The Founders of our nation often worried that political affairs would be governed by passion and emotion, not reason. Their concerns were well placed, as we learned on January 6, 2021.
After months of telling the Big Lie, that he had won the 2020 presidential election “in a landslide,” President Donald. J. Trump whipped his supporters into a frenzy on January 6, the day the Congress was counting the electoral college vote and declaring Joe Biden the winner. His speech was preceded by that of Rudy Giuliani, who called for “trial by combat” and Donald Trump Jr, who warned opponents that “We are coming for you.” The president then told the crowd that “we’re going to have to fight much harder” to overturn the results of an election he clearly lost. He even threatened Vice President Mike Pence, who refused to go along with Trump’s plan to reject the electoral vote of certain states that had voted for Joe Biden. “If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election”, he said during the speech. As Republican House member Liz Cheney later said “The president incited the riot… He lit the flame.”
He did indeed. By the time the crowd arrived at the Capitol, they were an angry mob, ready to lead a coup d’etat against a co-equal branch of government. Using battering rams and flagpoles, they broke down the doors of the Capitol and broke windows to get in. The understaffed Capitol police were unable to stop them. Once inside, they began to chant “Hang Mike Pence.” Thank God they did not find him, or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose office was ransacked. Both were taken away by Capitol police. Other Representatives were trapped in the gallery and forced to wear gas masks. One policeman was chased and then beaten with a flap pole from which the American flag hung. All told, five people died.
It was a clear example of the danger that anger, and raw emotions can play in the political arena. Our founders always feared that America’s experiment in self-government could devolve into mob rule, instigated by a demagogue. On January 6, we saw it happen before our eyes.
Many of the founders thought that self-government was dependent on the virtue of the people. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, John Adams wrote that “Public virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private (virtue), and public virtue is the only foundation of Republics. There must be a positive passion for the public good, public interest…established in the minds of the people, or there can be no Republican government, nor any real liberty: and the public passion must be superior to all private passions.” Private virtue meant the ability to act in a moral way while public virtue meant a willingness to voluntarily sacrifice individual interests for those of the greater good. James Madison also thought virtue was needed for self-government to work. As he said at the Virginia ratifying convention for the Constitution: “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks, no form of government, can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.”
Yet the founders were also realists and understood that the people can all too easily be misled or pursue their own selfish interests to the exclusion of the public good. That was why they shied away from the use of the word democracy. Many of them equated democracy with mob rule, so they instead referred to the new government they were establishing as a republic. As Madison indicated in Federalist No. 10, a republic was one in which “the scheme of representation takes place.” In a republic, the people would elect representatives who could act in a more reasoned manner and cool the passions of the public. Our entire Constitutional structure was designed to do implement what the legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen has referred to as “the cooling mechanisms” designed by Madison “to slow down the formation of impetuous majorities.” We are all familiar with these: a bi-cameral legislature in which the people initially only voted for one branch; an executive indirectly elected; a court system intended to protect the rule of law; a distribution of power between the states and the federal government. Though we have amended many of these features through the years, we still refer to them as a system of checks and balances.
The cooling mechanisms have failed us in the face of a demagogue who is willing to not only ignore the norms of democratic government but even the rule of law itself. He was enabled and abetted in this effort by the Republican Party. “For four years, Trump’s party had submitted to a Faustian bargain,” Time Magazine recently wrote. In order to obtain power and advance their agenda, they ignored “Trump’s authoritarian tendencies,” and have reaped what they have sown, losing both power and principles.
We should have seen it coming, given the hyper partisan atmosphere that surrounds our politics. George Washington, no stranger to partisan warfare, warned us in his Farewell Address. He understood that political parties were “inseparable from our nature” and that they have existed “under different shapes in all governments.” The danger was when parties, led by “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men” pursue despotism. “The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual…[who] turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation…”
Over the past four years, we have had numerous warnings of Trump’s autocratic tendencies. James Traub, who authored a fine biography of John Quincy Adams, wrote presciently in 2016 how the president can turn a crowd into a mob. “Today, In Donald J. Trump, we have a genuine impresario of the mob—an instrument of the crowd who feels its resentments, its impatience, its distrust, and returns them all in slogans, epithets and witless taunts.” Jeffrey Rosen wrote in 2018 that “Madison’s worst fears of mob rule have been realized” and that “we are living…in a Madisonian nightmare.”
In the short term, the answer to the problem of mob violence seems direct. The perpetrators are currently being arrested and charged with various crimes. Yet they cannot be the only ones who pay a price. As I write this, the House of Representatives has impeached Trump on a bi-partisan vote. It awaits an uncertain future in the Senate, although Senator McConnell has indicated an openness for removal, especially given Trump’s attack on the Capitol and his contribution to the loss of the Senate by the Republicans. As for other politicians who aided and abetted Trump’s actions, including 121 House members and six Senators that objected to certain state electoral vote counts, time will tell what their punishment will be.
There is also a longer-term issue of how to deal with Trump’s most ardent supporters, those who have marinated in extreme media and only believe what he tells them. Trumpism may indeed survive Donald Trump. As the Organization of American Historians recently wrote, there is “a direct line from post-Civil War era white supremacist and Lost Cause rhetoric, symbolism, and distortion of the historical record to today… The mob at the Capitol included overt white supremacists who reject the possibility of a multiracial democracy.” As I wrote on the pages of the History New Network back in 2019, we have been engaged in a debate over who can be an American since our earliest days. So many of Trump’s supporters are adherents to the politics of white grievance and white supremacy. Perhaps this group is irredeemable.
We are living in an era where people refuse to believe inconvenient facts. A democratic republic cannot long survive in such an environment. We will always have disagreements and these are necessary. That is why in a democratic society we need strong political parties, both on the left and the right, that represent differing points of view. We also need to be able to argue from a common set of facts and without demonizing those who disagree with us.
It is hard to see how we get out of this. Perhaps we again need to look back to our history. Thomas Jefferson, the main adherent of a major role for common white men in politics, thought education was the key. “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy [is] to inform their discretion by education.” Abraham Lincoln once wrote that education was “the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in” so people can “duly appreciate the value of our free institutions.”
In recent years, history and civics education has often taken a backseat to math and science, yet it may hold part of the key to equip people “with the knowledge, skills, and disposition necessary to become informed and engaged citizens,” as Sarah Shapiro and Catherine Brown have written. Yet schools can only do so much, as my wife and retired teacher likes to remind me. If students don’t listen, if their homelife does not support the need for civic engagement, then even more attention to the subject won’t help. This is especially true in an age when so much misinformation is spread through the internet and social networks. We may need a more comprehensive solution, something akin to what the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship has recommended. They call for the establishment of a “National Trust for Civic infrastructure to scale up social, civic and democratic” institutions in order to help us “develop a sense of common purpose.” This may indeed be the work of a generation, and historians could play an important role.
About Donald J. Fraser
Donald J. Fraser has spent a lifetime working in a variety of capacities in government. Fraser holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in public policy and administration and currently teaches history through U.C. Davis’s Osher Center. He is a regular contributor to the History New Network and the author of The Emergence of One American Nation and the The Growth and Collapse of One American Nation.