After the Capitol Hill mob attack, divisions in the US have been more apparent than ever. Here's a closer look at three crucial periods in US history where political polarisation was at its worst.
On Wednesday, when the US Congress convened to certify Joe Biden’s election win, thousands of angry pro-Trump supporters raided Capitol Building, architecture that was designed to look like the ancient Roman Republic’s Senate, soaking the nation’s capital in chaos.
The founding fathers of America, as well as its presidents, have always enjoyed comparing themselves to Ancient Rome, describing their capital as a shining city on the hill just like the Eternal City.
But events on January 6 once again testify that even the world’s oldest and most powerful democracy is as fragile as the Roman Republic, which had been led by the Senate for nearly five centuries until Julius Caesar's power grab in 44 BC, which turned the Republic into a monarchy led by a succession of several emperors.
Trump’s angry mob reminded fellow Americans that a similar power grab was possible today in America. Just like Caesar, who forced the Senate to declare him and his successors as their lifelong dictators, Trump has long refused to implement a peaceful transition of power, a crucial principle of democracy.
Unlike the Roman strongmen like Caesar himself, still considered one of the greatest generals of world history, a figure who won more battles than almost any other Roman military figure, Trump appears to be on the losing side of a decisive political argument, which is over the question of race.
Winning argument across biggest divisions
The racial factor has appeared to dominate American political life from the years that preceded the civil war, up until now.
Since then, the changing nature of America’s population, which has increasingly become diverse, as well as its evolving economic structure that favours globalism, has encouraged its policymakers to transform the country’s political structure.
At every crucial turn, from the Civil War (1861-1865), to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, as well as the current political debate between Trump’s die-hard supporters of Make America Great Again and the Democrats’ diverse alliance of liberal whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Jews and Muslims, it appears that one of the winning political arguments has been inclusiveness.
During the Civil War, the industrialised North, the Union, fought against the slave labour-based agricultural South, the Confederation, defending the abolishment of slavery across the country led by the country’s iconic President Abraham Lincoln.
Through the certification process of Biden’s election, many Congressmen, as well as Biden himself, invoked Lincoln’s words to address the recent insurrection in the capital. Biden ended his statement by quoting Lincoln: “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
On the other hand, many Trump supporters have sported Confederation flags during their recent riots in Capitol Hill, reminding fellow Americans of the country’s racial past.
While some experts believe that the economic argument was a more forceful factor leading to the Civil War than the ideological argument to free slaves to bring racial equality, in the end, the country’s political structure changed, allowing more inclusiveness than before. At the time, the Republican Party was a leading force in that change.
Almost a century later, in the 1960s, the global superpower had again suffered from many racial tensions, with some leading figures like Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X being assassinated. The country was in chaos just like it has been in recent months.
Since the killing of George Floyd by white police officers in May, Black Lives Matter supporters and white supremacists have fought each other in different scenes across the US, showing how much racial tensions are still lingering in the country.
Back in the 1960s, despite assassinations and the Republic Party’s resistance, the Civil Rights Movement, which was backed by much of the Democratic Party, achieved most of its objectives, ending segregation across the nation’s schools, busses and working places with Washington’s embrace of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Like the Civil War, during the days of the Civil Rights Movement, inclusiveness and racial equality were clearly the winning political argument.
Could Trumpism trump?
Nearly six decades later, under the Trump presidency, the US has reached another important turning point in its history as racial tensions have escalated across the country.
While Trump lost the 2020 election and his numerous legal challenges in courts were invalidated, he refused to concede. This was all done in an unprecedented way, deepening divisions across American society. Interestingly, the president invoked the US Civil War in his last failed legal challenge to overturn the election result at the Supreme Court.
"Our Country is deeply divided in ways that it arguably has not been seen since the election of 1860," the Trump petition said, referring to the last presidential election before the Civil War. The petition also pointed out “a high level of distrust between the opposing sides”.
But since the Civil War, the US has changed a lot like other countries. Neither changing demographics of the country, nor its powerful industrialists with their global reach have appeared to favour Trump’s political position.
When allied Roman senators including Caesar’s stepson Brutus defined the assassination of the great general as the only way to protect the Republic, Trump described recent Georgia senate runoffs as “the last line of defence” to preserve an America presumably dominated by its white majority. Georgia was part of the Confederation in the civil war.
Despite his appeal, both seats have been lost to Democratic challengers, signalling that a red state incrementally turns into a battleground by electing the southern state’s first black senator.
But Georgia is not unique in terms of this political trend. America’s white majority will lose its dominant character in the upcoming decades, according to census and other data, which might lead red states to eventually become blue.
Many experts estimate that other minority aspects across the US will inevitably begin to dominate American life in the 2040s. According to different models, by mid-century, non-white populations will exceed over 50 percent, making the country’s white population a minority in the US.
By then, it will be even more difficult to make America white again.