President Donald Trump’s announcement not to attend the next inauguration of his successor Joe Biden and the sacking of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob mark a level of division in the United States not seen since the Civil War.
The last time a sitting president refused to attend the inauguration of his duly elected successor – a major ceremonial event in American politics that is also an official transfer of power – was in 1869. The Civil War had been fought from 1861 to 1865 to end slavery, and the nation remained deeply divided.
“The similarities in political trends are truly staggering,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston.
President Andrew Johnson, a divisive figure who, like Trump, had been impeached by the House but not removed by the Senate, did not attend the swearing-in of Ulysses S Grant, elected in 1868.
Johnson, a southerner who became president when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, had undermined efforts in the north to liberate blacks and impose anti-slavery governments in the former Confederate states. It attracted marginal groups and created a grievance policy that attracted southerners who wanted to bring the civil war to justice.
Grant had been the victorious general of the Union army that had defeated Confederacy. He, like Biden now, was seen as a unifier capable of bringing the country back with an emphasis on fairness and decency, Rottinghaus told Al Jazeera.
Grant, who didn’t want to be associated with Johnson, refused to get in the same car with him from the White House to Capitol Hill for the grand opening. Instead, Johnson held his own big rally with supporters on the opening day, which was March 4 at the time. The 20th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1933, postponed the date of the presidential inauguration until January 20.
Florida Republican Senator Rick Scott urged Trump to “reconsider his decision to skip” Biden’s inauguration.
Scott, who was among the few Republican senators who voted against certification of Biden’s electoral victory, said he planned to attend. “It is an important tradition that demonstrates the peaceful transfer of power to our people and to the world,” he said.
Speaking to reporters in Wilmington, Delaware earlier on Friday, Biden said “it’s a good thing,” Trump will skip the inauguration.
Meanwhile, the invasion of the U.S. Capitol on January 6 by a crowd of Trump supporters is reminiscent of similar state-level events in the post-Civil War era.
“We’ve never had this at our government headquarters,” said Jeremi Suri, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.
“But we have a long history of popular violence in America. It’s something we don’t like to talk about, ”Suri told Al Jazeera.
Suri compared the invasion of the US Capitol by pro-Trump forces to the “Colfax Massacre” in Louisiana in 1873, when a white militia overthrew a democratically elected governor and killed 100 black freedmen.
It was the worst episode of racial and political violence in the post-Civil War post-reconstruction period and reflected the divisions that led to the submission of competing voters lists to Congress in the 1876 presidential election.
“It’s extremely rare to see a full assault on the Capitol and even rarer to see a president give it speed,” Rottinghaus said. “In fact, we didn’t see a significant parallel.”
In 1954, Puerto Rican Nationalists entered the United States Capitol and fired bullets at members of Congress from the visitors’ balcony in the House chamber. Five US officials were injured but recovered. Puerto Ricans were arrested and jailed until 1979.
Bullet holes can still be seen in a wooden desk on the floor of the House and bulletproof veneer was installed behind all seats in the 435-member House, providing members with shelter during the attack on the Wednesday crowd.
A recent precursor came when heavily armed protesters briefly confronted police and entered the state capital of Michigan in March to protest Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders when the coronavirus pandemic exploded.
There are few other historical comparisons.
The British sacked and torched the United States Capitol and the White House in 1814 during what is known as the “War of 1812” between the newly independent United States and Great Britain.
In 1998, a lone gunman made his way past a security checkpoint on the United States Capitol and reached the entrance to the House Majority Whip’s office. The man, later identified as schizophrenic, exchanged gunfire with a policeman who was killed but injured the intruder.
In the September 11, 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda, the U.S. Capitol was evacuated and senior House and Senate leaders were returned to safe quarters after hijacked planes struck the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York.
Security has been stepped up and new underground security rooms have been built to secure the leaders in the event of another emergency.
After this week’s incident on Capitol Hill, in which five people died, the United States appears historically diminished, Rottinghaus said.
“We look like a third-rate power whose capital is vulnerable and whose democracy is threatened,” he said.