For years after handing the 2000 election to George W. Bush, then-Justice Antonin Scalia would tell people who inquired about the court’s thin, poorly reasoned opinion in the case to “get over it.” It was easy for him to say that. His decision may have led to the disastrous war in Iraq, but he wasn’t fighting there. It’s a useful lesson to bear in mind when we contemplate what allows powerful people to instruct less powerful people that it is high time to move on: a lack of personal stake in the mess they seek to leave behind. We see this same dynamic when, after every shattering school shooting, politicians with the power to change laws, like Sen. Ted Cruz, explain that it is instead time to move on. It’s easy for Ted Cruz to move on when his children are still alive.
“Time to move on” has unsurprisingly come to represent the bulk of the GOP response to Donald Trump’s actions, both while he was in office and after. “Let’s move past this” was the best response to the behaviors that triggered both the first and second impeachments, and the behaviors that helped foment an insurrection at the Capitol and continue to undermine public confidence in the vote. “Let us look forward, not backward,” Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole said on the House floor during the debate over Trump’s second impeachment last January. “Let us come together, not apart. Let us celebrate the peaceful transition of power to a new president rather than impeaching an old president.” Never mind that the failure to hold him to account in the first impeachment led to the horrors of a mass effort to subvert the election (an effort that we are still only starting to fathom) and also led to a failed second impeachment. No, the effort to impeach him most recently was still met with the insistence by the bulk of his party that it was time to move on. Of course it was easy for them to suggest that it’s time. It’s always time to move on if your life is unchanged by what came before.
“Looking forward,” whether justified by the need to pick your battles, or depoliticize institutions, or prioritize and triage existential crises, or ignore clownish attention seekers, is so alluringly, quintessentially, and optimistically American. That might be why looking forward and moving on is also the MO for the Biden Justice Department, which has largely opted not to hold anyone in the Trump administration accountable for past crimes or alleged crimes. Looking backward is plodding and past-focused and also aging for the skin. So when Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state, now the director of the Hoover Institution, said on The View that “it’s time to move on in a lot of ways” from the events at the Capitol on Jan. 6, it was of a piece with a larger public zeitgeist that holds that, look, man, everything sucks, everyone’s busy, COVID is awful, and democracy is basically self-reinforcing, so let’s think about tomorrow and leave yesterday where it belongs.
You can be impressed with Rice’s capacity for contortionism. On the one hand, there she was telling the folks at The View that she cried when she witnessed the events of Jan. 6 and reaffirming that “I don’t know how much more strongly I can say what happened on Jan. 6 was wrong.” But on the other hand, even as she insisted that institutions need to be protected, she also urged that now is the time for lawmakers to “move ahead and deal with the American people’s issues.” The institutions—and all the assorted vulnerable people who rely on them—will apparently have to fend for themselves. The rank hypocrisy of the move forward dammit contingent of the GOP is hardly limited to Trumpism—the writer Gore Vidal famously wrote in 2004 that “happily for the busy lunatics who rule over us, we are permanently the United States of Amnesia. We learn nothing because we remember nothing.”
What Ted Cruz and Condoleezza Rice and all the generals of the “move on” army thus perform here isn’t just a cynical manipulation of tempting, forward-looking ideas about “unity” and “priorities” and “real-world problem-solving.” This is, after all, the party of Benghazi and But Her Emails. It’s also a show of the kind of untouchable advantage they hold because they always remain wholly unaffected by what has occurred. To be able to ignore the Iraq war, to be free to ignore Trump’s pitiless immigration policies, to have the luxury of closing the door on Jan. 6, is not so much a marker of an open mind, an objective and temperate worldview, or a more capacious perspective on what the country needs to see happen next. It is also a mirror of which classes of people were harmed by those events and who remained untouched by them. If you are unable to just “get over” the Trump team’s assaults on the levers of democracy themselves, it’s not necessarily because you are vengeful and bloodthirsty or transactional. It may simply be, as Chauncey DeVega wrote last winter in Salon, that “to put oneself outside or above this present moment is to exercise the privilege of being separate and apart from history and its pushes and its pulls, successes and failures, joy and pain, lived consequences and experiences.”
In a perfect Ted Lasso world, we could all be the goldfish: blessed with a 10-second memory and the soothing capacity to sail past errors and regrets into a sunlit world of possibility and new beginnings. But there is a difference between processing, addressing, and remediating past wrongs and being directed by those in power to forget them. The former is the work of justice; the latter is the province of bullies. And as we enter another week in which the actions of Jan. 6 are being probed and evaluated by a select committee that has been stymied by those who insist that it’s time we all move forward—or else—it’s worth saying out loud that this isn’t about one-half of the country that seeks to look forward as another doggedly remains stuck in the past. This is, instead, about picking between two alternate stories we tell about the same past. One such story might at least pave a path forward to healthier democratic institutions. The other seems ever more destined to drag us into a future in which we are seemingly doomed to keep repeating the very horrors we are being told to forget.