The deadly mob attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 — exhorted and then cheered on by President Donald J. Trump, with accountability later stonewalled by the Republican Party — was unprecedented in our history, but then again it wasn’t. It is true that never before had a losing presidential candidate, after pounding a Big Lie about a stolen election, helped to whip up a crowd into a murderous frenzy and directed it to prevent the official congressional certification of his defeat. The last time a losing candidate’s campaign tried to overturn the results, in the incomparably closer election of 1960, Richard Nixon’s supporters, having lost by a whisker to John F. Kennedy, tried to raise a stink about massive vote fraud in eleven states. But the Nixon forces gave way, after recounts, judicial decisions, and state board of elections findings — including those under Republican jurisdiction — went against them. Trump, the Roy Cohn protégé who has long regarded Nixon as insufficiently ruthless, pushed much further, to the point of sedition.
In another vaguely analogous historical example, Andrew Jackson in 1825 charged that a corrupt bargain had denied him the presidency after the uncertain electoral results of a four-way race threw the decision into the House of Representatives. Yet Jackson undeniably won strong popular and electoral pluralities, as Trump did not, his charges of behind- the-scenes chicanery were plausible if unknowable; and he raised no mob nor did anything else to interrupt the normal transfer of power. (Jackson participated in the inauguration ceremonies for the incoming administration.) Trump and his supporters have for years tried to fool the public into viewing him as the reincarnation of Old Hickory; but once again Trump’s subversive words and actions only dramatized their differences.
More recent examples were authentic precedents to Trump’s sedition. Nixon may never have matched Trump’s standard for cynicism, but after 1960 he outdid himself and every previous president in undermining democracy. In 1968, during his second try for the presidency, Nixon illicitly tampered with preliminary peace talks over the war in Vietnam, halting their progress, which may well have secured his narrow victory over Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Five years later, investigations into the offenses known collectively as Watergate revealed that, above and beyond the famous break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters, Nixon contemplated using the FBI, the CIA, the IRS, and other government agencies to spy on, harass, and if necessary detain his political adversaries. Had it not been for an alert night watchman at the Watergate, whose discovery of the attempted DNC burglary began breaking everything open and eventually led to Nixon’s resignation, Nixon might have succeeded in the most systematic internal overthrow of the Constitution in our history.
Then there was the notorious “Brooks Brothers” riot on November 22, 2000, during the presidential vote-return struggle in Florida between Al Gore and George W. Bush — a foreshadowing of Trump’s outrages right down to some of the persons involved. Canvassers in Miami-Dade County, in order to make the recounting of votes more efficient and meet a court-ordered deadline, moved their work to a smaller room in the recount headquarters. Suddenly, on a direct order to “shut it down” from Republican congressman John Sweeney of New York, a mob of Republican staffers and other operatives — some of the hundreds of Republicans dispatched to South Florida to protest and disrupt the recount — rushed the doors and started pounding on them, while punching and trampling anyone in their way. The melee halted the Miami-Dade recount which, unlike the tallying of electoral votes on January 6, was permanently suspended.
Given that Bush eventually won Florida, and thus the presidency, by 537 votes out of more than six million cast, and given that the rest of the returns in populous Miami-Dade Country broke in favor of Gore, it is highly possible that the riot actually turned the election, which would make it one of the most consequential events in American political history. And that would not be its only legacy. Roger Stone, the self-described Republican “hit man” who worked for the Bush campaign during the recount struggle, reportedly had a great deal to do with the Miami-Dade attack and even boasted about organizing it — the same Roger Stone who, having been pardoned by his patron Trump after multiple convictions, mingled with the neo-Nazi Proud Boys and addressed the crowd on January 6, declaring that “we will win this fight or America will step off into a thousand years of darkness.” Today Matt Schlapp, as president of the American Conservative Union, has been one of the chief propagators of the lies about a stolen election that propelled the mob, and in 2000 he was one of the more conspicuous Brooks Brothers rioters.
From another angle, however, despite some obvious departures, there were unsettling similarities between the events surrounding January 6 and American democracy’s worst moment of crisis since the nation’s founding until now: the secession winter of 1860-1861 triggered by Abraham Lincoln’s election as president. For months prior to Election Day, pro-slavery southerners had warned that they would not respect the outcome if Lincoln won. “Let the consequences be what they may – whether the Potomac is crimsoned in human gore, and Pennsylvania Avenue is paved ten fathoms deep with mangled bodies…,” a relatively moderate Georgia newspaper declared, “the South will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.” For the slaveholders, a Lincoln presidency would be thoroughly illegitimate because his party’s program violated what they described as the Constitution’s protection of states’ rights as well individuals’ property rights in slaves, as enunciated by the Supreme Court majority in the Dred Scott decision three years earlier.
Rather than contest the correctness of the popular and electoral vote count, the pro-slavery southerners withdrew from the Union, state by state, and set about forming a nation of their own — a course that had been bruited for decades, by irreconcilable New England Federalists as well as pro-slavery militants. When the federal government at length attempted to assert its authority by refusing to surrender federal installations in the South — thereby affirming Lincoln’s legitimacy — the insurrectionists fired upon and captured Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, a target with real as well as symbolic importance.
Trump, like the seceding slaveholders, made it clear long before the election that he would not respect the outcome were his opponent declared the winner. His talk of potential violence during the 2020 campaign, building on his instructions to supporters four years earlier to “beat the crap” out of peaceful protesters, was less gruesome than the slaveholders’ rebellion in 1860, but it was menacing enough, as when, during the first presidential debate, he instructed the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” (The truly grisly rhetoric came from Trump’s supporters inside the irregular militias, plotting and then spreading the word on social media and in the nether reaches of the pro-Trump Web, during the build-up to the riot.)
Although based on fantastic lies about a rigged election instead of a fallacious Supreme Court decision, Trump’s charges about monumental unconstitutional offenses rang true to his tens of millions of supporters, much as the secessionists’ charges rang true to theirs. There was even some of the slaveholders’ apocalyptic tone in Trump’s doomful rants that culminated in his instructions to the crowd on January 6 to march up Pennsylvania Avenue — peacefully and patriotically, of course — and to “fight like hell,” warning that if they failed, “you’re not going to have a country anymore.”