The deadly mob attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 — exhorted and then cheered on by President Donald J. Trump, with accountability later stonewalled by the Republican Party — was unprecedented in our history, but then again it wasn’t. It is true that never before had a losing presidential candidate, after pounding a Big Lie about a stolen election, helped to whip up a crowd into a murderous frenzy and directed it to prevent the official congressional certification of his defeat. The last time a losing candidate’s campaign tried to overturn the results, in the incomparably closer election of 1960, Richard Nixon’s supporters, having lost by a whisker to John F. Kennedy, tried to raise a stink about massive vote fraud in eleven states. But the Nixon forces gave way, after recounts, judicial decisions, and state board of elections findings — including those under Republican jurisdiction — went against them. Trump, the Roy Cohn protégé who has long regarded Nixon as insufficiently ruthless, pushed much further, to the point of sedition.
In another vaguely analogous historical example, Andrew Jackson in 1825 charged that a corrupt bargain had denied him the presidency after the uncertain electoral results of a four-way race threw the decision into the House of Representatives. Yet Jackson undeniably won strong popular and electoral pluralities, as Trump did not, his charges of behind- the-scenes chicanery were plausible if unknowable; and he raised no mob nor did anything else to interrupt the normal transfer of power. (Jackson participated in the inauguration ceremonies for the incoming administration.) Trump and his supporters have for years tried to fool the public into viewing him as the reincarnation of Old Hickory; but once again Trump’s subversive words and actions only dramatized their differences.
More recent examples were authentic precedents to Trump’s sedition. Nixon may never have matched Trump’s standard for cynicism, but after 1960 he outdid himself and every previous president in undermining democracy. In 1968, during his second try for the presidency, Nixon illicitly tampered with preliminary peace talks over the war in Vietnam, halting their progress, which may well have secured his narrow victory over Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Five years later, investigations into the offenses known collectively as Watergate revealed that, above and beyond the famous break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters, Nixon contemplated using the FBI, the CIA, the IRS, and other government agencies to spy on, harass, and if necessary detain his political adversaries. Had it not been for an alert night watchman at the Watergate, whose discovery of the attempted DNC burglary began breaking everything open and eventually led to Nixon’s resignation, Nixon might have succeeded in the most systematic internal overthrow of the Constitution in our history.
Then there was the notorious “Brooks Brothers” riot on November 22, 2000, during the presidential vote-return struggle in Florida between Al Gore and George W. Bush — a foreshadowing of Trump’s outrages right down to some of the persons involved. Canvassers in Miami-Dade County, in order to make the recounting of votes more efficient and meet a court-ordered deadline, moved their work to a smaller room in the recount headquarters. Suddenly, on a direct order to “shut it down” from Republican congressman John Sweeney of New York, a mob of Republican staffers and other operatives — some of the hundreds of Republicans dispatched to South Florida to protest and disrupt the recount — rushed the doors and started pounding on them, while punching and trampling anyone in their way. The melee halted the Miami-Dade recount which, unlike the tallying of electoral votes on January 6, was permanently suspended.
Given that Bush eventually won Florida, and thus the presidency, by 537 votes out of more than six million cast, and given that the rest of the returns in populous Miami-Dade Country broke in favor of Gore, it is highly possible that the riot actually turned the election, which would make it one of the most consequential events in American political history. And that would not be its only legacy. Roger Stone, the self-described Republican “hit man” who worked for the Bush campaign during the recount struggle, reportedly had a great deal to do with the Miami-Dade attack and even boasted about organizing it — the same Roger Stone who, having been pardoned by his patron Trump after multiple convictions, mingled with the neo-Nazi Proud Boys and addressed the crowd on January 6, declaring that “we will win this fight or America will step off into a thousand years of darkness.” Today Matt Schlapp, as president of the American Conservative Union, has been one of the chief propagators of the lies about a stolen election that propelled the mob, and in 2000 he was one of the more conspicuous Brooks Brothers rioters.
From another angle, however, despite some obvious departures, there were unsettling similarities between the events surrounding January 6 and American democracy’s worst moment of crisis since the nation’s founding until now: the secession winter of 1860-1861 triggered by Abraham Lincoln’s election as president. For months prior to Election Day, pro-slavery southerners had warned that they would not respect the outcome if Lincoln won. “Let the consequences be what they may – whether the Potomac is crimsoned in human gore, and Pennsylvania Avenue is paved ten fathoms deep with mangled bodies…,” a relatively moderate Georgia newspaper declared, “the South will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.” For the slaveholders, a Lincoln presidency would be thoroughly illegitimate because his party’s program violated what they described as the Constitution’s protection of states’ rights as well individuals’ property rights in slaves, as enunciated by the Supreme Court majority in the Dred Scott decision three years earlier.
Rather than contest the correctness of the popular and electoral vote count, the pro-slavery southerners withdrew from the Union, state by state, and set about forming a nation of their own — a course that had been bruited for decades, by irreconcilable New England Federalists as well as pro-slavery militants. When the federal government at length attempted to assert its authority by refusing to surrender federal installations in the South — thereby affirming Lincoln’s legitimacy — the insurrectionists fired upon and captured Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, a target with real as well as symbolic importance.
