CREDIT: SAUL LOEB/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Long ago I sat in Dr. Mancini’s course 145, American History to the Civil War. Back then his exclamations were lost on me. “Can you believe it?! A peaceful transfer of power?!” Washington had given his farewell address and Jefferson his oath of office. He continued posing his loud, rhetorical questions, asking if we understood what had happened, if we understood what it all really meant – we could do little but stare back silently.
“And to this day, power has always transferred peacefully in the United States.” We were a nation in infancy. A nation whose philosophies and mechanisms had no precedent, no assurances that they would work. Where regime change and power transfer had usually been accompanied by violence, here the exchange was peaceful, moral and organized. Where regime change had usually been accomplished through war, here it was achieved through democracy. Britain, France and no doubt many others looked on expecting this to be the moment that the lofty experiment came crashing down. Instead, it flourished.
Maybe that French and English pessimism was prescient, and it simply took until January 7th of 2020 to finally bare fruit. Maybe our unravelling was never set in stone at all, and this is simply the consequence of numbing ourselves to principles we now almost universally take for granted.
Regardless, the event is surreal. Who could imagine far right protestors scaling the capitol building like ants? Who could imagine the confederate flag – the flag of betrayal, of slavery, that tore the union in half – being paraded around so proudly? Who could imagine a man in a Viking helmet power posing from behind the desk? The lectern being stolen? A man being beaten to death with a fire extinguisher? A veteran being killed? To a huge extent the past four years seem entirely cartoonish. But I believe that all political events have a metaphysical consequence.
Long ago I came across a quote in a book whose title and author I cannot remember. It said the Romans laughed as they were dying. Perhaps some historical moments are just that subtle. So subtle you don’t realize it’s the end. Or don’t realize you are now on the decline and had better do something about it. Maybe half the Romans knew and the other half didn’t. Maybe there were debates about what was really happening. Maybe they looked at Nero, Caligula, Commodus and all the others as jokes until they weren’t anymore. A precedent has been set. The unthinkable has occurred in the United States. It doesn’t matter if it was badly organized and ultimately failed. A philosophical and metaphysical line has been crossed. The question now is whether or not we can uncross it.