From Niall Ferguson at Bloomie:
Major pandemics often coincide with religious or political contagions. In his “History of the Peloponnesian War,” Thucydides records how, during the plague that devastated Athens between 430 and 426 BC, people seemed to lose their moral compasses.
…During the Black Death that swept across Europe in the 1340s, flagellant orders roamed from town to town, ritually whipping themselves in acts of atonement intended to ward off divine wrath…The flagellants were a millenarian movement with a potentially revolutionary agenda that flouted the authority of the clergy and directed popular wrath against Jewish communities…
…The worst pandemic of the modern era, the misnamed Spanish influenza of 1918-1919, coincided with a wave of violent revolution as the ideas of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks swept the Russian Empire and sparked proletarian risings all over the world.
…What, I’ve been asked, is the best historical analogy for last week’s events in Washington? None fits perfectly. Oliver Cromwell’s dissolution of England’s Long Parliament in 1653? The obvious difference is that Cromwell succeeded in establishing himself as lord protector. The dissolution of the French National Assembly by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte in 1851? Again, Bonaparte actually succeeded in establishing the Second Empire. How about Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922? The difference there is that King Victor Emmanuel threw Prime Minister Luigi Facta under the bus by refusing to declare a state of emergency, and then appointing Mussolini in his place…Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 was, like Thursday’s affair, a fiasco. But it didn’t happen in the national capital and it wasn’t inspired by either the German chancellor or the president…My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Smith draws a parallel with Japan in the 1930s, but there (as in multiple South American and Middle Eastern coups) a key role was played by ultranationalist junior officers in the military. Something similar goes for the Tejerazo, the storming of the Spanish parliament by 200 Civil Guard officers led by Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero in 1981. By contrast, the American military would do nothing to support an unconstitutional seizure of power. Support for Trump diminishes the higher up the command structure you go, with recently retired generals among his most vehement critics.
…Pandemics, remember, are associated with religious and political extremism. The fear of illness, mutual suspicion, quack theories, hypochondria, hyper-skepticism and general mental dislocation caused by social distancing, lockdowns and unemployment — taken together, these things tend to generate outlandish behavior.
…Look, if you want evidence of pandemic madness, at the people who ran amok among the legislature last week. The idea that this was a false-flag operation by far-left Antifa in disguise is obviously absurd. Although the mob seems to have included a few retired military members or off-duty police who had the training and the tools for a serious terrorist attack, this was mostly the lunatic fringe of the American far right in an unholy alliance with the QAnon conspiracy cult.
…For a brief moment on Wednesday afternoon, I felt a strong temptation to throw up my hands and admit that this really was Weimar America after all, and that Trump was indeed the tyrant depicted in so many articles over the past five years.
A closer look at this motley crew of misfits brought me back to reality — that, and the realization that, far from proclaiming presidential rule by decree and securing the TV stations (which is what coup leaders are supposed to do), Trump and his children were vacuously watching the mayhem on television. Just as the QAnon (and KKKAnon) mob were too busy filming their own antics to prevent the members of Congress making their escape…
It is possible — I cannot rule it out — that Trump and Trumpism will persist long after his departure from the White House, whether that happens tomorrow via the 25th Amendment, next week via high-speed impeachment, or on Inauguration Day. He would not be the first leader in history to linger long after his departure from high office, insisting that his loyal followers treat him as the rightful president, a kind of 21st-century version of the Jacobite Pretenders to the British throne.
…The dominant media narrative of our time is of profound political polarization, with the potential one day to escalate into civil war. Perhaps that is right, and what we really witnessed last week was the Trumpist equivalent of John Brown’s abortive revolt at Harpers Ferry, a precursor to the Civil War (even if the extreme Trumpists’ views on race are clearly the opposite of the abolitionist Brown’s).
If that pessimistic view is right, then we are only just emerging from the first wave of Trumpism. Like the new variants of Covid-19 discovered in England and South Africa, which spread more rapidly than earlier strains, it could surge back in an even more virulent form.
But my contrarian view is that, rather than worsening the country’s polarization, the events of the past few months have in fact substantially restored the center ground. Trump lost in the November election; but so did the far left of the Democratic Party. Biden personifies the middle of the road. He didn’t sweep to power on a blue wave, because many voters who didn’t back Trump nevertheless voted for Republicans down the ballot. But for Trump’s criminal behavior, his party might have held the Senate.
…Shorn of power, assailed by litigation, his finances tottering and his access to social media abruptly curtailed, Trump may fade as quickly as a virus with a reproduction number below 1 — to become no more than a seasonal malady, threatening only to those with the intellectual equivalent of comorbidities. The lesson of history is that pandemics eventually end — and so do political manias of the sort that briefly seized the Capitol last week.
That captures my view pretty well with the added point that although Biden is middle ground his economic platform is a push back to the more traditional left of fighting class inequality versus the extremist culture war left of today.
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