Trump, like the seceding slaveholders, made it clear long before the election that he would not respect the outcome were his opponent declared the winner. His talk of potential violence during the 2020 campaign, building on his instructions to supporters four years earlier to “beat the crap” out of peaceful protesters, was less gruesome than the slaveholders’ rebellion in 1860, but it was menacing enough, as when, during the first presidential debate, he instructed the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” (The truly grisly rhetoric came from Trump’s supporters inside the irregular militias, plotting and then spreading the word on social media and in the nether reaches of the pro-Trump Web, during the build-up to the riot.)
Although based on fantastic lies about a rigged election instead of a fallacious Supreme Court decision, Trump’s charges about monumental unconstitutional offenses rang true to his tens of millions of supporters, much as the secessionists’ charges rang true to theirs. There was even some of the slaveholders’ apocalyptic tone in Trump’s doomful rants that culminated in his instructions to the crowd on January 6 to march up Pennsylvania Avenue — peacefully and patriotically, of course — and to “fight like hell,” warning that if they failed, “you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
And so, in the name of their Great Leader, the mob, including some rioters carrying Confederate flags, violently assaulted not a fort containing a U.S. Army garrison but the U.S. Capitol itself, containing the leadership and hundreds of members of both houses of Congress along with Vice President Mike Pence. Acting as self-proclaimed guardians of the true Constitution, ordered into battle by the Leader himself, the Trumpists, no less than the Confederates in 1861, believed that upholding American justice required insurrection, this time by violently overturning a presidential election and, quite possibly, assassinating some of the nation’s highest-ranking elected officials, including Trump’s own vice president, a supposed turncoat.
The scale of Trump’s machinations, to be sure, were in some obvious ways far smaller than southern secession (although it might be worth noting that there were no fatalities during the bombardment of Fort Sumter compared to the five deaths that resulted from the attack on the Capitol). The events of January 6 did not instantly initiate a civil war. The idea of seceding and formally creating a Trump Confederacy, or some such entity, evidently exceeded even the most fevered imaginations inside the White House and the Republican Party. Disturbing as it was to watch well-armed pro-Trump paramilitaries storm the Capitol, they did not constitute the Confederate batteries arrayed against Fort Sumter, let alone an Army of Northern Virginia. Above all, in the crunch, key state and local officials, Republican as well as Democratic, resisted Trump’s bullying to “find” him the votes that he needed or otherwise overthrow the results. State and federal judges, including some Trump appointees, rejected the baseless and desperate efforts (supported by a large majority of House Republicans and prominent senators such as Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley) to undo the election in the courts. Remarkably, under extreme duress, the system held, as it did not in 1860-1861.
And yet, as the seditious examples of Cruz and Hawley suggest, the events of January 6 and all that led up to them were also in some ways a far more profound assault on American democracy than the slaveholders’ secession — a direct attack by the Trump Republican Party on the national democratic process that even the Confederates did not attempt. The secessionists regarded Lincoln as an illegitimate president on constitutional grounds, but they never claimed that his election was fraudulent. They did not attempt to de-certify Lincoln’s victory on the grounds that that the democratic system itself was corrupt and that the election had been rigged. They did not identify their cause with the personality and political fortunes of a single autocratic leader or subdue an entire national political party to the autocrat’s will. They did not try to browbeat state and local officials into falsifying voting results or bid state legislators to violate their public trust and simply negate the popular vote. They did not compel a large majority of the compliant political party’s members in the House, along with some of the party’s high-profile members in the Senate, to support overruling state officials and decertifying official results in a presidential election.
The secessionist slaveholders were not, it needs to be said, dedicated democrats, even when it came to their fellow white southerners, whom they intimidated by calling out state militias during the state-wide referenda over approving secession. Still, in national politics, the secessionists committed treason by repudiating the democratic Union; but the Trump Republicans committed something akin to treason by repudiating democracy itself.
The Trump Republican sedition has far from ended, and the worst may be yet to come. By helping to convince one in four Americans and more than half of all Republicans that Trump and not Biden is the “true” President of the United States, Trump and the GOP have in fact attempted nothing less than a kind of virtual secession from the American political system. Instead of founding a new country, Trump’s secession aims to stoke his followers’ intense resentments, have them withdraw any remaining loyalties they might have to the existing system of government, and re-attach those loyalties to an imagined pro-Trump nation within the nation — projects already well advanced long before Election Day. Then, while they finally purge the party of remaining RINOs such as Liz Cheney — the high-ranking House arch-conservative who turned against Trump over January 6 — the Trump Republicans aim to exploit the demonized system’s vulnerabilities, chiefly through gerrymandering and voter suppression, in order to regain control of the entire federal government, once and for all. That project, too, was underway before the election and has rapidly gained strength since then. And although seditious in intention, that project, unlike Trump’s failed insurrection in January, will fall squarely within the law, some of it recently revised and upheld by the conservative Supreme Court majority.
If these efforts succeed, the Republicans, at a minimum, will regain control of both the House and the Senate in 2022. Once in command, House Republicans in particular will obstruct and harass the Biden administration and any other Democrats who stand in their way, just as Republicans have hounded Democrats going back to the phony scandals and investigations promoted by Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. Finally, if everything goes as they hope, the Republicans’ harassment will help produce a resounding GOP victory in the 2024 elections with Trump, presumably, the party’s presidential nominee.
