Wednesday, in a craven last-ditch effort to prove their loyalty to President Donald Trump, a contingent of Republicans from both houses of Congress objected to the ministerial, almost purely ceremonial counting of electoral college votes – their wooden performance quickly outdone by a pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol in a violent scene most Americans never thought they’d see in their country.
It’s a meltdown that came about in part because of blind allegiance to Trump; in part because of blind allegiance to the Republican Party, rather than adherence to principle; and because – in the span of a few years – allegiance to Trump became the GOP’s only real litmus test.
George Washington warned us that this could happen.
Our nation’s first president wanted to unite Americans, and he believed political factions and parties were antithetical to that goal. He was the only president to avoid claiming one. The Constitution, of which he was the first signer, doesn’t require the formation of parties; if anything, it suggests that working with one’s political rivals is part of the deal of American democracy: Until 1804, the president was assigned a vice president by the electorate. Even if the runner-up was opposed to every single one of the winner’s policies, he was automatically first in the presidential line of succession. That meant that President George Washington was stuck with Vice President John Adams, who seemed to think their first order of business was figuring out formalities, arguing in New York, the first seat of government, that the nation’s highest executive should be called “His Highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of the Rights of the same.” Washington, who had rid the country of monarchical rule, wanted to no such honorific, and was mortified such a suggestion was made on his behalf.
When he voluntarily left office after two terms, he published a Farewell Address focused squarely on what he saw as the perils of faction – or political parties – so much so that the address reads almost like a premonition of Wednesday’s Capitol riot that violently disrupted the democratic process in fealty to a lame-duck president. Washington warned that while parties had their uses, the spirit animating them was “A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”
He explained, unambiguously, where he believed political factions would lead: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissention, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent 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; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”
ndeed, in the weeks since Election Day, after Trump, the “chief” of his party, lost the White House, scores of congressional Republicans have indulged or encouraged him as he baselessly challenged the outcome of the election – violating the spirit, if not the letter of their constitutional oaths. Senate control will change hands after two Republican incumbents lost to two Democrats who’ve never before held elected office – in runoff elections where Trump kept the focus on his fate and not his party’s. He was idolized by his followers long before Wednesday’s speech in which he said: “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators, and congressmen and women. We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong” – encouraging the imposition of his preferred outcome over the already decided 2020 election.
A fear of this potential for disunion was the reason Washington acceded to pressure from other Founders who wanted him to become president in the first place. The North and South, which had worked together to evict the crown, could not seem to agree on the powers of a central government, which threatened the fragile union during its most vulnerable time. “The success of the new government in its commencement may materially depend” on a Washington presidency, Alexander Hamilton wrote.
Once he became president, Washington invited an executive dream team to become his Cabinet. “I feel myself supported by able coadjutors, who harmonize extremely well together,” Washington wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette. But members of the Cabinet, including Hamilton, a Northerner, and Thomas Jefferson, a Southerner, didn’t see it that way. “Hamilton and myself,” Jefferson wrote, “were daily pitted in the cabinet like two cocks.” Washington was not an impartial referee, siding more often than not with Hamilton, who believed in a strong central government; and Washington conflated his experience as a general and as an enslaver, roles where his word went nearly unquestioned, with his conception of a president’s authority.
Hamilton and Jefferson’s arguments were rehashed and circulated widely through partisan newspapers, and soon the country was officially divided into parties; the Democratic-Republicans typically criticized Washington’s policies, and the Federalists mostly defended him.
If he could no longer be a symbol of unity, Washington could return to retirement. On Sept. 19, 1796, the American Daily Advertiser published his Farewell Address, announcing that he would not seek a third term – for his own sake, and for the country’s – implicitly teaching that a president should not serve until his last breath. The United States was never supposed to be led by a king or a church or a military leader; if it was going to survive, let alone succeed, he had to fade from public life.
So, he did, and on his exit offered a warning: The American Revolution was successful in no small part because Americans, with the exception of loyalists to the crown, put country first. “The name of American,” Washington wrote, “must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.” If voters remained loyal to a party, he feared, the party would soon become corrupt, solely focused on maintaining power: “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
That is what events appear to have come to. The people elected Joe Biden in a free and fair election. But Trump and his congressional Republican enablers convinced enough of the electorate that it was their prerogative to upend that result. They managed to convince enough of their constituents that their party and the president – not the country or the Constitution – is what matters. Washington’s nightmare.
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