WASHINGTON – When Donald Trump incited a mob attack on the US Capitol building on Jan. 6, an insurrection in which five people died, one of the former president’s supporters brandished a Confederate flag inside the halls of the Capitol — a breach that, as historians have noted, did not occur even during the Civil War. It was an ugly image and an unfortunately fitting end to a violent, hate-filled presidency.
Now, with Trump finally out of office, the nation is left wondering whether it can overcome his dark legacy. President Biden used his inaugural address Wednesday to insist that it can. “Here we stand, just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground,” he said. “It did not happen. It will never happen. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.”
But the idea of overcoming such a destructive confluence of crises — some triggered and others exacerbated by Trump — can seem naive, as Biden admitted. After all, tens of thousands of people are dying from COVID-19 each week; millions of Americans are losing their jobs every month; and thousands of National Guard troops have been deployed to protect Washington from more white nationalist violence, leaving the nation’s capital in a solemn mood on what has historically been a day of celebration.
But there is reason to be hopeful. Take, for example, the last time Washington, D.C., was attacked by people waving the Confederate flag — in 1864.
While it’s true that the Confederate flag never reached the Capitol building during the Civil War, the Confederacy did attack Washington in what became known as the Battle of Fort Stevens. Under the command of General Jubal Anderson Early, Confederate troops stormed the Union capital and fought a deadly battle several miles from the city’s core. Abraham Lincoln went to the battlefield to observe the warfare and came under enemy fire — the only time that a sitting president has.
Despite Washington’s lackluster defense at the time, the Confederacy’s assault on the capital failed. Early drew back his troops after realizing it would cost him too many lives to conquer the city. Though the attack failed, Early left the city feeling optimistic about his cause. “We haven’t taken Washington,” he said, “but we scared Abe Lincoln like hell!”
But Early’s belief that he shook the president’s or the capital’s spirit proved false. Despite some well-to-do residents and members of Congress fleeing the city to avoid the threat of a Confederate attack, Lincoln remained undeterred and the city rebounded.
There’s reason to be afraid of the white supremacist insurrectionists and the threat they pose to the city and the country in the coming months and years. They themselves have been heralding their failed insurrection as a success because they created that fear. But their gratification from their failed plot is similar to Early’s proclamation after leaving Washington in defeat: a tad premature. Washington will rebound, and the country will too.
The full history of the Battle of Fort Stevens is, of course, not so neat; Lincoln was assassinated and Reconstruction failed. But the fight for civil rights and Black liberation continued. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, a Second Reconstruction, finally created a lasting multiethnic democracy in America. And today, the conditions are even more conducive for a Third Reconstruction — as the Rev. William Barber calls the current fight for civil rights — to succeed. Women, for example, can vote, unlike the time of the Civil War. The nation is more diverse than ever before, and more people from historically marginalized groups occupy the halls of power. And, despite the country’s hyperpolarization and seemingly irreconcilable divisions, we are not actually at war with ourselves.
Still, as Biden said, progress is not inevitable. The next few years — or decades — will probably be turbulent. White supremacy will continue to manifest in different ways, and the threat of political violence will not disappear overnight. But Biden must press on with an ambitious antiracist, antipoverty agenda. And no matter how loud the backlash to the Third Reconstruction becomes, no matter how long Trumpism lingers, Biden must not lose sight of the fact that the resistance to white supremacy has never been so empowered — the ultimate reason to have hope for America’s multiethnic democracy.
This is the nation’s chance to overcome centuries of injustice. The president — and the country — must not squander it.