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The U.S. Has Weathered Crises Before. Here’s Why Jan. 6 Was Different.

The nation survived the burning of the Capitol by the British in 1814, the Civil War and the corruption of Richard Nixon. But with most Republicans siding with Trump and the insurrectionists, we face a threat to democracy unlike any other.

Supporters of former President Donald Trump attack the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
One year ago, insurrectionists stormed the United States Capitol, intending to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. While the insurrection failed, the long-term consequences of that day continue to threaten American democracy unlike any other crisis in the nation’s history.

In August 1814, British forces marched on Washington, D.C., and set fire to the Executive Mansion, the Capitol and other government buildings in retaliation for the American burning of York the year prior. While the War of 1812 might be the most obvious comparison, the crisis was short-lived. The British left the city after wreaking havoc and were defeated in Baltimore, Md., a few weeks later. When the Treaty of Ghent ended the war at the end of the year, President James Madison claimed a moral victory. But American independence or democracy was never really in peril, with the British mostly focused on the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. The government buildings were eventually rebuilt, and Americans celebrated the victory as the second war of independence.

The Civil War posed a much more serious threat to the survival of the nation. After Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election in 1860, seven southern states seceded before his inauguration. The southern states broke away because they accepted the outcome of the election and worried Lincoln would undermine slavery in the South. After the states formed the Confederacy, most southern senators and representatives resigned, leaving Congress squarely in Republican control. Secessionists were not seated in Congress, so they did not undermine the war effort from within. Instead, Republicans could pass measures designed to support the war effort and boost democracy, including the 13th and 14th Amendments. To be sure, the nation was at war with itself. But the nature of the war was not over whether to destroy American democracy, but whether states could secede from the union.

Over 100 years after the end of the Civil War, the nation was once again rocked by a scandal centered around the presidency. In June 1972, robbers broke into Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. After the perpetrators were arrested, the Department of Justice found cash that connected their efforts to the Richard Nixon re-election campaign committee. After the House of Representatives and the Senate created special committees to investigate the administration’s cover-up of the crimes. In the summer of 1974, the White House turned over tapes of Oval Office conversations that revealed the president’s complicity in the cover-up. On Aug. 8, President Nixon resigned the presidency.

While the Watergate scandal revealed widespread corruption and criminal wrongdoing across the executive branch, the crimes didn’t actually undermine the election. Nixon won re-election in 1972 by a wide margin with little evidence of fraud. Two years later, when Congress uncovered evidence of Nixon’s participation in the conspiracy, his closest supporters in the Republican Party, including Senators Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott, put the nation over party loyalty. They pressured the president to resign and threatened to vote for his impeachment if he remained in office. Finally, with widespread bipartisan support, Congress passed a series of reforms designed to prevent a reoccurrence of corruption on the scale of Watergate.

The ramifications of Jan. 6 present a threat that surpasses these three crises. Free and fair elections are at the heart of American democracy. Any attempt to sabotage the sanctity of the election undermines the heart of the republic. Unlike the War of 1812, the enemy from 2021 has not retreated across the Atlantic Ocean. While the nation has not declared war on a rebellious faction like the Civil War, a solid minority remains dedicated to tearing down the foundations of our democracy. Recent polls suggest that 52 percent of Republicans believe the insurgents were “protecting democracy” and 71 percent of Republicans believe Donald Trump won the 2020 election. The Cobb County GOP is holding a vigil on the one-year anniversary of the insurrection to celebrate the insurrectionists.

Unlike 1861, when most southerners fled Washington, D.C., supporters of the insurrection retain their positions in Congress and state governments. Most Republicans refused to support a bipartisan committee to investigate the insurrection and representatives, including Jim Jordan and Scott Perry, who have stonewalled attempts to gather intelligence. Twenty-one Republicans voted against a measure to award the Congressional Medal of Honor to the Capitol Police who fought to save the lives of the very same representatives and senators.

Whereas Republicans cut ties with Nixon in 1974 when faced with overwhelming evidence of his criminality, most Republicans in Congress have doubled down on their support for former President Trump. They continue to prevent the passage of legislation that would bolster the electoral system against future insurrections. Additionally, their compatriots in the state governments have passed bills that make it easier for partisan forces to overturn election results.

Earlier this week, Rep. Liz Cheney said that Republicans can remain loyal to the Constitution or to Trump, but not both. While most Republicans side with Trump and the insurrectionists, the nation remains in grave danger. Only time will tell whether a divided nation can overcome this crisis as it has before.

You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour. He is also a frequent contributor to the Governing podcast, The Future in Context. Clay’s most recent book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.
Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky is an expert in the cabinet, presidential history, and U.S. government institutions. She can be found on Twitter at @lmchervinsky.
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