Since the Jan. 6 attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol we’ve been treated to the spectacle of people like Rep.Kevin McCarthy, Sen. Ted Cruz, and others within the Republican party invoking a spirit of “unity” as they urge Democrats to temper their response to a crisis that Republicans themselves were responsible for causing.
As Sarah Churchwell, writing for the New York Review of Books, observes, these newfound calls for “unity” are from the exact same people who have constantly cast themselves as the “Party of Lincoln” at various times over the past four years.
Republican leaders enjoy flashing their badges as the “Party of Lincoln,” preening themselves on Lincoln’s moral victories and declaring themselves his rightful political heirs. “Our party, the Republican Party, was founded to defeat slavery. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, signed the Emancipation Proclamation,” Senator Ted Cruz declaimed at the Republican National Convention in 2016, as a prelude to endorsing for president a man whom he had once called a “sniveling coward” and “pathological liar,” a man who had insulted Cruz’s wife and accused his father of conspiring to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. Senator Marco Rubio is another who presumes to speak for “the party of Lincoln,” including the time he tweeted, in February 2016, that Donald Trump would “never be the nominee of the party of Lincoln,” as does House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who managed to recall a few familiar words from the Gettysburg Address in honor of Lincoln’s birthday last year.
But, as Churchwell illustrates, the real Abraham Lincoln had some strong opinions about the kind of treachery we witnessed on Jan. 6, one in which white supremacist seditionists perpetrated a mob-style attack on the seat of American government. And his opinions were not couched in any wishful concept of “unity.” His views, in fact, were unsparing and to the point:
Lincoln consistently likened the minoritarian efforts of the South to a mob, as it employed threats, intimidation, blackmail, political chicanery, voter fraud, and violence to coerce the majority into giving way to ever more unreasonable demands. “We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose,” he told John Hay, his private secretary. For Lincoln, as he said repeatedly, the Civil War was more than a question of the moral wrongs of slavery, as fundamental to the conflict as those were; the principles of democratic self-government and the political character of the nation were also at stake.
As applied to the events of Jan. 6, the Republicans’ vision of “unity” is one in which their party escapes blame for the horrifying spectacle of a treasonous, would-be despot inciting his rabid and deluded minions to violently desecrate our national heritage, all egged on and applauded by complicit state and federal officials within the Republican ranks.
As Churchwell suggests, not only would Lincoln have rejected any invocation of “unity” under such circumstances, he would have been appalled:
The actual party of Lincoln made the opposite decision, believing that the deep principles of preserving the Union far outweighed the superficial comity of false unity. Lincoln had been pressured on all sides to capitulate to Southern demands, including permitting the South to secede, to “let the erring sisters depart in peace!” But part of his reason for refusing to do so was, as the historian James M. McPherson put it in This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War (2007), the fear of setting a “fatal precedent,” one that could be “invoked by disaffected minorities in the future, perhaps by the losing side in another presidential election.” And so they made the apparently paradoxical decision to fight a civil war in an effort to achieve, not unity, but a more perfect union.
In fact what occurred on Jan. 6 was exactly what Lincoln foresaw as the ultimate test for our nation’s survival. As Churchwell points out, contrary to espousing any attempt at “unity” with such insurrectionists, Lincoln’s counsel was to bring the hammer down, hard, on attempts at insurrection by way of the mob.
In particular, Lincoln cautioned against turning a blind eye to mob violence in the futile effort to maintain a tenuous and self-devouring peace. Leaving the perpetrators of such violence “unpunished,” he held, would only embolden the mob and inevitably destroy democratic self-government, as “the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice” and “absolutely unrestrained.” Without accountability, such a mob would “make a jubilee of the suspension of [the Government’s] operations; and pray for nothing so much, as its total annihilation.”
In reality, it’s not “unity” that Republicans want, but absolution. They want Americans to forget what we just witnessed and what we are now likely to witness over and over again as the delusional, poisonous racism fanned by the GOP over the last thirty years intrudes, unsolicited and unwanted, into Americans’ daily existence.
As Lincoln well understood, there can be no “unity” where our democratic traditions are under attack by an insensate, racist right-wing mob.