Once restored, the Great Leader, unchecked by Congress or the courts, may be expected to pursue authoritarian, kleptocratic politics on a scale merely hinted at during his first four years in office, including a foreign policy friendlier than ever to repressive dictatorships abroad. But more than that, the Republican Party, if successful, will be poised to secure what has been its supreme political goal for a long time, long before Trump, something that the southern Slave Power had hoped to achieve before the rise of the Lincoln Republicans drove it to disunion — a more or less ironclad system of undemocratic minority rule. That new system would block national action over any issue that the red state minority finds objectionable, from civil rights, abortion rights, and gun-safety to economic regulation and progressive income taxes. And by sustaining and reinforcing every undemocratic instrument the system affords, the Republicans could make that minority rule more or less permanent. Without dissolving the Union or amending the Constitution, or assaulting the Capitol, the Republican Party will have replaced American democracy with minority despotism.
It may not happen, but it very well could, in part because the Trump Republican dystopia, on the horizon for decades inside the GOP, also has deeper roots in American history.
Trump Republicanism is more of a continuation than a break from the sordid GOP politics of the Reagan years and after, but it also echoes, albeit crudely, debates in our politics dating back well before the Civil War to the nation’s founding in 1787. Those debates center on whether the United States is truly a single nation with a national majority, or merely a patchwork of sovereign states that have the right to ignore the will of the nation at large. The Trump Republicans flourish by suppressing the Constitution’s core idea of an energetic national government beholden to a surpassing national majority, obligated to pursue what the document repeatedly refers to as “the general welfare.”
At the nation’s founding, of course, so-called Anti-Federalists opposed the Constitution because they feared that the new and more powerful national government it created would become tyrannical. Remarkably, though, once the states completed its ratification in 1788, opposition to the Constitution disappeared, and for half a century thereafter Americans struggled not over whether the Constitution was legitimate but over how it ought to be interpreted. Still, in the 1790s, not just former Anti-Federalists but also supporters of the Constitution, including none other than James Madison, began objecting that the new government (under what they considered the malefic influence of Alexander Hamilton) was dangerously exceeding its authority.
Desperate when the government began actively suppressing political dissent, Madison, along with his even more imposing friend Thomas Jefferson, improvised what became known as the compact theory of the Constitution. The national government, the two Virginians claimed, was not a self-created entity of, by, and for the people at large, connected to but wholly independent of the states. It was merely a creature of the states, a congeries of them, which reserved considerable powers for themselves, including the authority to disregard federal legislation that any individual state believed violated the constitutional compact.
The compact theory cut little ice at the time, and soon enough Jefferson and Madison turned to majoritarian politics. (What undid the Federalist excess, to their opponents’ enormous relief, was Jefferson’s election to the presidency in 1800-1801, not state challenges to the government’s authority.) Thereafter, a sense of national purpose and of the general welfare thickened, in part thanks to rulings by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall. But as the renaissance of plantation slavery brought about by the cotton revolution awakened northern antislavery sentiment, the matter of slavery’s future became a national issue as never before. Fearing the power of a growing Yankee majority, pro-slavery southerners, led by the erstwhile nationalist South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, transformed Madison and Jefferson’s emergency improvisation into one the chief instruments for defending minority states’ rights and slavery’s expansion.
Calhoun’s first gambit was his theory of nullification, whereby a specially elected state convention could declare null and void inside its state’s borders any federal law that it deemed unconstitutional. Although ostensibly aimed against the protective tariff —which Calhoun and his supporters charged, fancifully, hurt the South severely —nullification’s underlying motivation was to halt any accretion of federal power that might hasten slavery’s abolition. (The tariff, the leading South Carolina pro-nullification group contended, was only a pretext to advance “the abolition of slavery throughout the southern states.”)
When South Carolina moved to nullify the tariff in 1832, an appalled President Andrew Jackson, himself a slaveholder, denounced it as a blatantly undemocratic effort by a small minority to repudiate the constitutional exercise of the national majority’s will, and he duly suppressed the uprising by threatening to send federal troops, after which Congress enacted a compromise tariff. (The South Carolina legislature initially responded to Jackson by mobilizing the state militia, but the compromise averted serious violence.) The Constitution, Jackson proclaimed, formed “a government, not a league”; accordingly, it was incumbent upon the states to respect the national majority on matters like the tariff over which the Constitution extended authority to the national government. The aging Madison sided with Jackson, deploring the South Carolinians’ “strange doctrines and misconceptions.”
Defeated over nullification, Calhoun spent nearly two decades, until his death in 1850, defending slavery as a positive good, while also devising, unavailingly, one outlandish argument after another that would provide ironclad protection to the slaveholder minority. On a more practical level, meanwhile, pro-slavery southerners seized upon every advantage they could find within the limits of the Constitution to inflate their power and insure minority rule. No institution was more effective than the United States Senate.
Recent historians have made a great deal out of how the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, by giving the slaveholding states representation based on their enslaved populations in both the House of Representatives and the Electoral College, helped to create the Slave Power that dominated national politics until the eve of the Civil War. In fact, though, as the Northern majority in the House grew beyond the slaveholders’ reach, the undemocratic representation of the Senate gave the South its ultimate advantage in national politics. This became clear as early as the Missouri crisis in 1819-1821, when a southern-controlled Senate repeatedly rejected House-approved measures that would have admitted Missouri as a free state and thereby weakened southern domination of the upper house.
