“Big protest in DC on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” Donald Trump tweeted on December 19, a week after his would-be Brown Shirt followers rioted in the streets of Washington to protest the “stolen” election. When Der Tag – the climactic day of battle arrived – Trump assembled his true believers on the South Ellipse at the White House for a “Save America” rally, waving them up Pennsylvania Avenue as his army to nullify the congressional certification of electoral college votes in the presidential election.
Near the steps of the Capitol, as Trump’s shock troops prepared themselves for the assault on the citadel, they built a bare but dramatic monument to their revenge fantasy: wooden gallows with steps leading up to a swinging noose. Smashing their way through the windows and doors of the Capitol, they rampaged in a mad dash, breaking furniture, slashing paintings and looting offices. One of the invaders roamed through the corridors carrying a large Confederate flag, the first and only time that emblem of the Slave Power has ever appeared inside the Capitol.
Just two weeks earlier, on 21 December, at the request of the commonwealth of Virginia, the statue of Robert E Lee that the state had given as a gift to the Congress in 1909 to represent it in Statuary Hall was replaced with one of Barbara Rose Johns Powell, who as a teenager had integrated Virginia’s public schools. Trump’s rabble had first rioted in 2017 in defense of another statue of Lee, in Charlottesville, Virginia, after the city council had voted to remove it.
“Jews will not replace us!” they chanted, and a young woman was murdered by a neo-Nazi. Trump praised them as “very fine people,” and tweeted, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”
The rioter parading through the Capitol with a Confederate flag, as though he had reached the high-water mark of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, was captured in a photo between two portraits on the Senate side, one of Senator John C Calhoun, the proslavery ideologue and nullifier from South Carolina, and the other of Senator Charles Sumner, the abolitionist from Massachusetts. The neo-Confederate rioter appeared indifferent to the images, even as he flaunted the symbol of the Lost Cause for Trump’s lost cause in a new civil war.
In a valentine to the vandals of the Capitol, Trump proclaimed, “We love you,” and, “You’re special.” The rabble was a mélange of true believers in conspiracy theories, paranoid delusions and twisted history. For the QAnon followers, their presence at the Capitol was the moment when the storm of the rapture would bring about the revelation of Trump’s final plan and his restoration to perpetual power. It was the culmination of Trump’s promise for apocalyptic change. For neo-Nazis, carrying flags with abstract versions of broken swastikas, and tattooed latter-day Klansmen, it was a stand for racial supremacy. Charging the gates of the Capitol was storming the gates of heaven. Or, alternatively, it was a heroic last-ditch defense of Trump’s bunker from the onslaught of hordes of impure infidels led by Joe Biden.
As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But the warped history that the Trump mob thinks it is enacting, reenacting or conjuring is a costume drama of militant ignorance. The true history sheds more light on their feeble attempted coup than their fervid visions of pedophile liberal celebrities acting in concert with the deep state and the Illuminati.
When senators scrambled for cover from violent assailants, it recalled the nearly fatal attack on Charles Sumner. In 1856, after delivering a stem-winding speech against the effort to turn the Kansas territory into a slave state, “The Crime Against Kansas,” Sumner sat at his desk on the floor of the Senate writing letters. Representative Preston Brooks, of South Carolina, taking umbrage at his remarks, clubbed him with a gold-handled cane until he was almost dead. Blood ran across the floor of the Senate. The caning of Sumner was a precipitating outrage that helped bring on the civil war.
President Lincoln was determined that Washington would never fall to the Confederacy. He ringed the city with forts. Tens of thousands of troops were stationed there. In August 1864, when a Confederate army came within sight of the Capitol, Lincoln himself rushed to Fort Stevens to participate in the battle, and was shot at. A young officer, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, later the supreme court justice, shouted at him, “Get down, you fool!”
Lincoln directed the rebuilding of the Capitol dome, originally a wooden structure that had rotted, as a symbol of confidence in the ultimate victory of democracy. The dome was completed in December 1863, a month after Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address proclaiming “a new birth of freedom”.
Lincoln’s second inaugural took place at the newly restored Capitol. He ordered that units of Black soldiers, who had been recruited as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation, be present in force. In the Rotunda, where Trump’s rioters so recently frolicked, there was a disturbance as Lincoln passed through. A man rushing forward was restrained, later identified as John Wilkes Booth. The famed actor had become a Confederate secret service agent stalking Lincoln. Booth edged himself onto the Capitol Portico to observe Lincoln while he spoke. One hundred and fifty-six years later, Trump’s mob climbed over the spot where Booth had stood.
“Right makes might,” Lincoln had stated in his Cooper Union address of 1860, which launched him on his campaign for the presidency. Six months later, on 11 July 1860, Charles Sumner came to Cooper Union to support Lincoln’s candidacy by speaking on the subject of The Republican Party: Its Origins, Necessity, and Permanence. He defined the new liberal party as the antithesis of John C Calhoun, “chief in all the pretensions of slavery and slave-masters,” who attacked “the self-evident truths of the declaration of independence as ‘absurd,’ and then to proclaim that human beings are ‘property’ under the constitution.”
“All that the Republican party now opposes,” said Sumner, “may be found in John C Calhoun.”
But now, it should be apparent in the last days of Trump, as he invokes the spirit of Calhoun’s nullification, that original Republican party has ceased to exist. The Trump diehard brandishing the Confederate flag in the Capitol mocks the constitutional democracy that Lincoln died for. Not since the intrusion of John Wilkes Booth has there been such a traitorous presence.