Three weeks after the conclusion of the 2020 presidential election, many Republican members of Congress find themselves boxed in. Some have privately congratulated Joe Biden and Kamala Harris for their historic win. But publicly, most Republicans have remained silent, while others have actively encouraged President Donald Trump’s baseless accusations of mass voter fraud.
The situation these Republicans face is one that many southern members of Congress would have recognized during the aftermath of the 1860 election. Southern congressmen had spent years stirring up anger and promoting fear of their opponents, and were so successful that by 1860 they had lost control of their message. Abraham Lincoln’s election caused a mass movement among white southerners to leave the Union. Even though they knew that the claims being embraced by their constituents were conspiratorial and overblown, many southern members of Congress felt they had to get on board or be left behind.
Cynical public speech aimed at winning political power had consequences in 1860, and it surely will have consequences now. In 1861, those consequences included a four-year Civil War that claimed the lives of 750,000 people and nearly destroyed the American democratic experiment. Thankfully, we’re still a long way from that today. But the experience of 1860 should serve as a warning of what can happen when political leaders deliberately inflame their supporters, trading short-term political gain for long-term ruin.