So, for the next thirty years, the Senate remained a slaveholders’ redoubt. At the very end of the 1850s antislavery northern Republicans held a healthy plurality in the House (where only slightly more than one-third of the members represented slaveholding states), and this plurality proved sufficient to elect a Republican as Speaker, albeit after a prolonged struggle. In the Senate, however, where nearly half of the members represented slaveholding states, Republicans were a decided minority. So long as the pro-slavery forces could also count on a pliable president to go along with control of the Senate (which meant, in turn, having control of appointments to the Supreme Court), they could at the very least check and contain antislavery efforts. At best, they could bend federal power to their will to promote slavery’s expansion, as they largely succeeded in doing in the 1850s during the administrations of the doughface presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, and above all in the Dred Scott decision by the pro-slavery Supreme Court majority in 1857.
Finally, though, the Republican Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860 on a platform dedicated to slavery’s eventual eradication was enough to push Calhoun’s successors to give up on the Union and secede. Drawing on Jackson’s reasoning from the nullification crisis, Lincoln replied to the disunionists in his first inaugural address, denouncing secession as “the essence of anarchy,” and describing the Calhounite politics that led to it as a direct assault on the will of the national majority, the cornerstone of American constitutional democracy. “The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible,” he observed, “so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.”
More than a century and a half later, a transformed Republican Party, no longer the party of Lincoln, has turned rejecting the majority principle into its core political imperative, seeking to make the rule of a minority a permanent arrangement. And, as Lincoln warned, the modern GOP, having revived the spirit of Calhounism, has flown to a form of despotism under Donald Trump.
The compact theory of the Constitution did not survive the Civil War; and in 1869, ruling in the case of Texas v. White, the Supreme Court struck down the alleged right of individual states to secede, holding instead, in Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase’s majority opinion, that the Union was “indestructible.” The ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments revolutionized the status of blacks and the rights of all American citizens by augmenting the national government’s authority over citizenship and voting. The violent overthrow of Reconstruction, however, halted that revolution and that augmentation, and achieved a specious national reconciliation at the direct and disastrous expense of black Southerners.
That violence left a larger legacy as well. Just as the Confederate secession involved taking up arms rather than acceding to the national majority, the resistance to Reconstruction was in its own way a series of insurrections, state by state, aimed at repudiating national law upheld by new Republican-controlled state governments. In 1870 and 1871, the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, with congressional support, managed to crush the initial resistance mounted by the newly formed Ku Klux Klan, but the violence returned in the mid-1870s, led by paramilitary forces with names like the White League and White Liners that constituted the armed wing of the Democratic Party in the Deep South.
Committed to using terrorist violence to reverse the course of Reconstruction, the paramilitaries focused on the lethal, systematic suppression of democracy, especially around election days, targeting Republican politicians for death while hounding and killing black men who showed even an inclination to support the Republicans. Unlike the earlier Klan, these paramilitaries operated openly, with the support of local newspapers and notables. Weary of what Grant called “these annual autumnal outbreaks in the South,” persuaded that reforming the South was a fool’s errand, and gripped by other issues closer to home, northerners finally lost faith in Reconstruction. The terrorist counterrevolution had won, initiating a new regime of white supremacy that would soon lead to the mass disenfranchisement of blacks and the imposition of Jim Crow segregation, enforced by lynching, mob attacks, and other forms of violent intimidation.
So long as the rest of the country permitted white supremacy in the South to go unchallenged — indeed, virtually uncriticized — there was no need for talk of southern nullification, let alone secession. Into the middle of the twentieth century, with some sporadic exceptions, the nation at large seemed indifferent to the realities of what amounted to a perpetual American domestic reign of terror. In the long run, though, the acquiescence in Jim Crow did not hold, and when that happened, all the instruments of minority rule came back into play.
The rise of the southern civil rights movement in the 1950s, and above all the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, blew the lid off southern politics and then American politics, with effects that reverberate to this day. The Brown decision was not simply a frontal assault on segregated schooling, a cornerstone of the Jim Crow regime; it was also an indication that, for the first time since Reconstruction, the federal government was determined to exercise its power to secure the general welfare against the system that sustained the southern white ruling class.
The furious segregationist backlash, in time dubbed “massive resistance” by the segregationist Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia, brought Calhounism back from the dead. James J. Kilpatrick, the influential pro-segregationist editor of the Richmond News Leader, hoped to rise “above the sometimes sordid level of race and segregation” by dressing up nullification as the milder sounding “interposition.” Kirkpatrick borrowed the term from Madison, but his intentions were pure Calhoun. Indeed, he would have extended the states’ nullification power well beyond the acts of Congress that Calhoun specified to include Supreme Court decisions such as Brown, and even — well ahead of his time — the outcome of presidential elections.
Several southern legislatures duly passed resolutions of interdiction in defiance of Brown. Alabama lawmakers even used blunt Calhounite language, claiming that they had the power to declare any offending law or decision “as a matter of right, null, void, and of no effect” in their state.” Yet these tactics proved no more effective in the 1950s than they had in the 1830s. Most dramatically, in 1957, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas unilaterally nullified Brown by ordering the Arkansas National Guard to prevent black students from entering Little Rock Central High School. President Dwight D. Eisenhower — channeling Andrew Jackson, like Lincoln before him — placed the Arkansas Guard under federal control and dispatched the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to enforce national law, and thereby broke the resistance. Elsewhere, state as well as federal courts ruled legislative interdiction unconstitutional.
