January 6th, 2021, marked the saddest day in the history of American democracy since April 12th, 1861, the day South Carolina secessionists fired on Fort Sumter and commenced the Civil War. Assassinations, military atrocities, enacting horrific laws, all are shameful and wrenching, and forever stain the nation’s history. But deliberate and violent attacks on the nation’s essential institutions of government, incited by elected leaders, are rarer, and they cut to the heart of our democracy as those other shocks do not. Looking back, only the attack on Sumter surpasses in severity the Trumpist sacking of the Capitol as a direct, calculated, and unashamed repudiation of the nation’s constitutional order.
Indeed, while hardly identical, 1861 and 2021 bear some unmistakable similarities. Both breaches resulted from the refusal of millions of Americans to accept the election of a new president: Abraham Lincoln then, Joe Biden now. In both instances, reactionary forces, charging the federal government with tyranny and claiming the mantle of the American Revolution, attacked that government with insurrectionary force. While it of course does not rank anywhere near declaring the Union dissolved, the Trumpists’ successful disruption of a solemn ritual of elective democracy displayed a fervid and portentous contempt for the democratic procedures and the rule of law — appallingly instigated, in this case, by a sitting president of the United States. The presence of Confederate flags inside the Trump mob at the Capitol alongside the faux-patriotic “Don’t Tread on Me” regalia signaled a more exact connection across the decades, from defending slavery to upholding Jim Crow and the Lost Cause, to Trump’s embrace of — and MAGA’s friendliness toward — today’s neo-Confederates. One of the leading extremist organizers of the demonstration that led to the assault was a Facebook page called Red-State Secession.
Some questions in the immediate aftermath intrude on calculating the event’s long-term political significance. Plainly, a massive security failure allowed the mob to pounce and surge for as long as it did, a failure made truly grievous by how much authorities knew in advance of what the Trump mob descending on Washington had in mind. The causes of those failures, especially in light of the massive law-enforcement presence during the anti-racism protests in D.C. last spring and summer, need investigation, and those responsible — including any officials in the administration who wanted to aid and abet the rioters — need to be held to account.
Likewise, there ought to be official inquiries over how the day’s mayhem was put together. Although it was obvious that self-starting right-wing social media agitators had played a huge role, it remains open to question how self-starting some of those agitators actually were and are. Somebody arranged and paid for staging the media spectacle at the Washington Monument where the event got started, a view of the White House in the backdrop. That similar outbursts occurred in Utah and Georgia suggests at least the possibility of more coordinated planning and support. If any persons in the Oval Office beside the president, or otherwise close to Trump and his family, were involved in any way, they need to be exposed and punished.
But so, too, there needs to be a larger historical and political reckoning. The attack on Fort Sumter is supposed to have started when a veteran pro-slavery Fire-Eater, Edmund Ruffin, pulled the lanyard on the cannon that fired the first shot — but Ruffin and the other armed traitors amassed in Charleston harbor were hardly the most culpable figures, let alone the only ones. A long history lay behind the outrage of 1861, generated by disloyal pro-slavery pronouncements dating back decades, above all in the speeches and writings of John C. Calhoun. There is, to a historian, deep irony to some of the photographs taken during the Trumpist assault, especially one of a member of the mob brandishing a Confederate battle flag beneath a forbidding portrait of Calhoun in the entrance area of the Senate. Look closely enough and you can imagine the portrait, in its grim-faced way, smiling at the proceedings.
Clearly, as many commentators observed the morning after, the attack on the Capitol was the culmination of Trump’s four years of misrule. But Trump on his own had always been just a deranged, manipulative mogul and reality-TV fraud. The celebrity-smitten news media that abetted his perverse, shock-jock mystique — from big-city tabloids to the supposedly liberal-minded cable networks that aired his every rally, every antic — bear some responsibility. So does the current generation of cynical hard-right political stars who thought they could batten on to Trump’s mythic populist base, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley above all — their mouths dripping with sedition dressed up in fake history just as surely as the rioters they now ritualistically condemn.
But the attack on our democracy that culminated in the attack on the Capitol actually began many decades ago, at least as early as the mid-1960s, when so-called movement conservatives rallied first by William F. Buckley Jr., and then by a host of fake policy institutes and right-wing publicity organs, modernized the sputtering plutocratic reaction to the New Deal, merged it with the unvanquished white segregationist South, and, eventually, aggrieved right-wing evangelicals, forging what became known as the Ronald Reagan coalition. With the formerly ascendant Eastern moderate wing of the Republican Party either marginalized or forced to submit, the stage was set for the long-term radicalization of the GOP, hastened when Pat Buchanan attempted — and Newt Gingrich — succeeded in filling the vacuum on the right after Reagan left office.
Thence began a process of radicalization on the right which saw, at the fringes, a proliferation of right-wing militia groups and would-be instigators of race war that included Timothy McVeigh and his terrorist accomplices who blew up the Alfred Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168, including 19 children. Undeterred by the mayhem and death, successive cohorts of cynical Republican leaders thought that they could stoke what had begun as the Reagan base with ever-more radical culture-war rhetoric. By the time Barack Obama was president, what had long since ceased to be the Party of Lincoln had morphed into what the centrist political scientists Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, amid the Tea Party insurgency, called an “insurgent outlier” in our politics.
