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Trump's Second Impeachment and the Lessons of History

The attack on Congress has led to impeachment and increased security in Washington and state capitols. Governing spoke with historian Jonathan Earle about political violence in the nation's past.

Members of the National Guard walking past the front of the U.S. Capitol building.
Members of the National Guard arrive on Capitol Hill during the Impeachment debate and vote in Washington on January 13, 2021. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
Donald Trump is the first president in American history to be impeached twice. House Democrats, along with 10 Republicans, believed his actions in gathering and encouraging the mob that attacked Congress on Jan. 6 deserved the strongest remedy available under the Constitution.

In recent days, rhetoric has run hot, with Democrats accusing the president of treason and his followers of insurrection. Congressional Republicans, for the most part, have wanted to turn the page, calling for “unity” and complaining that Democrats rushed the impeachment process and turned it into a political weapon.

Although there’s been a lot of commentary in recent days that these events are unprecedented, many of the themes now convulsing the nation are not new. The actual attack on the Capitol may have no exact analogue, but there’s been violence in American politics before — as well as efforts to move quickly past division in hopes of minimizing guilt.

To get a sense of how much the current moment is rhyming with the historical past, Governing spoke with Jonathan Earle, an expert on the antebellum, or pre-Civil War, period. The dean of the Ogden Honors College at Louisiana State University, Earle is the author or editor of several books, including Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border and Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854.

An edited transcript of our conversation follows:

Governing: One moment that has come to mind lately is Lincoln’s inauguration and the danger he faced there and even traveling to D.C. Can you compare the atmosphere today with the mood back then?

Earle: In that secession winter, President Lincoln’s life was in danger. Having to lock down a train and take diversionary tactics traveling through Baltimore, it was quite dangerous for him. We know how it ended for President Lincoln, and there were other assassination attempts during his presidency.

Until last Wednesday, I would have said the only time in our nation’s history when things were this tense and violence-prone in the Capitol building was the 1850s. This was an attack on our form of government in the building where we practice it. The pictures we’re seeing today of soldiers turning the Capitol and other federal buildings into literal barracks are jarring. 

What sort of violence preceded the Civil War itself? 

There’s a really great book that came out a couple of years ago from Joanne Freeman, a Yale historian, called The Field of Blood. She found 70 different instances in the decade before the Civil War of physical violence in the Capitol. Everybody knows about the caning of Charles Sumner in 1856, but there’s more than that, including a melee on the House floor

That’s why historians like me are talking about divisions and how political strife can morph into physical violence. If you study that period in history, you can see how arguments can turn into distrust and physical violence.

While Democrats are employing language from the Civil War — sedition, treason, insurrection — the pro-Trump rioters have wrapped themselves in the mantle of the Revolutionary War, comparing Jan. 6 to 1776. Why does that particular period have such a hold on their imagination?

I do think since the Tea Party movement started a decade ago, there’s been a fascination on the right wing, not just among extremists, that there is a language and ways to act from the 18th century that are applicable now. 

There are so many misquotations, but Jefferson did say, “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” There is a sense, even though he didn’t say it in 1776, that that’s what 1776 meant. The “don’t tread on me” imagery, the fact that they were chanting “1776” as they broke into the Capitol — that period of history has a hold on the imagination of right-wing extremists.

Yale historian David Blight and others have drawn comparisons recently to the Lost Cause, the mythology the South employed to erase its sins during slavery and Jim Crow. Talk about that effort and whether Trump will remain a rallying point as a political martyr, particularly after this second impeachment.

I think there are two ways to look at what happened on Jan. 6. One is that it’s the culmination of a longstanding big lie that Trump was treated badly, to use his words, and was robbed of his rightful landslide.

You can also look at it as the beginning — and this is what I’m really terrified about, that there’s more to come. There is a planned demonstration of the woman who was shot going through the window at the Capitol. That’s what you can really make a new Lost Cause out of, that patriots rose up to stop the theft of the government.

When I hear people say that we should just have unity now and move forward, that’s exactly what we did in 1877. The Republicans got a presidency that they probably didn’t legitimately win and the South got the end of Reconstruction. That’s when you can begin to step-by-step build an alternative history, that martyred southerners were protecting their homes from avaricious northerners. There was an agreement in 1877 to sacrifice Black political participation and civic participation in order to have reconciliation among white people.

Reconstruction involved violent attacks on politicians. What does it portend that members of Congress are saying they might have voted for impeachment but couldn’t out of fear for their own safety and their families’ safety?

I do think that there’s real peril in voting for both sides of the impeachment. People are in danger in MAGA-land if they vote against the president. Imagine what would have happened if the mob had found Mike Pence or Nancy Pelosi or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It could very easily have become a kidnapping event, a torturing event or even a murdering event. 

There have been many historical comparisons over the past year, with 2020 said to be a combination of 1918 (the Spanish flu), 1929 (the Great Depression) and 1968 (civil unrest). Yet people keep saying that the assault on Congress was unprecedented, even though we’ve seen coups and related events take place repeatedly around the world. Is there a reason Americans tend to think only in terms of our own history as a way of framing the present?

One of the bedrocks in talking about Tea Party ideology is the idea of extreme American exceptionalism. I don’t know of any historian who will say that we can’t have political violence here because our democracy is so balanced and perfect.

In the 1950s, there was a school known as consensus history, the idea that our political strife is solved in the public square and we don’t have putsches and stormings of the capitol, that that doesn’t happen here. But it has happened.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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