When legal resistance to Brown and subsequent civil rights reforms failed, segregationists turned to terrorism, echoing the nullifying violence that helped to kill Reconstruction. Along with innumerable murders of civil rights workers and their leaders, violent racists came to specialize in bombings that destroyed black homes and churches, killed small children, and spread fear across the South. The deaths of four black girls in an explosion detonated by segregationists at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, sparked outrage, but the incident was one of more than fifty dynamite attacks between 1947 and 1965 that earned the city the nickname “Bombingham.” Thanks in part to modern communications, images of the bloodshed only stiffened public and government resolve to demolish Jim Crow.
In time, to be sure, segregationists found ways to deny American law and to circumvent Brown, most successfully by establishing all-white private Christian academies, much as their forbears had skirted the Fifteenth Amendment by disenfranchising blacks through subterfuges such as the “grandfather clause,” which barred from the polls anyone whose grandfather had not voted. Still, the formal rule of national law as interpreted by the Supreme Court stood, superseding the latest version of the state sovereignty claptrap. Finally, in 1958, in its ruling in Cooper v. Aaron, the Court held that, under the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, federal law “can neither be nullified openly and directly by state legislators or state executive or judicial officers nor nullified indirectly by them through evasive schemes.”
Pro-segregation obstructionists made much better use of the slaveholders’ old bastion, the U.S. Senate. Prior to the emergence of the modern civil rights movement, the most forceful attacks on Jim Crow had originated in the anti-lynching movement that arose during the first two decades of the twentieth century, spearheaded by Ida B. Wells-Barnett and James Weldon Johnson, and led, after its formation in 1909, by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Repugnance at a crescendo of lynching and other forms of racist violence following World War I prompted northern Republican congressmen to propose legislation that turned lynching into a federal crime. In the Senate, however, southern Democrats, with the connivance of the Senate’s Republican leadership, killed the measure by launching a filibuster — a rule rarely used before the 1880s, and recently watered down to make it easier to shut down debate. “Never has the Senate,” the New York Times reported, “so openly advertised the impotence to which it is reduced by it antiquated rules of procedure.” Over the ensuing four decades, Democratic southern segregationists, when they were not allying with Republicans to fight pro-labor legislation, could count on the Senate filibuster as an effective weapon in scuttling or at the very least dramatically diluting federal civil rights bills.
Just as important as the filibuster, meanwhile, was the southern minority’s disproportionate control of key congressional committees in both houses of Congress. Indeed, resort to the filibuster was in some ways a sign of defeat, a last resort deployed when an offending bill actually made it out of committee to the House or Senate floor. With the Democrats a virtually permanent majority in both the House and the Senate for more than four decades after 1932, southerners, aided in part by rules that rewarded seniority, assumed the chairmanship of numerous crucial standing committees. Accorded enormous independent power, these “barons” exercised it mercilessly. One of the most notorious of them, Representative Howard W. “Judge” Smith of Virginia, chaired the House Rules Committee from 1955 through 1967 and thus controlled the flow of legislation in the House, enough to insure that, by his fiat alone, proposed civil rights laws never came to a vote.
It took a southern-born president and former master of the Senate, Lyndon Baines Johnson, to oversee the congressional breakthroughs that finally overcame minority rule and achieved the landmark legislation of the Great Society, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and also Medicare and Medicaid. The conservative backlash that followed, which culminated in the presidency of Ronald Reagan, aimed to undo the reforms of the New Deal as well as the Great Society, not by withdrawing into obstructionism but by building a new conservative national majority under the aegis of the Republican Party to match the long-lasting New Deal coalition it had disrupted. Reagan’s historic landslide re-election in 1984 was enough to convince Republican loyalists that at the very least they had a lock on the White House, upon which they then could build.
That conservative national majority, however, never quite cohered. Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992 was not supposed to happen; and although Republicans reflexively blamed their loss on the third-party candidate Ross Perot, part kook and part fluke, Clinton’s re-election in 1996 refuted the GOP’s majoritarian White House lock theory, as would the succeeding quarter-century of presidential politics. In all, between 1992 and 2020, Democrats prevailed in the popular vote in seven out of eight presidential elections, a record comparable to — and even slightly better than — the Democratic domination during the New Deal-Great Society era from 1932 to 1964, when the Democrats won the popular vote in seven out of nine elections. Although the Republicans managed, by hook and by crook, to win the Electoral College vote half the time in that span, the emerging Republican national majority, as hyped by GOP pollsters and prognosticators since the late 1960s, simply never emerged.
The one truly smashing national victory that the Republicans enjoyed after Reagan’s re-election came in 1994, when the scabrous congressional right-winger Newt Gingrich of Georgia converted Clinton’s unsteady first two years into an electoral tsunami that left in its wake the first Republican House majority in four decades, whose members duly elected Gingrich Speaker. Yet Gingrich’s leadership, with its scorched- earth partisanship, proved anything but stable, and only five years later he resigned from the House in disgrace, pushed out by Republicans who stood well to his right, chiefly from the South and led by Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, who accused him of political apostasy. The Republican House majority outlasted Gingrich for only six years before the Democrats recaptured command. Since then, the majority has swung wildly back and forth.
