Inauguration 2021: a Roundtable

As Joe Biden’s inauguration looms, we at Insurrect! have turned our attention to transitions, both democratic and antidemocratic, in United States history. Over the last few months, the world has witnessed the attempted judicial overthrow of a presidential election and the breaching of the U.S. Capitol by a white supremacist mob. With these events in mind, we asked three early career scholars: In light of this year’s regime change, how have you been thinking about transfers of power in your own scholarship? 

Grace Mallon, DPhil Candidate in History, University of Oxford

The 2020 election season was particularly interesting for me because of the uncharacteristically high degree of focus on state politics and administration – my major academic concerns – as the GOP sought to limit access to the ballot box across a number of states. Decentralization in voting regulation is one of several reasons why I am ambivalent about U.S. federalism. In government, federalism seems to breed incoherence; in politics, it fosters unfairness. In my work on early federalism and intergovernmental relations, I find myself searching for the moment when the boundaries of state and federal power became settled and consolidated, but the fact is, that moment has not happened. The process of establishing those boundaries has been incremental and halting. They have been repeatedly made and unmade through statutes, court decisions, and crisis moments when relations have broken down. To this day, there is an ongoing contest for authority over particular issues between certain states and the national government, and that makes for instability. This lack of clarity in U.S.federalism both frustrates me and motivates my research. 

But did this election cycle also reveal the virtues of federalism? The world’s brief, and perhaps misguided, love affair with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo may be over, but since 2016, state and local government officials have often become figureheads of the fight not only against Trump himself, but also against a Trumpian political culture defined by the normalizing of corruption and deceit. In practical policy terms, some municipal governments have resisted the departing administration; many cities actively undermined their cruel deportation agenda, and governors like Cuomo and Gretchen Whitmer have fought to bring resources to their states during the coronavirus crisis as the federal government repudiated its responsibilities. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (he of the blackface scandal) cooperated with DC Mayor Muriel Bowser to provide policing for the Capitol during the coup attempt of January 6, while Trump encouraged the rioters. In terms of political culture, it has been with a degree of surprise that liberals and progressives have watched figures like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger – a Trump-voting Republican official in a state renowned for its voter suppression efforts – resist the president’s criminal attempts to overturn the 2020 election results. Certain state and local governments seem to have acted as incubators for democratic norms during the long, cold political winter of Trumpism.

It is because of this incubator effect that we must be wary of federalism even after Joe Biden’s inauguration. While some states have resisted Trumpism, others have embraced it. The spectacle of the Pennsylvania Senate refusing to seat newly-elected Democratic senator Jim Brewster on January 5 was quickly forgotten in the chaos of the following day, but it reflected the impact of Trumpian disrespect for democracy at the state level. Rooting that out could prove a harder task than taking back the presidency. 

After the Jeffersonians came to power in 1801, the defeated Federalist Party retreated into New England state government, using the local institutions it controlled to resist the policies of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, including the enforcement of Jefferson’s Embargo and the call-up of militiamen as a British invasion loomed in 1812. There was even talk of secession at the Hartford Convention in 1814. The Federalists never regained national power, but it might be too much to hope that Trumpism will follow the same trajectory. Given the GOP’s down-ballot success in this election cycle, red-state governments, especially those that expressed support for December’s Texas-led election lawsuit, could provide a ‘safe space’ for the most radical right-wingers to wait out the Biden years. Regardless of whether the Republican Party disavows Trumpism in the aftermath of the Capitol attack and second impeachment, the U.S. faces congressional redistricting in the run-up to 2022. Republicans will reap long-term benefits from a lacklustre Democratic performance in the 2020 state legislative elections. The transfer of power from Republicans to Democrats in the federal executive and legislative branches will hardly solve all the nation’s problems while the state legislatures maintain their constitutional stranglehold over the democratic process in the United States.

Omari Averette-Phillips, MA Student in History and Archival Studies, Claremont Graduate University, and High School History Teacher in Pasadena, California

The popular narrative surrounding transfers of power in this country is that they have largely been peaceful and amicable. We are led to believe an elected official loses an election and gracefully steps aside to allow their successor to govern unchallenged. However, the difference between how we might like to think power is exchanged in the United States, and what history tells us about how power is actually exchanged, can help contextualize our current moment. 

