Hamilton and Lincoln Warned of a Mobocracy. Trump Brought Their Fears to LifeRoundup
tags: Capitol Riot
Andrew F. Lang is an associate professor of history at Mississippi State University and the author of A Contest of Civilizations: Exposing the Crisis of American Exceptionalism in the Civil War Era.
When Joe Biden delivers his inaugural address on Wednesday, the shadow of what Abraham Lincoln called the “mobocratic spirit” will cast a heavy pall over the day’s usual pomp and circumstance. On Jan. 6, insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol, attempting to obstruct Congress’s certification of Biden’s victory in the electoral college. Incited by President Trump promulgating a parade of falsehoods about a stolen election, and enabled by scores of Republicans who parroted them, the mob besieged a sacred attribute of constitutional democracy: the validation of the peaceful transfer of power.
The attempted insurrection was the climactic act in a five-year drama of Trumpian populism. Today, our republic confronts a spiritual disunion inspired by Trump’s obstinate demagoguery and the Republican Party’s toleration of his damaging rhetoric and deceitful actions.
Trump rose to political prominence in 2015 by appealing to the passions of an electorate that considered itself marginalized by cultural elites, aloof politicians and ever-diversifying national demographics. Many believed that their voices had been silenced, that powerful institutions had been arrayed against them, that they lived one election removed from the collapse of civilization. The sense of existential crisis beckoned a guardian unconstrained by the checks of constitutional democracy.
The Capitol insurrectionists displayed a long-festering trait of Trumpism: solitary devotion to a president who claimed to shield his beleaguered constituency from this seemingly crooked political order. Trump cast himself as an outsider who could confront a system rife with fraud and deception, a leader who could seemingly lose reelection only through a complex, coordinated conspiracy, one that warranted drastic action. But fealty to this conception of Trump came at the expense of loyalty to the Union’s civic compact of ordered liberty, placing the very core of Americanism at risk.
Alexander Hamilton, one of the nation’s Founders, foresaw Trump’s brand of populist demagoguery. In 1787, Hamilton remarked in “Federalist One,” “it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice.” Skeptical of humanity’s innate virtue, Hamilton warned that an enduring Union of constitutional checks and democratic restraint was hardly inevitable. “History will teach us,” Hamilton reflected, that “the introduction of despotism … overturned the liberties of republics” when ambitious cynics “have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”
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