The Gingrich years, which not coincidentally also brought the rise of right-wing talk radio and Fox News, saw the commencement of what numerous observers have described as the rightward radicalization of the Republican Party. By 2012, the G.O.P had degenerated into what the centrist commentators Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein accurately described in 2012 as “an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” The re-election of Barack Obama that same year — which as late as Election Night many Republicans thought impossible — only hastened the decay by infuriating a core anti-government political base that, whipped up by conservative media demagogues, blamed the party’s leadership for insufficient boldness and fortitude.
Four years later, mainstream Republican leaders, reading the significance of the African American Obama’s re-election very differently than the base, counseled a return to something approximating normality by nominating Jeb Bush to succeed his father and brother. But Donald Trump and his henchmen recognized the party for the ganglia of resentments that it had become. They ferociously channeled those resentments, swept to the nomination, and, after a freakish election in which Trump lost the popular tally by nearly three million votes, began to remake the G.O.P. into a decidedly minoritarian right-wing personality cult.
Along the way from Gingrich to Trump, Republicans learned to exploit the familiar tools of minority rule, thumbing their noses at the very idea of balanced majoritarian national government, which was of course the central idea, the central accomplishment, of the Constitution. Trump stood out for his willingness to exploit the most brutal of these tools, open threats and displays of physical force.
The violence as well as the subversive intentions of the insurrection on January 6 shocked the world, yet that violence, with its long history dating back through the civil rights era to Reconstruction, had a more recent history inside the Republican Party, commencing in Gingrich’s heyday. Gingrich’s smashmouth demonizing style took on more sinister meanings amid a resurgence of anti-government paramilitary violence that seemed to be spinning out of control in the mid-1990s, as pursued by an assortment of neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, survivalists, and others at war with the federal government. The bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, the deadliest domestic terror attack in American history, is the best-remembered event, but it occurred amid a rising mood of virulent anti-government militancy — a mood that some Republican officials winked at and others embraced.
In the wake of the Oklahoma City horror in 1995, the Washington Post reported that “in return for grass-roots support, some members of Congress, along with state officials and state legislators, have provided access and help to militia leaders.” The most notorious militia-friendly member of Congress was the Republican Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, who introduced legislation that would hamper federal efforts to stymie the self-styled militia groups. Other prominent Republicans, including House members Robert Dornan of California, Larry Craig of Idaho, and Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, served as conduits for militia complaints to the Justice Department. In Michigan, where then as now there was, as the Post reported, “a sizable militia organization,” Republican governor John Engler refused to condemn them, offering the ludicrous observation that there was “no indication that they were created for the express purpose of bombing government buildings.” Gary E. Johnson, the Republican governor of New Mexico, met with a group of militia leaders whom he praised as “responsible, reasonable, lawful” citizens.
Dispatching well-connected, well-off Republican staffers to shut down the democratic process in the frenzied presidential recount in 2000 came as an alarming confirmation of how far supposedly upright Bush Republicans were now willing to go to seize power by physical force. After twenty more years of Republican radicalization, a Republican president who had been elected counseling violence thought nothing of emboldening right-wing paramilitaries, whom his own Department of Homeland Security had identified as the foremost terrorist threat facing the nation. In one shout-out in April 2020, Trump took to Twitter to egg on members of the Michigan Militia — the same terrorist group whom former Governor Engler had excused — as, armed to the teeth, they stormed their state’s capitol over Covid restrictions, with some of them planning to kidnap and execute the state’s Democratic governor. In retrospect, it turned out to be a dress rehearsal for the January 6 insurrection, which should have come as a warning that some terrible development was underway. But alliances between right-wing militias and the radicalizing Republican Party were nothing new.
In more benign but still portentous ways, Republicans revived other age-old minoritarian tactics and arguments. Around 2010, with Obama in the White House and the Democrats holding majorities in the House and Senate, a full-fledged Calhounite revival arose among Republican state legislators across the country. Numerous states passed laws as well as resolutions affirming state sovereignty and vowing to nullify everything from firearms control legislation to select provisions of the Affordable Care Act. That the Supreme Court long ago ruled nullification unconstitutional did not deter the neo-nullifiers, whose efforts may have been purely symbolic and opportunistic. In the years since, nothing has come of the outburst. Still, the campaign certainly advanced Calhounite ideas of state sovereignty last heard from the die-hard southern segregationists, fanning the anti-govern ment extremism that now propelled the party’s base. Those minoritarian ideas, meanwhile, had been circulating in conservative legal circles for some time before 2010, as part of general revival of interest in federalist jurisprudence. In 1995, for example, Justice Clarence Thomas, in a dissenting opinion, appeared to endorse, if not nullification, then the compact theory on which nullification rests, writing with breathtaking candor that “the ultimate source of the Constitution’s authority is the consent of the people of each individual State, not the consent of the undifferentiated people of the Nation as a whole.”
Meanwhile, as ever, the key anti-majoritarian institution has proven to be the U.S. Senate, with its undemocratic representation, where Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has raised the arts of obstruction to levels that even the most obdurate of the old Deep South segregationists would have admired. One of McConnell’s chief priorities has been to advance and to solidify the long-term Republican project of transforming the federal judiciary into a bastion of hard-line judicial conservatism. Earlier efforts had produced, among other successes, a shift of the Supreme Court just far enough to the right to produce the two most consequential anti-democratic rulings in modern times. First, in 2010, came the 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which overturned election spending restrictions dating back more than a century and shifted power heavily in the direction of a small number of anonymous wealthy donors. Three years later, in Shelby County v. Holder, another 5-4 decision, the court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by striking down crucial oversight provisions, which helped to pave the way for the wave of voter suppression proposals that are now wending their way through Republican-dominated state legislatures.
