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Capitol Rioters in Plato’s Cave


Take-over of the Capitol only one month ago (Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Common)

Watching former President Donald J. Trump’s second impeachment trial yesterday, I recalled watching the Senate Watergate hearings of President Richard M. Nixon in a Williams College political science class, and I remembered, fondly, my teacher:


Robert Gaudino.


The Watergate scandal began with the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. and the Nixon administration’s attempted cover-up of its involvement. In February 1973, the Senate voted to create a special investigative committee to look into the scandal.


The televised Watergate hearings began in May 1973. Our political science class heard testimony that the president had approved plans to cover up administration involvement with the Watergate break-in, and we learned of the existence of a voice-activated taping system in the White House’s Oval Office.


In May 1974, the House Committee on the Judiciary began a formal impeachment inquiry which ended in July 1974 when the committee approved three articles of impeachment: obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress.


In August 1974, Nixon released the transcript of a conversation that made clear his complicity. Once loyal Republican Party supporters announced that they would vote for impeachment. In the face of almost certain impeachment and removal from office, Nixon resigned from office on August 9, 1974, before the full House could vote on the articles of impeachment.


Nixon’s behavior appalled me and the nation. I was embarrassed by it and believed that the country’s leadership had sunk to its lowest. Not so.


Last month, the House charged Trump with “incitement to insurrection” at the Capitol on January 6.


Yesterday, the prosecution argued that Trump began laying the groundwork for the insurrection after he lost his bid for re-election in November 2020. Representative Joe Neguse (Democrat-Colorado), one of the impeachment managers, contended that the defendant repeated three core messages in his tweets and his speeches: The Big Lie: The Election Was Stolen; Stop the Steal, and Fight Like Hell to Stop the Steal.


After the stage was set in the trial, videos, audio, security camera footage and police body camera film pieced together a chronological record of the siege, in which five people died, 140 officers were wounded, and hundreds of lawmakers ran and hid for their lives.


They recorded sickening hours of terror.


I found myself wondering: What would Mr. G ask?


Bob Gaudino taught by the Socratic method, asking questions, which were meant to make us recognize our assumptions and, consequently, sharpen our critical thinking. At the time of the Watergate hearings, we were reading the dialogue between Plato’s brother, Glaucon, and Socrates in the Allegory of the Cave in Plato’s Republic:


“Imagine human beings living in an underground den which is open towards the light; they have been there from childhood, having their necks and legs chained, and can only see into the den. At a distance, there is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners a raised way, and a low wall is built along the way, like the screen over which marionette players show their puppets. Behind the wall appear moving figures, who hold in their hands various works of art, and among them, images of men and animals, wood and stone, and some of the passers-by are talking and others silent.


“‘A strange parable,’ he said, ‘and strange captives.’ They are ourselves, I replied, and they see only the shadows of the images which the fire throws on the wall of the den; to these they give names, and if we add an echo which returns from the wall, the voices of the passengers will seem to proceed from the shadows.


“Suppose now that you suddenly turn them round and make them look with pain and grief to themselves at the real images; will they believe them to be real? Will not their eyes be dazzled, and will they not try to get away from the light to something which they are able to behold without blinking?”


Socrates explains that the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and, then, understands that the shadows on the wall are not reality. However, the other cave inmates believe in the shadows, and they have no desire to leave the only life that they know. In fact, they would kill those few who returned after seeing the sun, trying to drag them up into the sun and dissuade them of their reality.


Their reality.


“Is truth subjective?” Mr. G may have asked a class.


Representative Jamie Raskin (Democrat-Maryland), lead impeachment manager, introduced the February 10 proceedings:


“Some people think this trial is a contest of lawyers or even worse, a competition between political parties. It is neither. It is a moment of truth for America.”

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