We Underestimated Trump Before. It Didn’t Go Well.
Sometimes, and much to our detriment, we find real events are simply too outlandish to take seriously.
Many professional Republicans, for example, initially dismissed the movement to “Stop the Steal” as a ridiculous stunt.
“What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change,” an anonymous senior Republican official told The Washington Post a few days after Joe Biden claimed victory:
Republicans went ahead and humored the president, who then urged his followers to assault the Capitol and try to void the election results in his favor.
Now, 10 months after the election, “Stop the Steal” is something like party orthodoxy, ideological fuel for a national effort to seize control of election administration and to purge those officials who secured the vote over Donald Trump’s demand to subvert it. Assuming that he is in good health, Trump will almost certainly run for president in 2024, and if he does, he’ll do so in a Republican Party pacified of any resistance to his will to power.
The upshot is that we are on our way to another election crisis. Or, as the election law expert (and frequent New York Times contributor) Rick Hasen has written in a new paper on the risk of election subversion, “The United States faces a serious risk that the 2024 presidential election, and other future U.S. elections, will not be conducted fairly, and that the candidates taking office will not reflect the free choices made by eligible voters under previously announced election rules.”
Despite the danger at hand, there doesn’t appear to be much urgency among congressional Democrats — or the remaining pro-democracy Republicans — to do anything. The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has passed a new voting rights act aimed at the wave of restrictive new election laws from Republican state legislatures, and Democrats in the Senate have introduced a bill that would establish “protections to insulate nonpartisan state and local officials who administer federal elections from undue partisan interference or control.” But as long as the Senate filibuster is in place — and as long as key Democrats want to keep it in place — there is almost no chance that the Senate will end debate on the bill and bring it to the floor for a simple majority vote.
It’s almost as if, to the people with the power to act, the prospect of a Trumpified Republican Party with the will to subvert the next presidential election and the power to do it is one of those events that just seems a little too out there. And far from provoking action, the sheer magnitude of what it would mean has induced a kind of passivity, a hope that we can solve the crisis without bringing real power to bear.
It is here that I am reminded of a previous existential threat to American democracy and how one group of Americans struggled to accept the unthinkable even as it unfolded right before their eyes.
On Nov. 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president. The plurality popular vote winner in a four-way race — the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party fielded separate candidates, Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Breckinridge, while conservative Southern unionists coalesced behind the Tennessee Senator John Bell under the Constitutional Union party — Lincoln won a solid majority of electoral votes, 180 out of a total of 303. But his was a sectional victory; not only did Lincoln not win a single Southern electoral vote, but in 10 of the 11 states that became the Confederacy there wasn’t even a Lincoln ballot to cast.
The new Republican president was also a specifically Northern president, with a coalition united by its antislavery beliefs. “The country had committed itself electorally to a party which opposed slavery, at least to the extent of agreeing with Lincoln that the institution must ‘be placed in the course of ultimate extinction,’ ” the historian David M. Potter explains in “The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848 to 1861.”
South Carolina, with its heavy concentration of enslaved people and deep-seated pro-slavery sentiment, took the first steps toward leaving the Union, passing a bill that set the date for a convention where elected delegates would debate secession. The speed of South Carolina’s action, Potter notes, “accelerated the tempo of the disunion movement in a decisive way.” In short order, the legislatures of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida announced similar conventions.
Secessionists had momentum but, as the historian Russell McClintock writes in “Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession,” “Republicans showed no anxiety about disunion before the election and remarkably little after it.” Lincoln’s first concern, after celebrating his victory, was cabinet selection and the question of patronage since, as McClintock explains, “the individuals Lincoln chose as his advisers would strongly suggest which way he was leaning in his attitude toward the gathering storm in the South and would have great influence over his policy.”
Republican-aligned newspapers were nonplused by events in the South. “South Carolina may fume and fulminate, and call conventions and pass resolutions till the crack of doom,” wrote one correspondent in The Chicago Tribune, but “up to this writing nobody is scared that we know of.”
Similarly, wrote a like-minded Boston editor, “Almost the only topic of political interest just now, is the rumored insane attempt of a few hotheaded fanatics, to induce the people of a few slave states to secede from the American Union. There is in this nothing new, unexpected, or alarming.”