In his most notorious intervention to reinforce that conservative majority on the court, McConnell refused even to take up President Barack Obama’s nomination of the moderate District Court Judge Merrick Garland in 2016, on the unprecedented, extra-constitutional, and transparently cynical grounds that no president should be able to make an appointment to the Court in a presidential election year. As soon as Trump was elected with a Senate majority, however, McConnell cleared the way by suspending the filibuster rule for Supreme Court nominees, which greatly eased Senate approval of Neil Gorsuch’s and (with greater difficulty) Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the court. Then in 2020, on the eve of another presidential election, McConnell brazenly rammed through the Senate Trump’s nomination of the highly conservative Circuit Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett, shifting the court almost forbiddingly to the right, especially on voting rights.
Apart from these well-known episodes, though, McConnell’s most effective obstruction has involved perfecting the filibuster as a weapon of legislative destruction, on judicial matters and virtually everything else. Not coincidentally, during his first session as Senate Minority Leader in 2007-2008, the number of Senate cloture motions filed — an indicator of the number of filibusters undertaken — more than doubled from 68 to 139, by far the highest jump on record at the time. But McConnell’s systematic obstruction — call it the McConnell Filibuster — truly came into its own during Obama’s presidency. The election of 2008, while it swept the Democrats into the White House, also proved a bloodbath for Senate Republicans, yielding the Democrats, briefly, a filibuster-proof majority to go along with a commanding Democratic majority in the House. With the nation in the throes of the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression, and with public opinion clearly running against his party, which bore responsibility for the disaster, McConnell might have encouraged compromise. Instead, he announced that his top priority was to make Obama a one-term president; and when, following the death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Democratic majority dropped below sixty, Senate Republicans filibustered as never before, with particular urgency over judicial appointments. By 2013-2014, the session prior to the 2014 midterms when the Republicans regained the Senate majority, the number of cloture motions had skyrocketed to 252.
McConnell knew that with the steady radicalization of the GOP, he could count on his caucus for disciplined loyalty, thereby preventing the White House or the Democratic majority from calling their proposals bipartisan, a sign of credibility. McConnell also understood that the public generally holds the party in power responsible for dysfunction and inaction, meaning that his opponents would pay the price for his calculated obstructionism. “For the Republicans,” Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson recently observed, “the filibuster was a win-win-win: It sharply reduced the range of issues that Democrats could advance; it ensured that even bills that got through were subject to withering attacks for months, dragging down public support; and it produced an atmosphere of gridlock and dysfunction for which Democrats would pay the price.”
The gravity of the McConnell Filibuster’s impact on American democracy has been evident for many years. One study of the Senate Republicans’ filibuster in 2013 of a compromise bill that would have required background checks for firearms sales found that, while eighty-six percent of the American public supported the reform, senators representing thirty-eight percent of the population killed it. More glaringly, the study also found that the votes of senators representing only ten percent of the population would have been sufficient to block the proposal — or, for that matter, to block any federal policy. That one of the disappointed two co-sponsors of the 2013 bill was Joe Manchin of West Virginia — one of two Senate Democrats now most forcefully opposed to reforming the filibuster — makes the episode, in retrospect, all the more frustrating. To be sure, crafting bipartisan compromise in the Senate on important measures is not utterly impossible, as revealed by the Biden administration’s recent exertions over infrastructure funding, but the trend in recent history pushes heavily in the other direction.
Coupled with exempting the GOP’s two major priorities — the budget process (meaning regressive tax cutting) as well as Supreme Court nominations — McConnell’s obstruction puts the lie to claims that the filibuster is a venerable Senate institution that promotes bipartisanship. “Far from fostering compromise,” Hacker and Pierson write, “the current filibuster has given a unified minority party every incentive to block legislation, no matter how many Americans support it.” By wrecking the legislative process, the McConnell Filibuster in turn feeds the anti-government fervor skillfully exploited by the charlatan Trump, who claims that he alone can set things right. Above all, it solidifies the modern Republicans’ strategy to succeed where the Slave Power and the Jim Crow segregationists ultimately failed: to bend the nation permanently to the will of a fiercely determined minority.
Looking to the presidential and congressional elections of 2024, numerous minoritarian strategies are open to the Republicans — old maneuvers and new. Having captured control of both houses of a large majority of state legislatures, including those of such vital states as Pennsylvania, Florida, and Georgia, the Republicans will have a free hand, in accordance with the 2020 census, to gerrymander congressional election districts even worse than they enjoy at present, and to do so with minute precision. This will advance the minoritarian trend, going back many years, whereby Republicans consistently win a wildly disproportionate number of legislative and congressional seats relative to their share of the total vote. In a few states, including Kentucky, some Republicans have gone as far as to propose redrawing district lines in order to break up urban constituencies, with an eye to eliminating Democratic representation in Congress completely. Although party leaders have warned that such excessive tactics could backfire, inviting prolonged litigation that would not end well, the existing Republican advantage is such that, even with more conventional gerrymandering, the GOP could well retake the House by means of redistricting alone, before a single vote is cast. New districting lines would also insure permanent Republican control of the legislatures, which would in turn yield permanent minority rule in Congress.
