Editor’s note: This guest essay was submitted before the introduction of Articles of Impeachment against President Trump and before Wednesday’s vote in the House to impeach the president for a second time.

Like many Americans, I watched in horror and shock the storming of the Capitol by Donald Trump supporters on Jan. 6. To see the “People’s House” — what President-elect Joe Biden and others call the “Citadel” — seized, the House chamber occupied and the government’s business halted was breathtaking and frightening.

Let’s be clear. This insurrection, which constituted an attempted coup, was not a peaceful protest; it was domestic terrorism. Moreover, we cannot blame antifa, Black Lives Matter or other left-wing activist groups. Unsubstantiated assertions to that effect have been proffered by fringe Republican politicians and Trump allies such as Reps. Mo Brooks (Alabama), Paul Gosar (Arizona) and Matt Gaetz (Florida). However, these conspiracy claims thus far have been disproven and denounced by nonpartisan fact-check organizations.

I contend that many public officials are culpable and should resign or be censured. In some cases, legal indictments are in order. I say this as a scholar who for over 40 years studied the impact of language, arguing that we all must be responsible for what we say and do — regardless of intent.

Frankly, I don’t know how anyone who voted for Trump can look themselves in the eye after the events of Jan. 6. If nothing else, when they meet their maker, they will be held to account. More important, in view of the rhetoric used to incite and instigate this violence, which began with Trump on day one, what happened at the Capitol was predictable. President Trump, Sens. Josh Hawley (Missouri), Ted Cruz (Texas) and others — including those who stormed the Capitol — engaged in sedition, insurrection and must be arrested.

Consider the law. 18 U.S. Code Section 2383 says this about insurrection and rebellion: “Whoever incites, sets on foot, assists, or engages in any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States or the laws thereof, or gives aid or comfort thereto, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.”

It is time to focus our attention on all those who enabled the president and stood idly by for four years, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) and others who following the events on Jan. 6 abruptly changed their mind. Such eleventh-hour discourse by these politicians was merely an effort to save their political reputations and hold open the possibility of running for a higher office or being reelected. Make no mistake: All of these members of Congress are complicit and cannot erase their rhetoric prior to the insurrection.

Words do matter, and being accountable for what we say is imperative. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic and Republican members of Congress have called for impeachment and conviction. Although impeachment is clearly justified and a vote on a quick impeachment proceeding that would bypass the normal impeachment timeline already has been scheduled, at the time of this writing I am doubtful there are enough votes in the Senate to convict Trump. It should be noted that the advantage of impeachment and conviction is it would legally prevent Trump from ever holding a government office.

Because many believe that we cannot wait for Trump to leave office on Jan. 20, another constitutional action is being discussed: Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet could invoke the 25th Amendment. As of now, though, I am not sanguine this will occur.

The storming of the Capitol changed everything. While Trump may not be removed from office prior to Biden’s inauguration or the nation’s deep political divisions eliminated, as a scholar of rhetoric I am hopeful that this moment in time will result in public officials in the future being held more accountable for their rhetoric — and speaking in less divisive and vitriolic ways. If that is the ultimate outcome of last week’s insurrection, our country will have taken a positive step toward restoring confidence in democratic deliberation.

RICHARD CHERWITZ, Ph.D., is the Ernest A. Sharpe Centennial professor emeritus in the Moody College of Communication and founding director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin.

Recommended for you

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!