“The Ox-Bow Incident” by Walter Van Tilburg Clark (1940) is a about an unauthorized posse seeking someone for murder and cattle rustling. The posse captures three men, assumes they are guilty, and summarily hangs them. A few in the posse object but acquiesce. Shortly thereafter, the local sheriff arrives and confirms the men were innocent. The Academy Award nominated movie, staring Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews, came out in 1943.
In the 1950’s the book was sometime used in high school classes to illustrate the difference between sins of commission (those who do bad things) and sins of omission (those who enable bad things by staying silent or doing nothing to prevent them.) That is where we are now with Republicans and the Trump impeachment. We can parse the meaning of “sin,” but most people will likely agree on what “bad things” are: doing harm to other people, violating the law, allowing terrible situations to fester, and undermining the foundations of our democracy, to name a few.
President Trump has clearly done seriously improper things. The Mueller Report found that he obstructed justice, sufficiently that over 1,000 former federal prosecutors wrote that they would bring criminal charges against the president. The other violations, all performed in public and needing little further investigation, are contempt of Congress, abuse of power (Ukraine), and violation of the self-aggrandizement (emoluments) clause of the US Constitution.
To watch Republicans in Congress and the Administration attempt to defend the President is, as one observer noted, “watching the defense of the indefensible.” Media analysts continue to ask when the President’s “stone wall” of Republican support will begin to crumble.
Until now Republican support has been unwavering through any number of egregious and disturbing actions by the president, including: a series of un-constitutional executive orders, racist policies and statements, pandering to despots and murderers, undermining U.S. allies, misuse of congressional appropriations, denigrating our justice system and intelligence community, ballooning the deficit with a tax law benefiting the wealthy, undermining freedom of speech and a free press, making over 1,300 lies or false statements, separating parents and children as a deterrent to asylum seekers, and doing little to fight for fair elections free from improper interference.
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Republicans have supported all of this actively or by remaining silent. As Jennifer Rubin, conservative columnist for the Washington Post, writes: “They remain as culpable as he (Trump) is for the destruction of ethical standards and the rule of law.”
Some Republicans have finally opposed President Trump on his unbelievable and horrific decision to desert our Kurdish allies and facilitate their slaughter at the hands of the Turks. But Trump and Republicans alike are out of step with most Americans on health care, gun violence, election security, immigration, and a host of other issues. Like Syria, however, these are policy issues that we settle through elections.
Impeachment is different. It involves indicting the president for violations of law, our Constitution, and his oath of office. That is the point we have reached with President Trump. It will be a final test to see if Republicans have any character left. They have been toadies to a corrupt president long enough. It brings to mind Attorney Joseph Welch’s question to Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings: “Have you no sense of decency, sir. At long last have you left no sense of decency.”
Donald Martin, the innocent young man hanged in “The Ox-Bow Incident, writes a letter to his wife and children before dying, in which he states, “I suppose there are some good men here, too, only they don’t seem to realize what they are doing. They’re the ones I feel sorry for. ‘Cause it’ll be over for me in a little while, but they’ll have to go on remembering for the rest of their lives.”
How Will Republicans address Joseph Welch's question? Will their legacy be that of the posse in “The Ox-Bow Incident?”