Other forms of partisan interference center on new state voting laws recently passed or pending in states with Republican controlled legislatures. Between January 1 and May 21, 2021, at least seventeen states enacted twenty-eight new laws that restrict access to the vote. Under the phony pretext of preserving ballot integrity, these laws make it more difficult for citizens to vote, especially racial minorities and younger voters, by requiring official government identification, restricting absentee mail-in voting, and similar measures. By the early summer of 2021, a complementary nationwide effort to expand the powers of poll watchers, thereby expanding opportunities for voter intimidation and harassment, had produced new legislation in three states, Georgia, Montana, and Iowa, with more almost certainly to follow.
Even more ominously, there were signs that the Big Lie about rampant voter fraud would camouflage Republican power plays to place state election oversight completely in Republican hands. Take, for example, the controversial new voting law in Georgia. Recall that during the turmoil in 2020, the state’s Republican secretary of state, an independent elected official, refused to buckle to Trump’s harassment over vote totals and certification, earning Trump’s vilification which culminated in the January 6 insurrection. Several of the new Georgia law’s less noticed provisions strip oversight power from the secretary’s office and hand it to a newly created chair of the State Election Board, supposedly a “non-partisan” official but chosen directly by the state legislature. That same board, meanwhile, newly influenced by the legislature, will have the authority to suspend vital county election officials and temporarily replace them with their own selections. The incumbent secretary who stood up to Trump, Brad Raffensperger, while supporting most provisions in the new state law, has raised red flags about the oversight changes, charging that with an unelected election board controlled by the legislature, “you’ll never be able to hold someone accountable.”
Georgia is hardly alone. The revised Arizona voting laws recently upheld by the Supreme Court took the power to litigate election laws away from the Secretary of State, a Democrat, and gave it to the Attorney General, a Republican. In at least six other states with legislatures controlled by the GOP, legislators are maneuvering to wrest power to oversee elections away from governors, secretaries of state, and non-partisan election boards. The strategy is as brazen as it is cynical: just in case gerrymandering and voter suppression are insufficient to produce Republican victories, decisions over post-election recounts and certification will now belong to hyper-partisan Republican state lawmakers.
At one level, these changes have justly drawn criticism as a kind of Jim Crow 2.0, by which minoritarian Republicans are seizing upon every means possible under existing federal law (in addition to the Fifteenth Amendment) to suppress voting by, and representation of, the majority. At another level, they invite truly nightmarish scenarios in which the electoral outrages over contested tallies and de-certified results that were turned aside in 2020 would not only return in 2024 but would succeed, with the help of pliable Republican state legislatures. Yet even short of such a constitutional crisis, the combination of gerrymandering and voter suppression could be enough to insure a Republican sweep in 2024 and the return of Donald Trump to the White House. With the Supreme Court majority firmly on its side, the minoritarian Republican Party that long ago became a hard right-wing outlier in our politics will have established a firmer a grip on American government — across the board, from top to bottom — than any other party in our history has enjoyed.
Compounding this dire prognosis, there will be nothing that the majority can do about it — or even much of a sense that there is anything to be done. After nullification failed, an increasingly desperate Calhoun had to come up with innovations that, if adopted, would have radically altered the constitutional order, such as establishing a dual presidency divided between the North and the South. In order to overcome the antislavery majority, the Confederates had to commit the treason of secession and war. Today’s Republican minoritarians, by contrast, more like the twentieth-century segregationists but on a vastly larger scale, have been playing entirely by the established and accepted rules, if not always respecting traditional norms, including on matters of judicial appointments and voter suppression. This itself blunts criticism, even from Americans who object to the outcome: Democrats will be in no position to say that the Republicans cheated, and if they tried, Republicans could simply turn around and call them sore losers. Should anyone try to challenge the rules themselves as unconstitutional, the Supreme Court would almost certainly decide otherwise, as it has done about restricting the vote. The Republicans will have triumphed not by repeating Trump’s sedition but instead by manipulating and perverting the system in order to overthrow it. Right-wing Bolsheviks, they will have strangled democracy with its own rope.
Should this happen, it will not be because American politics has broken from its past or succumbed to some alien ideology. It will instead mark the triumph of a form of our politics that stretches back to John C. Calhoun: the tyranny of the minority. The framers of the Constitution feared that tyranny as surely as they did an unchecked majority. Liberals have been raised on warnings about the tyranny of the majority, and have prided themselves, quite rightly, on their commitment to the protection of minorities. But we have reached a point of crisis at which we must remind ourselves that the tyranny of the majority is odious because it is a debasement of the founding principle of democracy, which is majority rule. Democratic majoritarianism was one of the breakthroughs of civilization, and the truest source of political legitimacy. The framers built on that breakthrough by creating a national government that was supposed to reflect a balanced national majority, vastly expanded today beyond what it was in 1787. Now we must worry about protecting the national majority from the minority. We must recognize a minoritarian danger. In a democracy, what is minority rule if not a subversion, and a seizure of power? In its severest test until now, Abraham Lincoln successfully defended the primacy of the majority principle as the nation’s last best protection from anarchy and despotism. Should we fail the same test today, historians will be left to examine the irony of how the Republican Party that Lincoln helped to found became the vehicle for democracy’s destruction.