I've often compared this era in American politics with previous eras, most notably the Antebellum period from Jackson on. Yale historian Joanne Freeman zeroes in on 1850—at least as far as our representatives' behavior in Congress
Although couched in calls for unity, [Republican] warnings are remarkably one-sided. There is no talk of reconciliation or compromise. No acceptance of responsibility. Lots of blame casting. And little willingness to calm and inform their base. Even now, some Republicans refuse to admit that Joe Biden won the election, and the Senate vote on an impeachment trial on Jan. 26 suggests that most Republicans want no investigation and will place no blame. They want reconciliation without apologies, concessions without sacrifice, power without accountability.
This is bullying as politics, the modus operandi of our departed chief. Hardly a Trumpian innovation, its heyday was in the decades before the Civil War. During the 1840s and 1850s, America was divided over the fate of slavery. Political parties were splintering under the strain. National institutions were struggling — and failing — to contain it. The press sensationalized the struggle to serve a cause and sell papers.
Southerners had long dominated the national government, and they felt entitled to that power. They were also worried about losing it, a product of the rise of abolitionism and potentially free states forming in the West. Viewing their violence as defensive and justifiable, they fended off attacks on slavery with force when necessary, demanding compliance or silence from their foes, and sometimes getting it.
For some Southerners, this brand of politics wasn’t much of a stretch; their slave regime was grounded in violence, and mastery was their way of life. Between 1830 and 1860, there were at least 70 violent incidents on the House and Senate floors, most of them prompted by Southerners.
With the centuries-long history of Southern white politicians advocating for Southern white minority power, does their behavior today surprise anyone? Freeman concludes:
It needs to assert the power of democratic institutions and the rule of law with a comprehensive investigation into the attack and punishment of its enablers, not in a spirit of revenge, but justly, fairly and consistently. It’s stunning that it needs to be said, but it must be: People who stage, support, or incite violent attacks on the federal government — whether they’re American citizens, members of Congress or the president himself — should be held accountable, not only to restore order in the present, but to fend off similar attacks in the future. Uniting the nation requires no less.
Yes. Lest we find ourselves lurching through the 1850s again. We all know how that ended.