In 1861, insurrectionists refused to accept the outcome of a free and fair democratic election. They created a new flag when they chose secession.
Yesterday, insurrectionists brought that flag into the U.S. Capitol, desecrating the people’s house. A photographer captured the flag-bearing white supremacist as he passed the portrait of Charles Sumner, the noted Massachusetts abolitionist. Sumner nearly died in 1856 when a South Carolina congressman beat him with a cane for Sumner’s excoriation of enslavers.
Political violence is as American as apple pie, but this felt different. Never before had a president incited supporters to violence so directly, asked them to march to the Capitol, asked them to disavow an election violently.
I wish elected officials, especially Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz who gave fuel to this conflagration, had read their oath. The same oath I took to serve in uniform. The same oath taken by everyone in the federal government.
The author of the oath was none other than Charles Sumner. Written in 1862, the oath was a reaction to secession and treason. “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.” Who were domestic enemies? Confederates who refused to accept the results of a democratic election. Who should we think of as domestic enemies today? Those who refuse to accept the results of a free and fair election.
The Confederate flag in the U.S. Capitol carried by insurrectionists provides a potent symbol that sedition to enforce white supremacy remains an American problem.
My reflection is perhaps more of a personal response than academic. As I watched the insanity at the Capitol unfold yesterday, I fielded calls from relatives who raised two key questions. The first question was “Can you believe this?” This second question was “Can you imagine if they were Black?” This response was echoed by thousands who watched in confusion and horror as rioters stormed the Capitol with minimal resistance, whereas this summer, protesters marching for equality and an end to excessive police violence against African Americans faced tanks, rubber bullets, and mass arrests.
It is important to acknowledge the bravery of those law enforcement officials who attempted to protect the Capitol and its occupants while being overwhelmed and outnumbered. However, given that the threat of a Capitol riot was known for some time, the lack of a numerical show of force similar to that which the government deployed against protesters this summer in Washington, D.C., is perplexing.
The reality of disproportionate treatment of African Americans by the criminal justice system is well-known and documented; however, the attack on the Capitol Building laid that reality out in the starkest terms as rioters were allowed to roam the halls of Congress and then were escorted out, in some cases quite gently, with minimal arrests. Importantly, the call from the outraged is not for more excessive force against the public. Rather the question is where is that level of restraint when Black and Brown people protest for their lives?
Dangers of Demagoguery
Two and a half millennia of political theorizing about popular self-government has highlighted the dangers of demagoguery. Plato predicted it, and American framers such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton sought to protect against it. But the founding generation also knew that institutional safeguards would never be enough; they were, as Madison said, at best "auxiliary precautions." The primary bulwark against democratic decay resides in the public character.
As Hamilton would remind us, whether humanity is capable of government of choice, rather than of force, is always an open question. In inciting his seditious supporters to forcibly halt the formalizing of an election he lost, Trump has disastrously if predictably failed that test, as have his myriad abettors. The future of the American Experiment depends on whether the rest of the people and their leaders rise to the challenge.
Erica De Bruin, assistant professor of government
We know how to prevent coups. We have a whole set of actions that international organizations, military officers, individuals can use. But we know far less about how to prevent anti-democratic actions.
The crucial factor is that a coup attempt requires force or the threat of force from an organized armed group, usually, though not necessarily, a military. And while many in the violent mob of President Trump’s supporters that stormed the Capitol building on Wednesday were armed, they did not appear to be part of any organized paramilitary organization.
The scenes at the Capitol bear an obvious resemblance to coups, which often involve an armed takeover of legislative buildings. But the resemblance is a superficial one.
They’re emulating coup plotters. But when coup plotters do that, it’s because they think that occupying that position makes them look like they are holding political power. No one thinks that this group is actually in control.
I caution, however, against concluding that this is not a serious threat to American democracy. [But] the way we tend to see democracies fail these days is through this subtle undermining and chipping away of democracy.
Peaceful Transition of Power
The peaceful transition of power has been the sine qua non of our democracy for over 200 years now, the bedrock on which our constitutional system is built. Even in the tumultuous and vicious election of 1800, the first time the presidency was transferred from one political party to another, John Adams had the courage and self-restraint to hand over power to his bitter rival Thomas Jefferson without bloodshed.
Subsequent presidents of all parties have followed his lead. To avoid the chaos and injustice of violence, we have agreed as a society to recognize the will of the people as the final arbiter of who shall govern us. Yesterday's shameful insurrection was a repudiation of the precious traditions we have nurtured as the oldest constitutional democracy in the world.
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule,” political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism a few years after the Second World War, “is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist.” Arendt, a German-Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, knew of what she spoke (she had been arrested by the Gestapo shortly after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, and finally made her way to the United States as a refugee in 1941).
The United States, all too inconsistently, but sometimes at its best, has stepped up to be a guardian of reason, and a defender of the oppressed (including immigrants like Arendt). In the past half-decade, it has become something else, a country where the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false — and decency and its opposite — are no longer observed or honored. Certainly not by the president of the United States, who incited a mob to assault the nation's Capitol and interfere with the Constitutional transfer of power.
“Be there, will be wild,” he tweeted on December 19. Well, that much was certainly true — wild it proved. Also true, for those who still care about such distinctions — we are skirting on the edge of neo-fascist authoritarianism.
A House Divided
President Trump has rightly been condemned for inciting yesterday's insurrection with lies about the 2020 election, but American politics has been building toward this moment for decades as the Republican party has increasingly become an anti-democratic, white nationalist party.
Furthermore, events like this are not unprecedented in American history. In the 1870s, violent white insurrectionists overthrew democratically elected state governments in the South during Reconstruction. And they did it for the same reason — to protect white supremacy from democracy.
This summer I was asked to comment on the impact of the pandemic for the Hamilton alumni magazine. Sadly, what I wrote then is even more apt.
“For many years whenever I’ve spoken about the state of American politics, someone always asks me, ‘When will it get better? When will America start coming together, rather than apart?’ The sad fact is that there is no miracle cure. There is no leader who can use his or her eloquence to move us to a higher purpose. America is irrevocably divided between competing political and social visions.
At another moment of great division, Abraham Lincoln warned, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand. ... It will become all one thing or all the other.’ Today, Americans must again choose what our house shall be.”
White Supremacist Extremism
White supremacist extremism has a strong authoritarian element, as evidenced by its support for Donald Trump. Though it has characteristics particular to the U.S., it is also part of a broader, global movement of right-wing populism that has empowered dictators or strongmen in countries like Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Brazil. While the authoritarian tendencies of Americans who supposedly profess libertarian values might seem ironic, they are actually unsurprising. Right-wing constructions of individual liberty have often involved protecting such liberty from undesirable “others” who supposedly threaten our freedoms: immigrants, people of color, liberals and progressives, feminists, the poor, even public health officials trying to stem the spread of COVID. This notion of liberty as under siege leads to an embrace of violent, authoritarian means: formation of armed militias, violent intimidation of public officials, voter suppression, appeals to oppressive “law and order” measures, and, ultimately, to an embrace of would-be authoritarians like Trump and attempts to overthrow democratic elections.