As a graduate student, my research focuses on Black political organization and understanding during Reconstruction. Reconstruction was an era rife with forcible transfers of power. Congressional Reconstruction—an incredibly important period that gave way to Black male suffrage—included the former Confederate states being forced to accept the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments while still under occupation by Union armies. There is also the 1898 Wilmington Massacre—in which anywhere from sixty to 300 people, mostly African Americans, were murdered—which ended with the city’s biracial fusionist government overthrown by white supremacists. Even the Presidential election of 1876, which ended Reconstruction and helped to pave the way for subsequent Jim Crow laws and the violence that befell Black communities in both the North and South, was settled not by an electoral win but through congressional backroom dealings.  Such hinge moments show that power is often forcibly seized both for and against progress.

As a high school history teacher, I often engage my students in conversations about the manifestation of white supremacy throughout American history. In trying to contextualize the events of the Presidential election as well as the attempted coup of January 6th, I have found myself rejecting the old refrain of unity and nonviolent transfers of power in the United States. Rather than rely on this narrative, together we have taken a deep dive into the true contours of power in U.S. history. The students have taken to this exercise, excitedly engaging with a history that is often not taught at their grade level and have asked questions of me—questions that go beyond the ‘why’ of history and into the ‘who’, ‘what’, and ‘how’—that have helped me deepen my own research to learn more about these time periods and historic events. Through this exploration, we’ve found an understanding of the force that has often accompanied transfers of power in the United States. 

When we erase the force behind so many transfers of power in U.S. history, we override the truth of how power has often been seized in this country. In obscuring this history, we make events such as the attempted coup of January 6th seem unprecedented. When put in its proper context, however, this event becomes one that has precedent. In this framework, we can see the attempted coup, and events like it, as one of many in a long line of forceful maneuvers that unearths the ways in which power is often violently transferred in our country.

Evan Turiano, PhD Candidate in History, Graduate Center, City University of New York

In the face of Donald Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election, many pundits have found an attractive analogy in the secession crisis of 1860-1861. Sobering images of white supremacists marching Confederate flags through a Capitol under siege have heightened this connection in the past two weeks. These comparisons paint a specific picture of our current reckoning: a crisis upon our institutions wrought by the introduction of a malicious outside force into U.S. politics. That framing mirrors how much of the public, and many historians, have understood the secession crisis. “At stake,” one historian recently wrote in the Atlantic of the secession winter, “was the constitutional order established by the American founders.” Likewise, another suggests that “Trump and his craven supporters in the GOP threaten the experiment in popular government that Abraham Lincoln gave his life to preserve.” The common thread across these analogies is that the crisis is about the institutions, rather than within them—that secession and Republican opposition to it were contests over the constitutional order, and our current conflict is between Trumpism and our sacred institutions.

I fear that this comparison obscures more than it clarifies about both 1860-61 and 2020-21. If the story of the secession crisis is one of a battle between institutional stability and illiberal despots, something big is missing: slavery. When secession is viewed in a vacuum – as a political digression – the fundamental underlying conflict falls away. Secession and constitutional crisis were the form, not the content of the conflict. To miss that is to unwittingly play into the 150-year mythmaking project we call the Lost Cause.

Similarly, while what happened on January 6th was undoubtedly an attack on the institutions of the U.S. government, it was also something more. To write about the crisis hanging over this transfer of power as an outside intrusion against an otherwise stable institutional consensus will contribute to the new, inevitable mythmaking project that is going to follow the Trump years. Trump’s strongman tendencies and the violent insurrection they created are significant and alarming because they are part of, not an aberration from, U.S. politics. Furthermore, just like secession, those behaviors must be understood as tools toward political ends rather than as political ends in and of themselves. In the coming months and years, the Right will excise Trump and call his political style anomalous. At the same time, they will continue to obscure the underlying antidemocratic, capitalist, and white supremacist projects that are the true, long-burning content of our present crisis. Historians must push back.

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