How accurate is this? That question is all but impossible to answer. Certainly this is not the first time in American history that the end seemed nigh. It has been part of the American parties' dialogue from their inception that the opposition poses a threat to the future of the Republic. The French sociologist Jean-Francois Revel took note of what he called the notable meteorological phenomenon that the dark night of fascism is always about to descend on the United States, yet only lands in Europe.
But does such a concern have special validity in the Age of Trump? Do the attitudes and activities of his administration justify the opposition calling itself the Resistance, evoking the image of the anti-Nazi partisans of the Second World War? In this view, to be other than a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Trumpite is to engage in a species of appeasement at best, collaboration at worst.
The rest of the political spectrum is hardly at ease. A large segment of American society sees the major social and economic changes of recent decades—race-gender-class identity trumping all others; the rising inequality that seems to come hand in hand with the internet revolution—as no less of a threat to the American creed.
What are we as historians to make of all this? Does our perspective afford any greater insight as to its verity? Given the current society's misuse and/or dismissal of the past, probably not. Still, a quick look at what might appear to be similar times might help to put our present discontent in a more useful perspective.
We have had three contested elections in the past 150 years: 1876, 2000, and 2016. So far we have only partisan conjecture as to Trump's election being stolen or improperly secured.
Rutherford B. Hayes's 1876 electoral victory was the work of a partisan commission, and it went to him in exchange for a GOP agreement to complete the dismantling of Radical Reconstruction. The Supreme Court in 2000 ended the election controversy of that year. That Bush won Florida by a couple of hundred votes is at least as likely as that he did not. In any event, no great crisis of the Republic emerged from 2000—except perhaps for an (understandable) Democratic bitterness that blossomed with Trump's popular vote minority in 2016.
But if we're going to speculate about the End Time of the Republic, we have to come up with better analogies than these. The only claimant in my view is the antislavery-Secession crisis of the 1850s, which led inexorably to the Civil War.
Are the divisions in American life today comparable to those of the pre-Civil War years? It would be difficult indeed to argue so. The differences over slavery and secession were far more significant, and deeper, than those over race, gender, or class today.
But there are also some unsettling parallels. The political passions of the 1850s were the product of what has been called “an excess of democracy”: the belief that to be an American meant that any (white) group could adopt their own social customs, form of labor, and whether or not to stay in the Union. This attitude grew hand in hand with the belief that slavery and/or secession were fundamental threats to American democracy. Gender-free bathrooms and economic disparity just aren't yet in the same category of irreconcilable social issues.