Doomed to Repeat?

Janet L. Factor

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

the Declaration of Independence

Make no mistake: a constitutional crisis is in prospect now that Donald J. Trump has assumed the presidency. Much has been said in the press and among individuals about how unprecedented this all is and how American politics has reached a previously undiscovered low. This is not true.

There was another election remarkably similar to this one. There is no longer any living memory of it, but those who study history have been watching the old pattern develop for years. The partisan press, the growing polarization, the self-righteous rhetoric, the regional divides, the complete unwillingness to compromise that extends all the way down to split families, the local defiance of federal law, the threats of violence that fanatics sometimes enact—all of these are exactly what occurred in American politics in the lead-up to the Civil War. We have even had a sitting governor express (between expletives) a desire to duel one of his state’s legislators and shoot him “right between the eyes,” though fortunately there has as yet been no near-fatal caning on the floor of the Senate.

All of this culminated in the presidential election of 1860. Unity was nowhere to be found. Most of us remember only that Abraham Lincoln won the contest for the Republicans, and the South seceded thereafter. But, this being before primaries existed, the campaign began with hard-fought conventions, so much so that the Democrats eventually split into Northern and Southern factions making separate choices, while the Constitutional Union Party, the old Whigs, put up their own candidate, making for four major nominees plus one minor one representing the abolitionist Liberty Party.

The language directed at Lincoln during this contest was at least as unprintable here as much of the language that was directed at Hillary Clinton during the campaign. If you visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois, you will have a chance to walk down a corridor lined with caricatures of him published in the press of the time, while speakers blare the words of his opponents’ attacks. I guarantee that you will emerge shaken.

Still, it seems to most of us that we can understand to some degree the boiling passions of that time. Slavery was a profound moral issue, a huge economic issue, and an issue that was central to an entire region’s culture, irredeemable though that culture absolutely was. Slavery had deeply divided the country from day one and had to be resolved.

That resolution meant revolutionary social change. It meant, as Lincoln later implied in his address at Gettysburg, that the understood meaning of our founding document had to be revised: equality had to be extended to men who were not white. To do this the Constitution had to be rewritten. And it was. This was a change so profound that even now it has not been fully realized.

At first glance it seems that there is no similar burning issue driving events this time. Many of us have somehow stumbled into this crisis without realizing what we were headed for. But ask the members of the religious Right, and they will tell you that they have been anticipating this for a long, long time. What moderates and those on the left have often dismissed as hysteria on the other side of the aisle is true, heartfelt emotion for them. Full social and legal equality for women poses an existential threat to their culture—every bit as much as abolition posed an existential threat to the culture of the Old South. Their patriarchal way of life cannot endure it.

The deeply sexist must view progress for women much as slaveholders viewed the succession of compromises that kept the Union together before the Civil War. Each one nibbled away at their ambitions. The Missouri Compromise; women’s suffrage in 1920. The Compromise of 1850; the Pill, released in 1960. The advent of Roe v. Wade in 1973 was the historical equivalent of 1854’s Kansas-Nebraska Act, the law that led to open conflict. Just as slaveholders could not abide the idea that settlers would have the power to decide slavery’s fate in their territories, unrepentant patriarchs could not bear the thought that women might exercise bodily autonomy. They have been struggling to take it away ever since. For them, an Equal Rights Amendment would be like abolition.

So it is no coincidence, I think, that Trump and his bellicose disciples emerged as a major political force in the first election where the nominee of a major party was a woman. A University of Massachusetts study found that high, hostile sexism made voters thirty percentage points more likely to support Trump—an effect equal to that attributable to racism denial and approximately double that attributable to economic dissatisfaction.1 This was true even controlling for other influences (race, partisanship, ideology, and even authoritarian or populist leanings). No wonder 81 percent of white born-again Christians went for Trump.

For a woman to occupy the top leadership position in existence would have undermined everything that created and sustained the ancient social system they instinctively operate on. That is the zero-sum world of a strictly rank-ordered dominance hierarchy where women exist as prizes for the victorious men. (There is a reason why Nigel Farage admiringly described Trump looming behind Hillary Clinton in one of their debates as looking like a silverback gorilla.)

The presidential election of 2016 will go down in history as a turning point as significant as that of 1860. Full legal and social equality for women would have been another fundamental rewriting of our nation’s charter. It would have proclaimed that all humans were created equal and endowed with equal rights; a red line would be struck through the word men.

Had the forty-fifth president been Hillary Clinton, that line would have been ink. Because it is Donald Trump, I fear it will be blood.


1. Brian M. Schaffner, Matthew MacWilliams, and Tatishe Nteta, “Explaining White Polariation in the 2016 Vote for President: The Sobering Role of Racism and Sexism,” Available at shaffner_et_al_IDC_conference.pdf.

Janet L. Factor

Janet L. Factor grew up in Barberton, Ohio, and graduated from Hiram College, where she absorbed the ideals of the liberal arts tradition. She is the founder of Springfield (Illinois) Area Freethinkers. Factor has written for Free Inquiry and the Secular Humanist Bulletin, where she is a contributing editor and for five years has authored the column Heart & Mind.

There was another election remarkably similar to this one…

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