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Opinion: We Have Witnessed an American Tragedy

By Leslie Wilson
Montclair State Professor of History and the Associate Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences 

Posted in: Faculty Voices, Humanities and Social Sciences, University

Photo of Leslie Wilson, Professor of History and the Associate Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Montclair State University
Leslie Wilson, Montclair State Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Note: This Op-Ed was published on on Thursday, January 7, 2021.

Washington, D.C. is among one of the most recognizable cities in the world. It is a city characterized by protests and politics, and known for its historical landmarks — none more prominent than the Capitol, with its magnificent dome.

The Capitol is a central part of American history, recording military, civil and political events. It has actually seen its share of violence and protests: It was first attacked and burned during the War of 1812, and rebuilt five years later. It suffered gunshot damage from Puerto Rican Nationalists in 1954, a Vietnam War protest bombing in 1971, and additional bombings in 1983 and 2015 among other events.

Yet, there has never been protests quite like those that occurred yesterday, because these are the first events of their kind in American history that were welcomed by a sitting President.

In reality, the Capitol witnessed two protests. Inside, there was a non-violent protest — a disagreement between politicians over the outcome of the presidential election. In what should have been a ceremonial procedure confirming the Electoral College’s vote, some Republican congress members decided to challenge the legality of the electors. Although each side believes they are correct, there is broad agreement that the Constitution does not give members of Congress the ability to re-examine the election, particularly in states they do not represent.

Outside, there was a different type of confrontation. When the debates inside became heated, the mood outside changed and the protest became a riot. Protesters breached the barricades around the Capitol and charged into the building.

People broke the law, participating in an illegal takeover of a function of the American government. Their behaviors represented a form of militaristic action. The men and women who occupied the Capitol and the Capitol grounds committed actions against the federal government. What was once described as a Cold Civil War is quickly transitioning toward a hot one.

In many respects, today’s marchers are not unlike the mobs that marched against the government in the years shortly after the nation’s formation. On one occasion, General George Washington actually came out of retirement to stop what was thought to be an insurrection because he believed the nation needed to be saved.

This is quite ironic because President Trump believes through his actions that he is, in fact, “saving democracy.” Yesterday morning, he spoke at a “Save America Rally” at the Ellipse and recited his claims about the election being stolen. He told crowds he would never concede. It was President Trump’s intent that the crowds would walk to the Capitol.

Simply put, President Trump is channeling national frustration for his own benefit. In the process, he is weakening our democratic traditions. By using misinformation, he has shown how a peaceful protest can be turned into a violent mob.

I referred to George Washington because he took an oath to defend the Constitution when he became president. From 1789 to 2017, every American president has faithfully defended the Constitution and placed the nation in front of his own interests. Yes, some like John Adams, Herbert Hoover and James Buchanan made it difficult for their successors, but all have peacefully handed over power.

However, this is different. President Trump is refusing to leave office. He and his supporters are calling for insurrection, to overthrow the Constitution. President Trump lost the popular and the electoral vote. He has lost nearly every court case to change the course of the election and like others before him, it is time for him to abide by the laws of the land.

There have been some presidential candidates who have lost the popular vote and won the electoral vote, and some who have won the popular vote and lost the electoral vote. Yet, in all cases, regardless of the circumstances, candidates have accepted the outcome. America has remained strong because of its peaceful transfer of power.

Today, all of that has been lost. It is hard to imagine an inauguration taking place on January 20 without a real risk of violence. We have lost sight of democracy and what it means to be a citizen in a democratic society. In the past, Americans fought for liberties because they did not have the right to vote or freedoms of expression. Sadly, now one group of Americans wants to deny another group the rights and traditions that we claim make us unique.

We have witnessed an American tragedy. The short-term consequence of this event is that Americans have demonstrated to the world that we are not better than a fledgling republic. We are bitterly divided and in need of national reconciliation. However, the long-term consequence is that our belief in a strong democracy is fragile and hanging by a thread.