they are facing federal charges or are suddenly on no-fly lists. It’s as if many of them fully expected to violently attempt to subvert an election — an effort that resulted in at least five deaths and dozens of injuries — and then return to their normal lives as realtors, teachers and even state legislators. To them, they were simply doing what their leader, the U.S. president, told them to do. They’re learning the lesson two people in Clay County, and several others over the past four long years have learned.
This time, though, they won’t be alone. Trump has been impeached (again) for his role in the riot, and The New York Times reports that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is open to a hasty Senate trial in which Trump is removed before his term expires on Jan. 20. What McConnell will actually do is anyone’s guess, but he can’t be happy about all the corporate donors who are announcing they’ll never give to the GOP again after last week’s disgraceful attack. The provision the House is invoking in the 14th Amendment that would keep Trump from ever holding office again likely appeals to McConnell, as well.
No one learns from a mistake if they aren’t held accountable. It happens to real people every day. It happens to me when I screw up — and I do screw up. There aren’t many things that feel worse, or make me want to never repeat that mistake again. Whether that applies to Trump is questionable, but we’ll never know until he finally faces consequences for his appalling actions.