In the wake of Obama’s re-election in 2012, Republican leaders began reassessing their situation and proposed a redirection, in which they would mute the hard-right posturing — but what had become the core of the Republican electorate, frustrated by decades of empty promises about uprooting godless liberalism, was in no mood for the new-found responsibility of politicians they came to regard as Republican in Name Only (RINO). Enter Trump, who not only commandeered the inflamed base but enlarged it to include men and women unreachable by pollsters, angry minds who had given up on politics completely. With the connivance of supplicating Republicans caught off-guard by his ascendancy, pre-eminently Cruz and Lindsey Graham, Trump then molded a truly dangerous force, one that beheld Trump not simply as their president but as their George Washington (or maybe their Jefferson Davis), the father of their country. Unable to bully his way out of his defeat in November, a desperate Trump had nothing left to do but to unleash that force on the Capitol.
As discouraging, even horrifying, as this culmination has been, there are strong reasons to regard all that has happened since November 3rd not as the shaming of American democracy, but as its triumph and vindication. Election Day did bring an extraordinary display of democratic power, the largest numerical turnout in our history, despite a devastating pandemic, conducted responsibly and virtually without incident. Those who, in the wake of the assault on the Capitol, have described our country as a banana republic need to remind themselves of that display — a display so powerful that it caused Trump, his backup coup plans failing, to describe the election as a rigged disgrace, his ultimate act of psychological and political projection.
The vindication continued in the courts, which many leftists and liberals — myself included, I must confess — were convinced would collaborate in Trump stealing the election, shades of Bush v. Gore in 2000. In every instance, state and federal, in front of conservative as well as liberal judges, Trump attorneys’ cockamamie complaints met not simply with dismissal but with uncommon judicial derision. When the Supreme Court, complete with the three Trump justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh, closed the door on a last-minute bid to overturn the election, followed three days later by the Electoral College fulfilling its duty, the vindication was near complete; with the admirable resistance by Georgia Republican election officials in the waning days of the process, it ended.
Rather than a defeat of democracy, the shameful, seditious, failed insurrection at the Capitol marked a desperate and doomed effort to break a system that held. Still, all of that said, we need also to remember how near a miss it was. More important, we need to remember that the system did not hold on its own or because of some providential dispensation but because uncounted numbers of Americans, from a few well-known jurists to masses of anonymous election workers, on all sides of the political spectrum, upheld the rule of democratic law. And as we look beyond these events to what comes next, it is essential to recognize that the threat, though scotched, has not been killed, and that nothing is accomplished without vigilant accountability.
Even before the mob descended, Washington was gripped by debates on how the new administration ought to handle the numerous glaring and grievous crimes of the outgoing one. There has been a good deal of talk about healing the soul of the nation, about reaching across the lines of division to combat the vicious polarization of the Trump years by promoting reconciliation. Rather than further provoke discord and disorder, better simply to let Trump fade away in ignominy while appealing to the better angels of our nature, including the better angels of the many millions of MAGA supporters.
The impulse is understandable but the danger is incalculable, as the attack on the Capitol made crystal clear. For one thing, Trump, even in his derangement, has shown he has no intention of fading away, and it would be unwise to bet that he won’t find some means to sustain himself as a kind of president-in-exile. Far more important, though, is the matter of accountability, the sanctity of the Constitution, and the nature of the enemy within that we saw scaling the walls and invading the halls of the House and Senate.
Beginning with the outrageous multiple obstructions of justice outlined in the Mueller Report, Trump as president engaged in crimes against the nation, overt and covert, beyond anything dared by any previous president of the United States, Richard M. Nixon included. His directing of the mob to march on the Capitol to help disrupt the final certification of his defeat was the clearest conceivable attack on the Constitution that any elected official could undertake. Those crimes would only be compounded if, as has been widely rumored, the president attempts to engineer a plainly unconstitutional self-pardon for all of his offenses.
To permit these crimes and others to go unprosecuted would amount to a kind of complicity in them. There can be no healing of the nation’s soul if the Constitution is left mocked and damaged, for in the final analysis, the Constitution is the nation. There comes a time when generosity and appeals to reconciliation turn into the kind of appeasement that invites further aggression. The attack on the Capitol, whipped up and then celebrated by the president, has dramatized as powerfully as is imaginable that the time for appeasement is over.
Among the many stories that got buried amid the mayhem was President-elect Biden’s announcement that he plans to appoint Judge Merrick Garland as his Attorney General. That appointment is a signal of where the incoming president stands regarding the prosecution of Trump and his accomplices. Garland is, of course, remembered as the person Obama named to the Supreme Court only to be throttled by the supremely cynical then-Majority Leader of the Senate Mitch McConnell. He is also regarded as a judicial centrist, which may suggest that he would be less than zealous in pursuit of ex-President Trump, lest doing so would further inflame our politics. Less well-remembered is that Judge Garland, then a top official at the Justice Department, oversaw the successful prosecution of Timothy McVeigh in 1996 and 1997.
More than virtually any other high official in public service, Attorney General-designate Garland is closely acquainted with the poison that has built up in our body politic over the past 50 years, the poison that made Trump’s presidency possible and which Trump has come to command — the poison that was on display when the Capitol temporarily fell prey to the mob. If Trump is left unprosecuted, let alone unpunished, for his crimes — not for his bad behavior or his boorishness or even his demagoguery, but for his multiple violations of federal law — that poison, too, will remain unchecked, ripe for exploitation by future would-be Trumps. The failure after the Civil War to hold the secessionists fully accountable for their treason helped pave the way for the overthrow of Reconstruction and the installation of Jim Crow. Just as the harrowing scenes at the Capitol are a distant historical reminder of Fort Sumter, so they affirm the extent of the damage Trump and his confederates have done to our country. That damage demands their prosecution.