Peaceful transitions of power between governments form the bedrock upon which the edifice of liberal-democratic self-government rests. Since the elections in 2000 and Al Gore’s concession speech, I have witnessed many American politicians deliver cloying speeches about peaceful transitions of power, which seemed both shamelessly self-congratulatory – as if no other democratic country in the world had ever performed such a feat – as well as manifestly redundant. These speeches seemed so nauseating and sentimental precisely because we all took for granted these peaceful transitions of power guided by the rule of law, conducted under the provisions of the US Constitution, and buttressed by unassailable democratic norms. Until recently, any other possibility remained the preserve of dictatorships abroad and utterly unthinkable in the United States of America. But it seems that Americans need to make a ritual of congratulating themselves upon such things when they happen properly, because Trump’s presidency, like a corrosive brine, has rusted out these once ironclad traditions and ground them into dust.
On 4 March 1801, Thomas Jefferson reflected in his First Inaugural on the bitter campaign the previous year, which the House of Representatives had to resolve in a contingent election in February because of a tie in the Electoral College. The new President started an American political tradition where presidents appeal to unity and try to cast themselves as unifying figures:
[…] but this [election] being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. […]
Jefferson also deemed amongst the “essential principles of our Government”
a jealous care of the right of election by the people — a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided; absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism […].
In other words, Jefferson saw holding elections under a constitutional system and the rule of law the only republican alternative to the right of might and rule by the sword – which lead inevitably to dictatorship and extinguishes freedom.
Jefferson would later dub these events “The Revolution of 1800”; he and his contemporaries at the dawn of the 19th century saw a peaceful transition as a revolutionary break from a violent past and believed that the fledgling American republic had successfully navigated its first true stress test where other republics would have failed and collapsed. American historian John Ferling remarked in 2004 – a time when storming the Capitol to protest the results of a presidential election would have seemed unfathomable – that the election of 1800 marked “the final act of the American Revolution” and demonstrated the potential of peaceful transitions of power between different parties controlling the executive.
Let us not downplay or dismiss what we witnessed on 6 January 2021 in Washington, D.C. It amounts to nothing less than an attempted insurrection against legal-constitutional authority itself and the process for affirming the results of the Electoral College outlined in the US Constitution and an assault on the idea of truth itself by a baying mob incited by the ravings of a petty narcissist who cannot accept that he lost an election. They attacked their own federal legislature because they refuse to accept that their candidate lost an election. We cannot bow to this proto-authoritarian chaos as a “new normal” or dismiss it as the par for the course of the Trump Era. We ought to condemn it as the illiberal aberration which it is. Trump hand-fed these trolls high-octane conspiracies for two months and egged them on with his latest caudillo-like ravings in his “Save America Rally” in front of the White House on 6 January 2021.
Senator Romney provided a welcome sober account of the riot on the evening of 6 January: “The best way that we can show respect for the voters who were upset is by telling them the truth! That’s the burden, that’s the duty, of leadership. The truth is that President-elect Biden won the election. President Trump lost. I’ve had that experience myself – it’s no fun.”
I can only hope that more Republicans will join him and shake loose Trump’s grip as Theoden cast off Saruman.
I lived in the United States for five years, between 2001 and 2006, and find this latest bout of strife and political violence a disconcerting and sober reminder of the fragility of liberal-democratic norms. I even take this insurrectionist strife personally, like an assault on my own nostalgia for my years there. I would not go as far as American Exceptionalists like Thomas Jefferson, who called the United States “the world’s best hope,” for self-government and liberty, or Abraham Lincoln, who deemed the United States “the last, best hope” for government of, by, and for the people. Frankly, the United States owes a far greater intellectual and institutional debt to its British antecedents than Americans would care to admit. If I can paraphrase Canadian historian Hereward Senior, the United States did not suddenly appear from nothing in 1776, and the American Revolution did not create a new society, which stretched back to the 1610s, but merely a new government; even then, the US Constitution provides a clear republican transcription of the Hanoverian constitution and the early phases of cabinet government in the United Kingdom pre-1832. But I cannot deny that the United States often sets the tone of the rest of the liberal-democratic world; the attempted insurrection of 6 January stung so hard precisely because it looked more like the violent outbursts from a generic Latin American dictatorship than the deliberations from a mature republic established nearly two and a half centuries ago.
 Richard Hofstadter, editor, “Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, 4 March 1801,” Document 10 in Great Issues in American History: From the Revolution to the Civil War, 1765-1865 (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), 187.
 Ibid., 189.
 Jeffrey L. Pasley, “A Revolution of 1800 After All: The Political Culture of the Earlier Early Republic and the Origins of American Democracy,” Presentation to the “Revolution of 1800 Conference,” Charlottesville, Virginia, 2 December 2000.
You may well say that Trump broke some of the “conventions of American government. But breaches by his opponents near the end of the Obama administration and later under his own administration, particularly actions by the senior military and the intelligence community make Trump’s breaches pale in significance. In addition in so many ways Trump attempted to restore some of the conventions that previous Presidents had broken and in many ways was in fact very much a constitutionalist. I commend to your reading “Defender In Chief: Donald Trump’s Fight for Presidential Power” by John Yoo, now Professor of Law, UC Berkeley. That said I found much of his style and manner of speech for a President most unacceptable. However, in the end one needs to judge him by what he actually did and did not do not always what he said and how he said it.
John Yoo? The Torture Memos guy? I commend anything he writes to the toilet rather than to anyone’s reading.
Good, thoughtful article. It is likely that some of the actors were “agents provocateurs”. But surely not all of them. At the end of the day, Donald Trump thoroughly disgraced his office and democracy. Because now all will figure that the 70 million who voted for him were just ignorant yahoos. This does not bode well.
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Why exactly is it supposed to be likely that anyone was an “agent provocateur”? Really, I think almost everyone who dislikes the “proud boys” et al. are quite confident in their ability to do stupid and violent things all by themselves without help, and so is unlikely to believe acting as a provocateur would be necessary.
And almost everybody who dislikes the “proud boys” et al. don’t WANT them to do things that are more violent. As far as I can see, it’s generally believed that increased violence and instability right now play into the extremist right’s game. Everyone else wants it tamped down, not ramped up.
Furthermore, if it’s the “antifa did it” schtick, it’s kind of ridiculous. Antifa are not subtle and they are not organized (in fact, they’re not even an organization). In general, their tendency is to believe in getting in the quasi-fascist right’s face with large counterprotests, maybe bashing a few fascist heads in. Their thing is to try to demonstrate that more people dislike fascism than like it (in the US, this may or may not be true, but it’s what they’re trying for). I don’t think there’s anything “antifa” that would be capable of secretly organizing some kind of agent provocateur thing even if they wanted to . . . and as I noted above, they wouldn’t want to.
I really don’t see who is supposed to be doing this or why they would.
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Unfortunately, none of those Republican politicians are a Theoden.
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The sad part is that idiots like Cruz continue to defend Trump’s treason. The thesis in the book How Democracies Die, published in 2018 is coming true
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James always says it best!
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Very estute (albeit rushed) judgement.
Consider: what if those who broke into the Capitol were masquerading ?
What if they were Anti-fascisti?
What if the swarming of the (poorly protected) gates of the USA governing Houses was a false flag attack!
What will we think in 48 hrs?
What will we think 48 hrs after Jan 20th 2021?