This extended moment of history reminds me of Washington in the years before and during the Civil War. There was a kind of hysterical intensity among our political class in those days, on all sides. The instability was so dramatic—Rep.

Preston Brooks

caning Sen.

Charles Sumner

on the floor of the Senate in 1856, poor

Mary Todd Lincoln

with her rage and manias, and her husband telling her that if she continues like this she’ll wind up in the asylum. Those are famous examples, but you can’t pick up a book about those days and not see what looks like real and widespread personal destabilization. There was a lot of self-medicating, as they say. The journals and diaries of

Mary Chesnut,

who resided in the heart of the Washington establishment as the country broke apart and in capitals of the Confederacy as it formed, tell constantly of the officers and politicos coming to her home to drink into the night, and the ladies and their laudanum. Something strange had been let loose as things broke apart.

Richard Nixon congratulates John F. Kennedy during the swearing-in ceremony as Lyndon B. Johnson looks on, Jan. 20, 1961.



Photo:

-/AFP via Getty Images

I started thinking things were entering Civil War territory during the

Brett Kavanaugh

hearings in 2018 and the demonstrations around it—the hissing mobs in a Senate office building, where 293 were arrested; the screams as the Judiciary Committee chairman began his opening statement; the harassing of senators on elevators; the surrounding of the Supreme Court and scratching on its big bronze doors. I know the charges against Justice Kavanaugh were grave, I know they incited passion on both sides, but this looked to me not like activism, which to achieve anything must have at its core seriousness, maturity and discipline, but like untreated mental illness.

And then of course the insurrection of Jan. 6, the prime example of this new, strange era.

Connected are

Ginni Thomas’s

texts to White House chief of staff

Mark Meadows

in the days after the 2020 election. They capture two characteristics of radicals on both sides, now and maybe forever. The first is that they have extreme respect for their own emotions: If they feel it, it’s true. The other is that they tend to be stupid, in the sense of having little or no historical knowledge or the sense of proportion such knowledge brings.

The texts were revealed last week by

Bob Woodward

of the Washington Post and

Robert Costa

of CBS News, and you have seen them. In the days after the election, Mrs. Thomas warned Mr. Meadows of “the greatest Heist of our History.” There’s proof: “Watermarked ballots in over 12 states have been part of a huge Trump & military white hat sting operation in 12 key battleground states.” There will be justice: “Biden crime family & ballot fraud co-conspirators . . . are being arrested & detained for ballot fraud right now & over coming days, & will be living in barges off GITMO to face military tribunals for sedition.” “Do not concede,” she warned him. “It takes time for the army who his gathering for his back.”

This is a person who lives in the heart of the Washington establishment and had no proof for any of the wild things she is saying. But when you’re a conspiracist, every way you look there’s a grassy knoll. Naturally the chief of staff wrote back. “This is a fight of good versus evil.” “Evil always looks like the victor until the King of Kings triumphs. Do not grow weary in well doing. The fight continues.” He appears to be patronizing her and speaking in a way thoroughly in line with

Sinclair Lewis

and the great American tradition of hucksters wrapping their con in the language of Christian faith.

But it’s worth noting the focus of their obsession, the continued belief in some quarters that

Donald Trump

really won the 2020 election.

Joe Biden

won not closely but by seven million votes, and every challenge was thrown out of court, including by Trump-appointed judges.

Here we should remember the man who may well have had a presidential election stolen from him, but who ended a stop-the-steal movement before it could take off. It was 1960, Vice President

Richard Nixon

vs. Sen.

John F. Kennedy.

It was the closest popular vote in the 20th century, with Kennedy receiving 34.2 million votes and Nixon 34.1 million, a margin of barely one-sixth of a percentage point. Widespread fraud was suspected in Illinois and Texas, which had enough electoral votes to be decisive.

Nixon’s biographers haven’t usually agreed with his political views—they’ve mostly been fascinated liberals—but virtually all speak with respect of this chapter in his life. The best treatment is in

John Farrell’s

very fine “Richard Nixon: The Life.” “In Chicago, election fraud was a work of art,” Mr. Farrell writes. On that nail-biting election night Mayor

Richard J. Daley

called Kennedy in Hyannisport and said, “Mr. President, with a little bit of luck and the help of a few close friends, you’re going to carry Illinois.”

As for Texas, everyone knew what

Robert Caro

later established, that

Lyndon B. Johnson,

Kennedy’s vice presidential nominee, had the state wired, with credible charges of ballot-box fraud going back to 1948.

Theodore White,

the journalist who helped invent the mythos around JFK, wrote in 1975 that no one will ever know who won in 1960, but in Illinois and Texas, Democratic “vote-stealing had definitely taken place on a massive scale.”

Nixon believed the election was stolen. President

Dwight D. Eisenhower

and Senate Minority Leader

Everett Dirksen

wanted him to challenge the results. Nixon thought it could take months and might not succeed, but his thoughts went deeper than that. In the Cold War, the nuclear age, unity at home and abroad was needed. Young democracies looked up to us. If they thought our elections could be stolen it would hurt the world’s morale.

The New York Herald Tribune had launched an investigative series, but Nixon talked the reporter into stopping it: “Our country cannot afford the agony of a constitutional crisis.”

In

Evan Thomas’s

brisk “Being Nixon: A Man Divided,” he reports that the GOP wise man

Bryce Harlow

urged Nixon to challenge, but Nixon said no: “It’d tear the country to pieces. You can’t do that.”

So he didn’t. On Jan. 6, 1961, Nixon presided over the formal certification of his opponent’s election. “This is the first time in 100 years that a candidate for the presidency announced the result of an election in which he was defeated and announced the victory of his opponent,” he said. “In our campaigns, no matter how hard-fought they may be, no matter how close the election may turn out to be, those who lose accept the verdict and support those who win.”

For once his colleagues gave that complicated man his due, with a standing ovation that wouldn’t stop until Nixon took a second bow.

History went on and took its turns. Nixon came back and won the presidency in 1968. But when you read all this you wonder: Why can’t self-professed patriots love America like that now—maturely, protectively? And: How important it is to know something of history, to know it so well you can almost trust it. Instead of just feeling what you feel and making a hash of things.

Main Street (11/09/20): Where might Trump voters have got the idea that a president was illegitimate? Images: Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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