After all, pro-slavery ideologues had threatened disunion in response to policy and political defeats for decades. If the South did not act before, why would it act now?
In fact, many Republicans believed the South needed the Union to maintain slavery. In “The Republic in Crisis, 1848-1861,” the historian John Ashworth summarized the Republican view. “How would slave insurrections be put down without federal forces? How could the slaveholders secure the loyalty of the nonslaveholding whites in their own localities?” And, most important, “How could the slaveholders cater to the economic ambitions of the nonslaveholding whites, who because of the inadequacies of the slave system were denied any real economic opportunity?”
In short, there was no way the slaveholding South could sustain itself on its own.
There was also, for Republicans, the matter of sectional pride. In the past, threats of disunion were part of a Kabuki theater of negotiations. Here’s McClintock: “Southerners demanded political advantages, Northerners balked, Southerners threatened to secede, and Northern Democrats gave in and voted with the Southerners.” The Republicans who scoffed at this latest threat of secession were saying, in essence, that the North would no longer play this game. “Since this is not the first time such cries are heard, — since, indeed, they have been long-sounding in our ears, so that their exact value is perfectly understood from the very beginning, — there seems no longer excuse or apology for hearkening to them,” the staunchly antislavery Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts said. “They are to be treated as threats, and nothing more.”
Unfortunately for Sumner and the Republicans, their confidence was misplaced. Yes, there were Southern unionists, and yes, there were serious political tensions within the seceding states. But the secessionists had the initiative, and within 90 days of Lincoln’s election they had, as Potter writes, “won ten legislative decisions to hold elections for state conventions, held seven such elections, gained majorities in each, assembled seven conventions, voted seven ordinances of secession, and also took the first steps toward formation of a southern confederacy.”
When Republicans finally turned to face the crisis, in December, there were few options at hand. Lincoln would not hold take office for another three months, Congress had just come back into session, and the outgoing Buchanan administration was divided and in disarray, beset by resignations as some members — like Howell Cobb, of Georgia, the secretary of the Treasury — stood with their states and others stood with the Union.
There was obviously no appetite, among Republicans, for disunion. There was also no appetite for compromise, even as a few lawmakers — led by John Crittenden of Kentucky, a Whig — tried to forge one last agreement to satisfy the sections and secure the Union. His proposal, a set of constitutional amendments and congressional resolutions, would have shielded slavery from federal power and congressional interference, reinstating the Missouri Compromise by writing it into the Constitution itself.
Republicans were not interested. For the last decade, the Northern lawmakers had made concessions to the South. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was one, Whig support for James Buchanan over the Republican John C. Fremont in the 1856 election was another. “From the standpoint of a sincere Unionist,” Potter writes, “there was something self-defeating about getting the Union temporarily past a crisis by making concessions which strengthened the disunionist faction and perpetuated the tendency toward periodic crises.”
The only option left was confrontation, and when Lincoln finally took the reins of state on March 4, 1861, he made it clear that this was the path he would take. “I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual,” Lincoln famously said in his first inaugural address:
I am not making a direct analogy between the Civil War era and current American politics. There is nothing, yet, that divides us as starkly as slavery did in the 1840s and 1850s. Nor is the crisis of democratic integrity as acute now as it was during the secession crisis. But the value of studying history is that we can see how previous generations of Americans faced the challenges of their time. No one knows, in the moment, how the story ends, and we can use that insight to try to understand the options available to our forbears as they lived through their present.
Republicans had good reason to ignore threats of secession. But they also had reason to heed them. With Lincoln’s election, the slave-owning South had lost its almost total grip on federal power. Sectional tensions had never been stressed in this way before, and Southern panic was palpable. Republicans could not have stopped secession, but they might have been able to better prepare for whatever confrontation lay on the horizon.
It is impossible to say where we stand in relation to our own crisis. Perhaps the worst is yet to come; perhaps we’ve already sailed through. Either way, we should secure our elections against whatever threat might materialize because if there is anything our history tells us, it’s that everything looks settled until one day it isn’t.
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