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Actions, Accountability, Consequences and Healing

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By James Nordin
January 25, 2021

As I write this, President Donald Trump has been impeached for the second time (this time for inciting insurrection); the entire nation is on high alert for domestic terrorism related to the inauguration of Joseph Biden; and Trump’s second Senate trial will not take place until after Biden is sworn in as president.

Meanwhile, there are complaints of Democratic party “overreach” from Republicans and concerns that the impeachment and trial will be “divisive” and this is the time for “healing.” Trump himself has said the impeachment is the cause for national anger, not the insurrection he incited.

Actions have consequences. When we implore leaders to “lead by example,” we are saying that their actions have the consequence of followers acting in the same or similar ways. Leading by example is not something that can be turned on or off. Every action by a leader sets an example. It is, and should be, one of the weighty responsibilities every leader—from schoolteacher to president—recognizes and considers before every action.

Assume you are making a left turn at a four-way stop. After carefully looking for cross traffic, you turn left. After starting your turn, your car abruptly turns sharply left and you strike the car waiting at the stop sign. That is the action. The consequences range from minor property damage for the cars involved to possible grave injury to drivers and passengers.

The obvious question is one of accountability: Who or what is responsible? Here, there are three possibilities: The driver of the turning car intentionally or accidentally turned more sharply left; a mechanical failure in the car caused a sharper turn; a pedestrian suddenly appeared crossing the street and the driver turned sharply to avoid hitting them. In the first instance, the driver of the turning car is responsible; in the second instance, the auto maker is responsible; in the third instance, the outside actor—the pedestrian—is at least partially responsible. The important point is that determining accountability and responsibility does NOT change the original action or consequence. It determines the possible consequences for the responsible party. These possible consequences are not punishments or vengeance. They are the natural result of the responsible party’s actions.

Much of the healing process has to do with the level of consequences for the responsible party. In the first instance above, if there is only minor property damage, the responsible party would pay to restore the property damage and most of the healing would be over. If there were injuries, the responsible party would still pay, but in this instance, there would be physical injuries and emotional trauma, and healing would be more difficult and take longer. The third instance is more complicated. Here an outside actor is at least partially responsible.

In all contests, there are winners and losers. Even contests that end in ties result in remorse or anger among vying contestants because of lack of effort or external incidents that prevented a clear victory. The consequences of victory (or defeat) are usually plain to see: confetti parades for victors, soul searching for the defeated. Often, in professional sports, the “healing” begins immediately with competitors shaking hands and congratulating winners and losers on a “good game.” Typically, the same scenario plays out in contests between professional politicians.

Such a scenario did not take place after the November 2020 election. Instead, the defeated presidential candidate—Donald Trump—claimed that the responsible party for his defeat was some “other.” The election was rigged by “others.” Massive fraud took place by actors who could not be identified or charged. A nefarious cabal of “others” “stole” the election. These repeated claims were actions that had consequences. The initial consequences—challenges in court that were thrown out—were inconsequential. Calls for removal of duly elected officials (many from Trump’s own party) also failed. In a call to an election official, Trump said he wanted the election official to “find 11,780 votes” for Trump or face possible criminal charges. That conversation failed to produce the result Trump wanted: a reversal of the election results from November 2020 that would keep him in office.

Finally, Trump sent out messages to his followers that the final opportunity to “stop the steal” would come on January 6, 2021, when Congress certified the Electoral College vote. On that morning, Trump held a rally for his followers and urged them to march on the Capitol with the mission of “stopping the steal.”

All of these actions led to a single set of consequences: The violent and destructive storming of the Capitol, the illegal entry into the Capitol and the death of five people. Donald Trump has been determined to be responsible for those consequences by the House of Representatives. His accountability and responsibility leads to consequences for him—though not political vengeance or punishment. They are the natural result of his actions. Incitement to insurrection is a criminal act and a particularly heinous act by a sitting president. It calls for indictment and prosecution. Impeachment is roughly equivalent to indictment. The Senate trial is like a prosecution.

Healing is not possible for those who died, whether they were extremist supporters of Trump or police officers. Those who were inside the Capitol during the break-in will bear emotional scars. We know that anger is the manifestation of fear or pain. Approximately 1,000 elected officials and public servants experienced high levels of fear and pain on January 6, 2021. Millions of Americans were shocked and horrified by the rioters’ actions. Those millions hold Trump responsible for the insurrectionist actions of the rioters and will not be able to fully heal unless and until he experiences the natural consequences of his actions.

The question for all Americans is: Will we allow and support healing by ensuring the natural consequences for those inciting insurrectionist actions?

Author: James Nordin is an adjunct professor in the MPA program at Sonoma State University. He has taught at San Francisco State University, the University of San Francisco, and at Golden Gate University. He retired from the federal government after more than 33 years of service as a regional grants and financial manager and program supervisor for the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture. He has a passion for social equity and created and endowed ASPA’s annual Gloria Hobson Nordin Social Equity Award. He received his BA from Knox College, his MPA from Roosevelt University and his DPA from the University of Southern California. Nordin can be reached at [email protected].

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2 Responses to Actions, Accountability, Consequences and Healing

  1. C. Kenneth Meyer Reply

    January 25, 2021 at 4:34 pm

    Great piece and I hope that it receives widespead dissemination.

  2. Brynne VanHettinga Reply

    January 25, 2021 at 3:11 pm

    There is much discussion about the “healing versus accountability” around the January 6 Capitol insurrection, as well as speculation about who exactly is responsible and for what (i.e., specific, indictable criminal acts), as more of the facts are revealed over the next weeks and months.

    However, in our culture “accountability” is something that is much more frequently used to bludgeon the working rubes while seldom imposed on those of privilege (e.g., wealthy, white men in positions of power or celebrity). If Americans have any desire to uphold the ideal of “equal justice for all,” we must do so here.

    In addition to accountability, the community also has a duty to inform its own citizens what behavior is and is not acceptable. From the mountains of evidence we have seen since the November election, it appears that Trump made multiple–and increasingly desperate–attempts to overturn valid electoral results. This is behavior that should not be tolerated in a free democracy.

    Thus, in addition to the accountability arguments made herein, we must also send a clear message to the next fascist dictator wanna-be (who may be smarter than Trump and/or have better lawyers or more obedient police, military and judges) that illegal attempts to nullify the votes of 81 million people will not be tolerated.

    As much as we may prefer to believe our own jingoistic hubris about freedom and democracy, the impulse to fascist-style authoritarianism runs deep within red American blood. The events of the past year have served as a dark mirror from which we should not attempt to avoid self-examination.

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