President Donald Trump’s announcement that he will not attend successor Joe Biden’s upcoming inauguration and the sacking of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob mark a level of division in the United States not seen since the American Civil War.
The last time a sitting president refused to attend his duly elected successor’s inauguration – a major ceremonial event in US politics that is also a formal transfer of power – was in 1869. The Civil War had been fought from 1861 to 1865 over ending slavery, and the nation remained deeply divided.
“The similarities in the political trends are really astounding,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a 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, who was elected in 1868.
Johnson, a southerner who became president when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, had undermined the efforts of the north to enfranchise Blacks and impose anti-slavery governments in the former Confederate states. He attracted fringe groups and created a grievance politics that appealed to those southerners who wanted to re-litigate the Civil War.
Grant had been the victorious general of the Union Army that defeated the Confederacy. He, like Biden now, was seen as a unifier who could bring the country back together with an emphasis on fairness and decency, Rottinghaus told Al Jazeera.
Grant, who did not want to be associated with Johnson, refused to ride in the same carriage with him from the White House to the Capitol for the inauguration. Instead, Johnson held his own huge rally with supporters on Inauguration Day, which was March 4 back in those days. The 20th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1933, moved the presidential inauguration date to January 20.
Florida Republican Senator Rick Scott urged Trump “to reconsider his decision to skip” Biden’s inauguration.
Scott, who was among a few Republican senators who voted against certifying Biden’s election win, 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 US Capitol on January 6 by a mob of Trump supporters recalls similar events at the state level in the post-Civil War period.
“We have never had this at the seat of our government,” said Jeremi Suri, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.
“But we have a long history of mob violence in America. It’s something we don’t like to talk about,” Suri told Al Jazeera.
Suri likened 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-Reconstruction period after the Civil War and reflected divisions that led to competing slates of electors being submitted to Congress in the 1876 presidential election.
“It is extremely rare to see a full assault on the Capitol and even more rare to see a president give it steam,” Rottinghaus said. “In fact, we haven’t seen a significant parallel.”
In 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists entered the US Capitol and fired bullets at members of Congress from the visitor’s balcony in the House chamber. Five US Representatives were injured but recovered. The Puerto Ricans were arrested and imprisoned until 1979.
Bullet holes can still be seen in a wooden desk on the House floor and bulletproof plating was installed behind all of the seats in the 435-member House, giving members a place to shelter during Wednesday’s mob attack.
One recent precursor was when heavily-armed protesters briefly confronted police and entered Michigan’s state capitol in March to protest Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders when the coronavirus pandemic broke out.
There are few other historical comparisons.
The British sacked and burned the US Capitol and the White House in 1814 during what is known as “The War of 1812” between the newly independent US and Britain.
In 1998, a lone gunman shot his way past a security checkpoint at the US Capitol and got as far as the entrance to House majority whip’s office. The man, later identified as a schizophrenic, exchanged gunfire with a police officer who was killed but wounded the intruder.
In the September 11, 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda, the US Capitol was evacuated, and senior leaders of the House and Senate were removed to safe rooms after hijacked airplanes hit the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York.
Security was tightened and new underground safe rooms were built to secure leaders in the event of another such emergency.
After this week’s incident at the Capitol, in which five people died, the US appears diminished in an historic way, Rottinghaus said.
“We look like a third-rate power whose capital is vulnerable and whose democracy is in jeopardy,” he said.