Five years ago this month, I wrote a column for this page titled "As radicals arise, gridlock never looked so good."
Looking back on it, I feel pretty good about that piece. Which is nice, because I'm not feeling good about all that much just now.
Donald Trump's election to the presidency still seemed unlikely in January 2016, but not impossible. Noting that America's founders (specifically James Madison) had warned later generations that "enlightened leaders will not always be at the helm," I urged readers to see the looming presidential campaign as: "A fine moment to reconsider the various foolhardy ways we modern Americans tend to undervalue and undermine the awkward, gridlock-producing checks and balances our political system places on the powers extremists might wield one day."
Our best assurance against the danger of a reckless egomaniac or ideologue in the White House, I argued, was that "America's complex and cumbersome system of government constrains every office holder, making it improbable that even a champion demagogue could enact destabilizing innovations. …"
This past week the coequal legislative branch stood up to a thuggish political mob assault on the halls of Congress and certified, in bipartisan fashion, the voters' Nov. 3 rejection of Trump.
It was an electoral verdict delivered under our system through 50 separate state elections, translated into the votes of the Electoral College and upheld in independent state and federal courts across the land, including independent judges and justices nominated by Trump himself.
In short, America's complex and cumbersome system of checks and balances did its job, under pressure. It was Trump who sought desperately to innovate, to simplify things, by calling on Vice President Mike Pence to single-handedly sweep the election outcome aside. Instead, the system held.
That said, the country is shaken. It's true as the president loves to boast that about 75 million voters supported his re-election. I'd guess about 70 million of them might like to deny that long about now, maybe even to themselves — even though many of them likely voted against today's feverish American left more than for Trump.
As a commentator who has tried on occasion to shoulder the challenging task of defending Trump and especially his supporters against sometimes unreasonable attacks, I feel humiliated by this final (let's hope) disgrace.
That's because the rule of law, institutionalized through those awkward, complicated mechanisms, is all that stands between us and mob rule leading to tyranny. The most important sobering truth reaffirmed by recent events is not merely that the norms of democracy are fragile — but that the veneer of civilization is thin.
Which moves me to revisit another piece published on this page, this one in response to repeated mob lawlessness last summer, largely fueled by racial tensions. "America's greatest danger is 'the mobocratic spirit' " (Aug. 29) was an excerpt from an 1838 speech of Abraham Lincoln.
"[T]here is … something of ill-omen amongst us," Lincoln said. "I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice. …"
Whenever and wherever lawlessness, however inspired, is excused and tolerated, Lincoln added, and "by instances of the perpetrators of such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit are encouraged to become lawless in practice … [and] step by step … all the walls erected for the defense of the persons and property of individuals, are trodden down. …"
In the face of "this mobocratic spirt," Lincoln warned, democratic government "cannot stand." Its preservation depends, he said, on "reverence for the laws" becoming "the political religion of the nation."
This week it may be enough to say "amen."
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.