What would you have done at the Cadaver Synod? In case you weren’t invited, back in 897 Pope Stephen VI had his pre-predecessor Formosus exhumed, propped up his decaying corpse in its papal garb, and tried it for perjury and for stealing the election.

The point being, I suppose, to make sure he didn’t do it again. But the spectacle was as grotesque as its Latin name Synodus Horrenda implies.

In a verdict that surprised nobody, Stephen had Formosus unpoped and stripped of his vestments. Then, he personally cut off the three fingers Formosus had used for blessings, invalidated all his papal acts including making Stephen himself bishop of Anangi and, after having Formosus buried ignominiously in a graveyard for foreigners, asked “What Would Jesus Do?” and, getting the answer badly wrong, had him dug up again, weighted down and thrown in the Tiber. All those in favour don’t say anything.

I grant that times were tough and there was an oversupply of popes relative to papal thrones. And it was the Dark Ages when people were mean, stupid and dirty unlike us.

But I also note that a major argument for re-impeaching Donald Trump is to make sure he never again incites violence while holding a significant public office. Whereas a major motive seems to be vindictiveness and unwillingness to let go of a grievance even after the source is removed.

It’s not an attractive impulse.

Consider the case of Oliver Cromwell, buried with high honours in 1658 because he had turned England into a dictatorship. But when the monarchy was restored (by his son “Tumbledown Dick” who deserves full credit for realizing he was not a statesman and getting out of Dodge in a remarkably statesmanlike fashion) they did the Formosus thing two centuries into the Enlightenment, digging Cromwell up in 1661 and killing him again, hanging his carcass in chains then hurling it into a pit, and sticking his head on a pole outside Parliament where it sat for 25 disgusting years before being passed around, sold and otherwise disrespected before finally being buried at Sidney Sussex College.

It makes merely dancing on a man’s grave seem positively dignified.

Just as the Catholic Church doesn’t do the rotting body trial stunt anymore, the British got over their Cromwell rage and put a statue of him outside Westminster. Indeed a BBC poll in 2002 wrongly said he was one of the 10 greatest Britons of all time. The problem being not so much a queue ahead of him including King Alfred, Stephen Langton, Winston Churchill, King Arthur, Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, William Pitt (twice), William Wilberforce etc. as Cromwell being a brutal dictator, fraud and bum all of whose Constitutional convolutions only “put a wig on the point of a sword”, in a brilliant jibe quoted in J.D. Mackie’s A History of Scotland but without attribution, and who united the ethnically fractious British isles in despising him.

But still, when he’s dead he’s done and you can just bury the body.

I would be getting too far afield if I mentioned that in 1040 AD the second successor of King Canute, Harthacnut, forced senior clerics to dig up the corpse of his own half-brother Harold “Harefoot” which he had beheaded and flung naked into a fen; then, thinking better of this desecration, into the Thames instead.

And of course Trump is technically not dead, probably won’t be beheaded and even if he is the rest of him is highly unlikely to be flung naked into the Gulf of Mexico, a sand trap or anything else. It would be indecent.

But the impeachment itself, well, if you can’t kick a man when he’s down, what are feet for?

Good question. As a never-Trumper able to recognize his significant policy achievements while declaring him unfit for the presidency or decent company, I regard the Democrats’ inability to let go as counterproductive practically and morally.

It’s not clear whether they’re worried that Trump might get appointed Secretary of State or Librarian of Congress. But if someone could make such an appointment and get away with it, the problem is the public mood, not somehow convincing yourself you can remove a man from a job he no longer holds in order to show that in your heart you’d like to hang his decaying corpse in chains and toss his head about like a volleyball before spiking it into a plague pit in the name of decency.

I’m not following the trial, by the way. As I would have declined to cover the trial of Formosus unless told shaking my head or raising my hand in protest would be the last thing I did with either, though by no means the last thing someone else did with them. The whole business is too dispiriting. Especially the Democrats who think the way to heal, unite and move on is to Groundhog Day the impeachment process.

Hey guys, I want to say to Stephen, Harthacnut and the impeachment managers, you won. Smile. In the spirit of Disraeli’s “A majority is always better than the best repartee”, seeing Joe Biden in the Oval Office ought to reduce the impulse to perform some indignity on the corpse of the Trump Presidency to manageable proportions. Especially as rudeness is a weapon of the weak.

As Greg Sheridan pointed out in The Australian, once Nixon quit the Democrats didn’t bother impeaching him. And Sheridan also accused the Democrats of wanting the GOP to be Trump’s party so they can win every election until forever, which AOC’s party won’t do anyway and which just risks having everyone spiral down into bitterness bereft of dignity, if not into a fen.

My guess is the impeachment will fail to secure conviction*. But it sure sets a precedent for impeaching anyone and everyone. Twice if need be. In office or out. Prop them up in the Oval Office, grimace at them, smash their engraved pen, pry the Ws off the keyboards, whatever, in a spectacle to horrify the ages with its blend of vindictive rage and pettiness.

*Trump’s second impeachment trial began on February 9 and he was acquitted on February 13, after the publication of the article.

John Robson

John Robson is a documentary film-maker, columnist with the National Post, Executive Director of the Climate Discussion Nexus and a professor at Augustine College. He holds a PhD in American history from...