Well, the United States has survived its first insurrection since 1860 and its first ever coup d’état attempt. So, perhaps, the title of this piece, a triumphal, partial quote from Homer’s Odyssey is appropriate. But the verdict on its veracity can surely only come in the generations to come. It is clear now that the events of January 6, the storming of the National Capitol, the beginnings of which I managed to witness on TV and report in an incoherent final paragraph in my column of two weeks ago, was in reality an attempted coup. It is also clear now that this extraordinary event demonstrated that the sources of serious division in the US are deep and fundamental, and the comparison to the secession of seven Southern States in 1860 is not an exaggeration.
In 1860, the US fell apart over the moral and politically insoluble issue of slavery. Abraham Lincoln, the candidate of an avowedly anti-slavery Republican Party, was elected. Although Lincoln cloaked his feelings regarding slavery in ambiguity and ran on the platform of preserving the Union, trying to retard the push for secession in the South, his past statements regarding slavery (“a house divided against itself cannot stand”) led Southerners to realize his election marked the beginning of the end of slavery. One state had seceded before he took office in March of 1860, and six others followed in short order after his inauguration.
The fundamental cause of the 1860 secession was that the two major political parties, the anti-slavery Republican Party, and opposing Democratic Party (which was squishy and ambiguous on slavery, willing to live with it to preserve the Union), could not find a political solution to such a fundamental moral issue.
I have seen analyses of the January 6, 2021 trashing of the Capitol that put it all on President Trump, which I am tempted to do also, but as much as I dislike Trump, the worst president the US has ever had, who has left the country in a very fragile condition, there is more to the story. I think that the responsibility for this near miss of an authoritarianism takeover of my country goes much deeper than a truly malignant president; the Republican Party bears much responsibility. And the fundamental issue goes deeper than the “big lie” strategy that he pushed to overturn the results of a free and fair election he had lost. (He is, by nature, an authoritarian grifter, who can’t stand the idea of losing.)
The fundamental issue again is a moral one, as slavery was; it is democracy itself, the system by which the US has governed itself for 250 years, not always well or in observance of all democratic tenets, but until this year the democratic principle that, through free and fair elections, we always transfer power peacefully, even in times of war. What January 6 showed us was definitive proof, if we needed any more proof, that the Republican Party has evolved over the 167 years of its existence from a party which believed firmly in democracy, a democracy that included African Americans as full citizens, to a party which no longer believes in democracy as the method of transferring power, or in many of its other tenets, such as truth, but instead has adopted authoritarian behavior and methods.
The actions of the Republican Party since the November 3 election demonstrate this conclusion perfectly. But one needs to realize its underlying philosophy—that there is no such thing as the truth; that truth is, instead a variable, which will be changed to fit one’s objectives—encourages the creation of an alternative (untrue) universes. This becomes “the big lie,” the main tool used by demagogues throughout history to destroy democracies and usurp power for themselves. Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian, pointed this out recently in a brilliant essay in the New York Times Magazine. This big lie strategy has succeeded often in Western history. Snyder describes how “big lie” strategies were the tool used in in the fascist takeovers in 20th-century Western history, viz. Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy, or more recently, in the 21st century, Viktor Orban in Hungary and by the current leaders of Poland. Snyder points out that Trump’s big lie was that he had won the election, but it was stolen by a conspiracy of fraud. Despite Trump’s inability to produce any evidence and the fact that over 60 courts found only evidence to the contrary, many Republican voters believe the “big lie.” And, disturbingly, the Republican Party appeared to support this lie; only a few of its members rejected it. Even after the Capitol was trashed and members of Congress, literally, had to run for their lives, 9 Republican Senators and over 140 Republican House members still tried to reject the certified voting totals of three which Biden won.
Trump’s “big lie” strategy failed because American democratic institutions, though they were weakened, remained strong enough to overcome his “big lie,” and probably also because his attempt to overrun those institutions was so ineptly pursued. There have been a number of political analysts who warn that a smarter perpetrator might well have succeeded. But the fact that the Trumpian coup failed, does not mean that his “big lie” has suddenly been erased. A large proportion of Republican voters still believe it, and Joe Biden takes over the helm on January 20 at noon with a large segment of Americans (maybe 35 or 40 percent) believing he is an illegitimate President. This could make it very difficult for Biden to push a very ambitious agenda through a Congress in which the Democrats have only a slim majority in the House of Representatives and an even narrower margin in the Senate.
The resilience of Trumpian “big lie” takes us back, in some way, to the failure in the 1850s to solve the slavery question. Then the two sides also were locked into two fundamentally different moral universes—the South believing that slavery was the natural condition of human life, and the North believing it was a moral abomination that had to be done away with. Now, 161 years later, the two major parties and their followers also live in alternative universes, but their roles are now reversed. The Democrats believe in an inclusive democracy and the Republicans reject that concept and, as a minority party in most regions, use voter suppression to remain in power, which is moving the party toward authoritarianism. Whether American democracy can survive if that continues to be the case is problematic. It need not be the case, however, as democracy is a different kind of issue than slavery was. Trump’s “big lie” is probably easier to erase from peoples’ minds. The way I believe Biden will try to do so is to lead an administration that is smart and efficient and gets thing done. It will concentrate in the early stages in bringing COVID-19 pandemic under control, reducing the outrageously high death rate and spread of the virus, and raising the economy out of the tank it is descending into because of the pandemic, putting people back to work, and beginning the monumental task of reducing the economic, social, and racial inequalities that divide our society. I know that is Biden’s intention; to succeed he will need some cooperation from the Republican Party in Congress. That won’t be easy to obtain in any case, particularly if that party’s base continues to believe the Trumpian “big lie.” And it is even harder to imagine if Trump is able to actively take part in politics.
For tomorrow’s inauguration, the city of Washington, DC is locked down tighter than a drum, with 25,000 National Guard troops in addition to all hands-on duty in the several federal and local police forces here. The January 6 attack on our Capitol caused the sudden realization that we have an armed and hostile insurgent force of White Nationalists, other right wing organized zealots, and some real wackos out there in the dark that basically want for various reasons, all pretty wacky, want to bring down our democracy and install some sort of authoritarian right-wing government. Though some government intelligence agencies have been warning for years that right-wing terrorism is our greatest threat now, more so than foreign terrorism, this is a wake-up call for most Americans. It adds greater uncertainty to Biden’s huge challenges because these groups all seem to favor the Republican Party. I am sure that they do because they sense, and many Americans do not, the authoritarian nature of that party. It was these groups that Trump called on to carry out the muscle part of his coup. And that is where it failed.
Final thought: the trashing of the Capitol by a mob inspired and incited to do so by President Trump (earning him his second impeachment) has sealed his selection, by almost all American historians, as the worst President of the US, worse even (and dumber too) than William Henry Harrison, who stayed out in a cold rain to watch his inaugural parade in March 1841, caught pneumonia, and died after a month in office.
The writer is a diplomat, and is Senior Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.