The planned spectacle Wednesday by fevered congressional Republicans to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory is not mere political theater. It is a low point in American history. What comes next — the dangers warned about in a Pennsylvania voting line last year — is the stuff of national nightmares.
The refusal by President Donald Trump and his zealous base to accept the legitimacy of Biden’s win echoes one of our darkest moments as a nation. Voters in Southern states similarly resisted Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential win. States began to secede in the weeks after Election Day and before Lincoln’s March 1861 inauguration. By April, the Civil War broke out. An estimated 750,000 deaths would follow.
Even if the U.S. senators and representatives pledging to challenge Biden’s election are unsuccessful, the damage will be profound. It will mark the culmination of Trump’s four-year campaign of lies and propaganda. His most loyal followers now believe that up is down and down is up.
Because of that, Americans are at each other’s throats. Potential violence — and worse — is now no longer just an abstract fear.
“I’ve been worried for four years. I’ve been especially worried since the last three or four months,” St. Joseph’s University history professor Randall Miller told me Tuesday by phone. “I’ll be honest with you. I weep for my country. That’s how worried I am. I weep for my country.”
I felt the same grief on election night while writing from politically blood-red Lancaster County.
Passionate Trump followers had stood in line at a polling place in Manheim — a place I had chosen because of its deeply conservative, rural politics — and told me there would be an armed insurrection among Trump-loving gun owners if Biden were to prevail.
Reports this week out of Washington about the GOP coup effort, such as one published by Peter Nicholas of The Atlantic, captured a sense of menace in the nation’s capital ahead of the joint session of Congress at which Trumpsters would seek to block certification of Biden’s win.
Boarded-up buildings near the White House “in anticipation of street violence,” Nicholas noted of the scene. Monuments, he continued, “choked with fencing.”
The blood lust among Trump’s base is what frightens most. His millions have feasted on the president’s us-against-them diet of lies and incendiary division along racial, demographic, religious, and geographic fault lines. Straight out of the manipulative autocrat playbook I’d studied in college.
The most imminently harmful lie: Trump’s baseless fantasy that Biden’s win was fraudulent. It’s also the most intoxicating among his base.
“If Biden gets in,” said a man I approached in a poll line outside the Penn Township Municipal Building on Election Day. “It’s a good thing they’re calling in the National Guard,” he continued after a pause, “because there will be some very unhappy people. Things are gonna explode.”
“I’m not gonna be one of the ones rioting,” the man explained. Trump-loving gun owners would be the ones who rise up, he warned. “I just see the writing on the wall. It’s gonna explode.”
A voter behind him — an apparent stranger — interrupted to say he agreed fully with “everything” the man was telling me.
Voters like these turned out in such huge numbers that GOP members of state and federal legislative bodies are scared out of their wits.
If they don’t get on the Trump Train, they fear being ousted in the next primary by a Republican challenger who more fully embraces the cult.
A meager two Republicans have emerged as notably heroic figures: Philadelphia City Commissioner and elections overseer Al Schmidt, and fellow GOP Man of Honor Brad Raffensperger, who as Georgia secretary of state released a taped conversation in which Trump tried to coerce Georgia officials to “find” enough Trump votes to reverse Biden’s win there.
The same toxic madness unfolded before the Civil War. White Southerners were the Trump voters of their time, only their issue was slavery and that Lincoln, the Northerner they did not want to win, had won the presidency.
They refused to accept the outcome of the election even though they had freely participated in it. Their remedy proved catastrophic.
“They left the Union,” Miller said, “and were willing to engage in a civil war in order to have their way.”
Even after they lost the war, Miller said, white Southerners continued to attack and intimidate anyone who did not wholly support the continued denial of equal rights to Blacks.
“This became normative,” Miller said. “This was more than acceptable; it was expected by large numbers of people. And it worked. It worked to ... effectively deny a Black vote through force and intimidation. What you see today are sophisticated efforts to do the same kind of thing.”
No wonder so many Pennsylvania Republican congressmen have joined Sens. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and other GOP’ers in the Senate to object to certification this week. There is long-term career growth on the caboose of Trump’s Crazy Train.
How does this go away?
Miller, a scintillating lecturer and prolific author who is seldom at a loss for words, lost his tongue when I asked that question.
“I don’t know,” he said.