Peace on Earth? Good will to all men?
The wish for world peace has become a darkly comic cliche, as evidenced by a once-popular bumper sticker that suggested motorists “visualize whirled peas.” When Hollywood satirizes beauty contests, it features young women who will work for “world peace.” That supposedly shows a certain superficiality, an obvious naivete about the impulses of humankind.
But if peace throughout the world has always been unobtainable, the ideal of peace here at home has been taken for granted. The peoples of this republic have been at peace with each other for the last century-and-a-half, having rebuilt and strengthened our democracy after a devastating civil war. The nation has never fully realized the proclamations of its founding charters, but it has made great strides in the right direction.
Until now. A year ago this week, the U.S. Capitol was the scene of a violent insurrection against the democratically elected government, a riotous, deadly coup attempt by men and women who would have tossed out the U.S. Constitution if they hadn’t been stopped. They demanded to reinstate the rule of their chosen leader, Donald Trump, even though he had been defeated in a free and fair contest.
Since then, the breach has only widened, the ugly chasm threatening to swallow up what was once the world’s leading democracy. The United States has already fallen from its top spot among democratic nations, according to organizations that monitor such things. A report from a European think tank, International IDEA, labels the U.S. a “backsliding democracy,” a trend that accelerated in 2019 when Trump, already worried about his reelection campaign, began to sow the seeds of doubt about the election results.
As recently as 2016, American citizens took for granted the peaceful transfer of power, the hallmark of a functioning democracy. When Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, her supporters were stunned, but they accepted the results. Clinton won a majority of votes nationwide, but the Constitution stipulates a process that flows through the Electoral College, and political and civic leaders of all stripes respected that process.
Now, however, it is commonplace for Republican voters to say that President Joe Biden’s victory was not legitimate, that it was stolen through massive fraud. That’s a lie, but no matter. A December poll from the University of Massachusetts Amherst showed that only 21% of Republicans believe Biden won legitimately.
Indeed, many Republican candidates for political office — from local to state to federal posts — insist that Biden stole the election. That has become as acceptable and expected a policy position as the insistence on a strong military and resistance to the legality of abortion.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, many leading Republicans, including some among Trump’s supporters, were horrified. Even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Trump flunky, was angry with his lame-duck leader. “The president bears responsibility,” he said back then. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed: “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president.”
Since then, however, McConnell has tried to assuage Trump’s supporters and suggested that the country should “move on.” McCarthy has gone further, trying to prevent a congressional committee investigating the insurrection from getting evidence it needs.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who has had competition for the title “craziest member of Congress” but has won the contest, has suggested a “national divorce” between liberals and conservatives, which sounds a lot like a call for another civil war. And among Trump’s followers, there are plenty of armed zealots ready to heed the call.
Already, the FBI and other national intelligence experts have pointed to domestic terrorism as one of the biggest threats facing the country. Across the nation, public officials have been threatened for carrying out their legal duties — whether for enforcing mask ordinances to safeguard public health or for protecting free and fair elections. Victims even include Republican officials who have refused to go along with Trump’s Big Lie.
Our republic is on the brink, its generations of peaceful political coexistence threatened by those who don’t believe in democracy when it doesn’t allow them to get their way. Here’s hoping the coming year doesn’t bring a fracture that proves beyond repair.
Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007.