For nearly two and a half centuries, Americans have grown all too complacent about the peaceful transfer of power every four or eight years, priding themselves on having a “government of laws and not of men,” as Gerald Ford memorably said after he took the oath of office following President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
But it wasn’t until Wednesday’s astonishingly violent assault on the U.S. Capitol building, incited by the recalcitrant and delusional President Donald Trump, that many Americans realized how thin a thread the Constitution hangs on: the grace and integrity of the person in the Oval Office.
Indeed, a great deal of what has made American democracy work hasn’t been the Constitution per se, but the good luck and sense Americans have had to put such people in office—starting with George Washington, who by himself started the tradition of limiting presidents to two terms. And John Adams, the first occupant of the White House, who was all too aware of the fragility of the young republic and feared demagogues. Soon after he moved in Adams wrote a letter to his wife, asking the blessings of heaven and saying: “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.” His prayer was later inscribed on a fireplace mantle in the White House.
Or consider even Nixon, thought to be one of the most corrupt presidents, who as vice president graciously presided over the certification of John F. Kennedy’s victory over him in 1960, even though Nixon knew that Kennedy’s razor-thin win had possibly come about through fraud. Nixon declined to ask for a recount—though he could have—and in a brief speech said the election was an “eloquent example of the stability of our constitutional system.” Then-Vice President Al Gore did something similar in 2000, even though he had won the popular vote and was victim of a much-criticized Supreme Court decision, telling his supporters to accept President George W. Bush and declaring that their “disappointment must be overcome by our love of country.”
Peaceful presidencies and transitions, in other words, have worked mainly not because of words on parchment but because of the quality of people called upon to enact them and observe constitutional rules. Part of it has been pure luck: the selection of people of good will. The almost heaven-sent good fortune to have men like Abraham Lincoln in place before the Civil War, Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Depression and World War II, and Kennedy managing the Cuban missile crisis. As the 19th-century German statesman Otto von Bismarck is said to have once remarked: “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.”
But that’s the thing about luck: Eventually you run out of it. In Trump, Americans elected a pathological narcissist whose worst qualities—though they were often in evidence during his four years—are coming out in the most dramatic way in the final days of his presidency. Utterly without evidence of fraud, Trump relaunched his movement to delegitimize the election by calling on protesters to march Wednesday even as Vice President Mike Pence was doing his constitutional duty of overseeing the electoral count, including dealing with other falsely made objections by a number of Republican senators and representatives.
A lot of Trump supporters—he won 74 million votes—were upset, but few Americans thought things would come to such an unprecedented place.
This American complacency was fully on display on Wednesday, when after Pence disappointed Trump by saying he would not interfere in the counting of electoral votes—thus ensuring Joe Biden’s certification as president—a mob of thousands stormed the Capitol, breaking windows, forcing police to draw weapons, and virtually taking control of the building. The small contingent of Capitol Police, who had never faced anything like it before, were overwhelmed by what amounted to the first direct attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812. Pence and members of Congress were evacuated, and rioters invaded Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and the House chamber. Many people were injured, and one woman was shot dead. Three other people were also said to be dead as Washington remained under curfew.
All of it began at a rally near the White House, when Trump encouraged protesters to go to the Capitol and support the objecting members of Congress. Later he further incited the uprising by tweeting that Pence “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.”
And even after the violence raged out of control, Trump combined a call to “stay peaceful” with repeated claims that the election was fraudulent and he’d won in “a landslide,” and he told the rioters: “We love you, you’re very special.”
All of this was ample demonstration that just as it’s up to the president of the United States to uphold the Constitution—as he swears to do—he can also do terrible damage to it, if he wants. Especially when it comes to insurrection. Under any other president, federal National Guard would have been swiftly called in and “no one would have gotten close to the Capitol,” said Michael Greenberger, a former federal official and a law professor at the University of Maryland.
Some lawyers believe that Trump is now vulnerable to indictment for inciting insurrection and may have to try to pardon himself. Both houses of Congress resumed the process of certifying Biden later Wednesday night and Thursday morning, and Trump appeared to have even fewer Republicans on his side after the violence. “They tried to disrupt our democracy. They failed,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, an erstwhile ally of the president who opposes the Trump-led objections to the vote certification. “They failed to attempt to obstruct Congress. This failed insurrection only underscores how crucial the task before us is, for our republic.”
The threat of insurrection appeared to alarm some others in the Republican Party, turning them against Trump. “Since George Washington’s presidency insurrections have been put down by the president, who is constitutionally and statutorily empowered to use all of the federal military and law enforcement power to take charge of a response to an insurrection,” Greenberger said.
“What was never since the founding of the Republic contemplated was that the president would inspire the insurrection and have no real interest in putting it down. It is a national historical first.”
And Americans can no longer be so complacent.
Jan. 6: This article has been updated with resumption of the congressional debate.