We are preparing for Thanksgiving, assembling gifts for the holidays, maybe beginning to decorate the house. Prices are high, to be sure, but there is a sense — a welcome feeling, a relief, really — that things are normal. We are talking about football and girding for the onset of colder weather. Sweaters are coming out of the drawer. The country is breathing easier, if not exactly breathing easy. It’s almost as if we are living in the first few lines from a music video featuring Carrie Underwood and Michael W. Smith: “All is well.”
It may be. But the surface calm is masking an inescapable truth: We are coming through two of the most tumultuous peacetime years in our history.
There are few antecedents. The tensions of the pre-Civil War years following the 1857 Dred Scott decision, surely. The Great Depression years of 1929-1930, of course. Maybe the years 1956-1957, with the Suez crisis, the rebellion in Hungary and the Soviet launch of Sputnik, all of which unnerved a country that supposedly was sleeping through the Dwight Eisenhower 1950s.
Here are the moving parts of our own Time of Transition, a phrase that might someday constitute the title of a history of the two years we have just experienced. They might best be seen as iron laws that have been bent while we were struggling to contain the effects of a global pandemic:
• Transitions of political power are peaceful and uneventful. This is the signature element of American politics, begun when John Adams relinquished the White House to his rival, Thomas Jefferson. The word “coup” is something other countries use. Even bitter rivals — Harry Truman and Eisenhower — ride together, in awkward silence, en route to the Capitol for the inauguration of a new president. This was violated last year.
• Election results are respected. This is the bedrock characteristic of our democracy, acknowledged even at moments like the 1960 and 2000 elections, when the results might be questioned. Richard Nixon and Al Gore won plaudits from their critics for enshrining this in our civic culture, hoping to ensure the virus of election denial would not create a political pandemic. This precedent has been shattered.
• National landmarks such as the Capitol are inviolable icons of democracy. Protesters have marched on the Capitol, dissenters have mobilized at the Capitol, but until 2021, no mob even contemplated invading the Capitol, breaking past the barriers, laying siege to the legislative chambers and threatening to kill lawmakers who did not follow their demands. The invasion of Jan. 6 is a bloody stain on our history.
• Presidents stay out of politics once out of office. Occasionally former chief executives express their displeasure with their successors — Herbert Hoover is the best example — but they do not wage daily war against their successors. The old chestnut held that nothing was as stale as a politician out of office. That notion may still apply, but the lesson hasn’t reached everyone.
• Members of the Presidents’ Club are cordial and cooperative. They go together to state funerals (Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter attended the rites of slain Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at the behest of Ronald Reagan, who challenged two of them for the GOP presidential nomination and ran against one of them in a general election). This video (youtu.be/DgjyNR2iHN4) shouts out how much we have lost. Those four, plus George H.W. Bush, appeared together at the Reagan Library in 1991. Five presidents, from Carter to Barack Obama, attended the 2017 Hurricane Relief Concert when Donald J. Trump was president — but absent. Trump also didn’t join them in an advertising campaign to promote COVID vaccinations.
• Parties in power take devastating losses in midterms. Since 1938, only Bill Clinton (1998) and George W. Bush (2002) failed to lose seats in the House in midterm elections. Joe Biden lost House seats, but not with the magnitude of Clinton (52 in 1994) or Obama (63 in 2010).
• The country is forever young. At the time of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was 33, John Hancock 39, Patrick Henry and John Adams 40, Paul Revere 41 and George Washington 44. The oldest signer of the declaration, Benjamin Franklin, was 70 — a decade younger than Biden, a half-dozen years younger than Trump. The average lifespan of an American has exactly doubled since the beginning of the Civil War. Biden is older than the current average lifespan (78.9 years), and Trump is swiftly approaching that figure.
• The country looks toward the future, not the past. Both Biden and Trump have violated this maxim.
Biden is stuck in a past when Republicans and Democrats fought like demons on the floor and then repaired to the Senate Dining Room for a bowl of the famous Senate Bean Soup, or maybe to the Burning Tree Country Club, where a top Democrat (House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill of Massachusetts) and a top Republican (Sen. John Warner of Virginia) once were members at the same time. One of my favorite pictures is of O’Neill (cigar in mouth) and Ford (in argyle sweater) straining to locate the former president’s errant golf ball at the 1984 Bob Hope Desert Classic.
Trump is stuck in 2020, when his insistence that the presidential election was stolen from him began. Now he is mounting an effort to become the only president besides Grover Cleveland to reclaim the White House after losing it. Nixon ran for president three times, but most repeat candidates fall short. Henry Clay tried five times to win the presidency, Harold Stassen nine times, George McGovern three times (and contemplated a fourth) — and they failed each time. Then there is the political figure who most resembles Trump: William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska. He lost three times.
After six years with Biden and Trump as president, the country might be ready to heed the words of Winston Churchill — who after all, by virtue of his mother, born in Brooklyn, New York, was half-American. He warned that “if we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”
That’s eight iron laws bent or broken in less than two years. No wonder the country craves what Warren Harding a century ago called normalcy.