Character-defining moments don’t always come well-signposted. Sometimes critical moral decisions are thrust upon us suddenly before we’ve had a chance fully to recognise their significance.

Other times they loom ahead of us long in advance, like a Trump casino in a desert.

That’s how it must have seemed to many Republicans in Congress recently. With Mr Trump lying systematically for months about a stolen election (something like 60 legal challenges by his team have been rejected by the courts), each and every Republican lawmaker has been facing a stark choice: to stand by silently and avoid the wrath of their base, or to publicly break ranks and stand up for integrity and democracy, whatever the personal and political price.

The response of some Republican lawmakers to date, it must be said, has shamed them and their party. Even after the Capitol riots, well over 100 House Republicans and half a dozen Republican senators voted to decertify the results of the election in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

HeraldScotland:

With some honourable exceptions, Republicans in Congress have failed to stand up to Mr Trump’s excesses, not just since the election but for years.

But as of this week, they face a defining moral choice: will they or will they not impeach and convict the most manifestly unfit president of the modern era?

There is only one option here which will save them from ignominy in the eyes of present and future generations. And it won’t be easy for them; in fact, it will be anything but, due to the climate of intolerance and misinformation some of them have helped their president create. But only impeachment will send a signal to the American public and the world that Americans are taking back their democracy.

Ten Republicans in the House have already distinguished themselves by joining Democrats in voting to impeach, but the smart money says there won’t be 17 Republican souls willing to go over the top in the Senate, the number required to convict.

We are already seeing a series of attempts by Republicans to create ethical cover – stories to tell themselves and alternative realities to hide behind – to avoid the harder path.

READ MORE: Mark Smith: TV’s bizarre 'only-gays' rule could lead to unforeseen trouble

We all kid ourselves at times about our own motivations to ease the discomfort of moral compromise (or outright cowardice), but House Republicans, prior to Wednesday’s critical vote, engaged in contortionism to try and justify their decision to vote against impeachment.

Some claimed they couldn’t vote for it because free speech was at risk, as if Trump’s incitement of insurrection were his sacred first amendment right. Trump loyalist Jim Jordan of Ohio, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Mr Trump on Monday, claimed absurdly that the president was being “cancelled”.

Others claimed they could see no point in impeaching Mr Trump when he was soon to leave office, apparently seeing no need for Mr Trump to be held accountable for inciting the Capitol riots.

Tom Cole of Oklahoma meanwhile made a hand-wringing statement about national unity, opining that “we desperately need” a path to “support healing”. He seemed blinkered against the hypocrisy of his position: was it not the very president he refused to impeach who had spent four years fuelling division to the point that his supporters stormed the Capitol? Mr Trump has committed impeachable offences: are the Democrats really to be blamed for impeaching him for them?

These are inadequate defences for inaction, but that’s not to say the choice for Republicans is simple. It’s anything but, for two reasons.

The first is the sobering fact that Republican Congressmen and women fear for their safety if they turn against Trump. One Democratic Congressman, Jason Crow, claimed in an interview on Wednesday that Republicans he had spoken to were “paralysed with fear” for their lives if they voted for impeachment and that two broke down in tears speaking to him privately about it. Some Republicans have reportedly hired armed escorts.

In a nation awash with guns and resentment, one can scarcely blame them.

HeraldScotland:

Mr Crow went on to note that many Democrats have felt at risk for a long time and expected their Republican colleagues to stand up for democracy as they do. One can understand his point of view. In a world where deadly attacks on parliamentarians are far from unheard of, however, I find myself feeling great sympathy both for Democrats who have stood up to Mr Trump and for those Republicans who fear being seen to betray the Trump cause.

And then there is the other living nightmare facing Republicans: Donald Trump’s monstrous, bloated lie about widespread voter fraud.

The president has perpetrated a fraud of staggering scope on his own supporters by convincing them their election was stolen, without a shred of evidence to support his claim. And what is perhaps the most frightening aspect of this whole story is the extent to which people believe him. A poll published at the weekend found that 72 per cent of Republican voters don’t trust the election result. A You Gov poll for The Economist found that fully 64 per cent of Republicans voters believe that Mr Biden’s victory should be blocked by Congress.

In Donald Trump’s America, truth has been supplanted by prejudice and assertion.

READ MORE: Rosemary Goring: Surely our unsung supermarket heroes should be bumped up the list for vaccination?

That is why this impeachment vote matters so very, very much: the very meaning of the word truth is at stake. Americans cannot come together again unless there is seen to be firm bipartisan rejection of lies and firm bipartisan support for facts, truth, the US constitution and the democratic process. That means disowning outright the politics of Donald Trump. It means ensuring he never again holds federal office. And there is no way of rejecting Trump without upsetting his supporters. It is an imperfect choice for Republicans, but the alternative is worse: pandering to the man, giving up on the truth and bowing to fear of the mob.

What happens next? Much depends on the stance taken by Senate big beast Mitch McConnell, but perhaps the words of Democrat member of the House of Representatives Jared Huffman might concentrate minds: “A vote to impeach Donald Trump means years from now, you can look your grandchildren in the eye and say, in that historic moment, I did the right thing."

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.