Historian Heather Cox Richardson, among others, has compared the current state of political affairs in the United States to the 1850s, just before the Civil War. Ms. Richardson also made a comparison to the immediate decades after, when the traitors who formed the Confederacy faced almost no consequences for committing treason and starting a war. In her opinion, this led directly to the violence and terror used to maintain their political power in the South from the end of Reconstruction through to the Civil Rights Act.
I think this is a compelling argument, and it’s easy to see the parallels between the refusal to hold political leaders accountable then and the refusal to do so now. There is zero question that members of Congress, political appointees throughout the federal government, and the former President himself knew that violence was going to occur on Jan. 6. They invited the rioters to the Capitol for that specific purpose.
While there have been many arrests of people who stormed the Capitol that day, all of law enforcement’s efforts so far have fallen on the little people – the ones who stormed the Capitol – instead of the people who helped plan and incite the attack. Those people? They get to show up to work at Congress and in government every day as if nothing happened.
Maybe law enforcement will get around to holding the people at the top accountable eventually, but it seems unlikely. Perhaps it’s not feasible to put those people in prison; as my father once said, even if former President Trump was arrested, what prison could you realistically put a former president in?
But accountability can take many forms: disqualification from running for office again, civil penalties, even simply public shaming and ostracizing. Yet bad actors always return, always find some talking-head position on a cable news network, always get a job at a college or think tank and end up right back in the political mix. In fact, everyone seems resigned to the fact Trump is going to run again in 2024, despite the fact that he arguably committed treason.
It’s that last point that makes me favor a different political comparison than the one Ms. Richardson uses. It seems to me that we’ve witnessed the American equivalent of the Beer Hall Putsch, Adolf Hitler’s first attempt at coming to power in Germany (I know, I know, Godwin’s Law, but follow me on this one). Essentially, Hitler and several allies attempted to overthrow the German government by force. They were defeated and eventually arrested, tried and convicted of treason, and sent to prison. Hitler himself was given a five-year prison sentence, but he was released after eight months. The rest, as they say, is history.
There was almost no actual consequence for his actions. He was still able to run for political office afterward, and eventually be appointed chancellor of Germany. Again, he was convicted of treason. The lesson that Hitler learned was that it was more effective to seize power through democratic means, then to solidify his hold through force.
We are seeing that same strategy play out right now across the United States, as state legislatures use democratic means to deny the vote to people across the country, and in the most extreme cases, allow local officials to simply overturn results they don’t agree with. Most damning though is our inability to prevent a President who encouraged violence against the government from becoming president again.
Trump may or may not win again in 2024, but all the people who supported his coup attempt will still be around then because no one seems ready or willing to punish them for what they’ve done. There are several lessons from the past that show us the catastrophic results of allowing these kinds of people off the hook. We seem unwilling to learn from any of them.