Last month, I took a walk out to Gettysburg National Cemetery. While I generally prefer the less travelled parts of the battlefield, that day I wanted to pay my respects to the men buried in the cemetery and reflect on the origins of the war that cost them their lives. Although the sectional crisis of 1860 had deep roots, it was not until after the election of Abraham Lincoln that Southern states chose to secede. Their decision was not prompted by any action undertaken by Lincoln. It was the mere indignity that he had won and the threat he posed to their racial order that caused them to plunge the country into bloody civil war.
What brought me out to the cemetery that day was anger: my anger at the Texas lawsuit at the Supreme Court, backed by my own elected representatives, which sought to nullify my vote as a Pennsylvanian. Looking at row after row of graves, I was reminded of the cost of only accepting the outcome of an electoral process when your side wins.
Then, last week, I didn’t have to visit the cemetery to be reminded of the cost. We watched it play out live.
The attack was the culmination of two months of lies and litigation by Trump to undermine the election results. His effort was more a publicity stunt than a legal strategy, meant to convince his supporters that the election remained “contested,” though that was only true in the sense he sought to contest reality. Since the election, state and federal judges have rejected over 60 lawsuits from Trump and his allies, both on the basis of merit and jurisdiction. His claims have been frighteningly effective in the conservative mediasphere and the GOP, but in court you still need evidence to win. Perhaps the kraken, a mythical creature famous for its defeat, was not the best mascot to choose—although it turned out to be an appropriate one.
As it became clear that the courts would not overturn the election, however, right-wing public figures began to use more dangerous language to rile supporters.
Texas GOP Chairman Allen West put out a statement that suggested “law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the constitution,” then explained he meant actually blue states should leave. Rush Limbaugh raised the idea of secession on his radio show, then backtracked to clarify he meant other people were talking about it. Others, including formerly indicted Trump official Michael Flynn, called for martial law to force a re-run of the election. His claim was taken so seriously in the White House that the Army secretary and chief of staff issued a joint statement affirming that there “is no role for the US military in determining the outcome of an American election.”
At the time, these statements seemed like cynical attempts to feed fears and rage, at least in part to maintain political momentum and to keep audiences coming back for more. But Republicans always knew they were playing with fire. Last month, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-PA) told the New York Times she signed a letter urging Pennsylvania’s US representatives to contest the Electoral College results because of pressure from her constituents. “If I would say to you, ‘I don’t want to do it,’” she said, “I’d get my house bombed tonight.” So instead of defusing the bomb, Ward threw it at the US Capitol.
None of this should be surprising. National security experts have warned for years about the surge of white nationalism and other forms of right-wing extremism. There is a direct line leading from Pizzagate, Charlottesville, and the armed invasion of Gettysburg to what happened at the Capitol. Disinformation and dangerous rhetoric have fueled a so-called patriot movement convinced that violence is the only thing that can coerce America to be the country they want it to be. And if it takes civil war, so be it.
Here in Gettysburg, though, we know the cost of civil war. We know how poorly the romanticized myths map onto the brutal reality. And we know how different 2020 is from 1861.
Although it’s tempting to view this as a sectional crisis—red states versus blue states—our divides do not cut evenly along state lines (not that they did perfectly in 1861, either). In every state that voted for Trump, there are dense enclaves of liberal voters, mostly in metropolitan areas like Omaha, which cast its electoral vote for Biden. In the bluest of states, there are vast rural regions that will continue to consider themselves Trump country, from upstate New York to eastern Oregon.
The reality is that our divisions are too messy for a clean break. And frankly, we need each other for economic and security reasons even if we hate to admit it. So where does that leave us when one party refuses to accept the results of a presidential election and some of its members are willing to enact a violent insurrection to prevent the transition of power?
For starters, we will probably continue to see a surge in extremist violence among those who buy into the lies. We’ll also see official attempts to disenfranchise voters justified as “restoring confidence” in elections people only have confidence in when they win. Both will be crippling to American democracy, especially when compounded by the ongoing pandemic, the economic crisis, and external threats looking to exploit the chaos.
What can we as citizens do? We can start by tending our own backyards. That’s the idea behind a program I participated in this fall called Uniting for Action, which brought together folks from urban and rural Pennsylvania communities to collaborate on projects to improve our state. The conversations weren’t always comfortable, but they were happening, and social ties are one of the few tools we have to fight radicalization.
To be clear, I don’t believe we should approach the last four years with a mentality of forgive and forget. “Unity” does not require us to make common cause with Trump or his followers who invaded the Capitol with guns and zip ties and shouted “Hang Mike Pence” while attacking police officers. The healing process must be long and deliberate. It must be based on justice, not just for the crimes of the last four years, but the wrongs perpetrated throughout American history. They are part of what led us to this moment.
Confronting our past to redeem America will be a struggle, but I think we’ve already taken the first step: voting out the most dangerous president ever elected.