- - Monday, January 18, 2021

One hundred sixty years after soldiers and sharpshooters guarded the arrival of Abraham Lincoln on Inauguration Day in 1861, Joseph R. Biden will assume power in a fortress-like Washington defended by thousands of National Guard troops and police officers.

Lincoln inherited a national crisis like no other in the history of the Republic. Seven Southern states had seceded during the lame-duck period. The nation was careening toward civil war. 

In 2021 Americans face a common enemy in the coronavirus pandemic. But instead of rallying together to defeat the pathogen’s spread, Americans have turned on each other in a climate of extreme political polarization and alternate online realities. 

Welcome to Episode 1 of History As It Happens, a new podcast from the Washington Times. There are many important parallels between these dark chapters in American history, even if the sets of circumstances are dramatically different.

Mr. Biden, who has often invoked his bipartisan work in the Senate he left 12 years ago, will call for unity in his inaugural address, as Lincoln did. He has remained quiet about whether the Senate should convict Donald Trump during his upcoming impeachment trial.

“Senate Democrats are going to try to push through this impeachment trial even after Trump leaves office to prevent Trump from ever running for president again,” says Washington Times White House reporter David Boyer. “Biden hasn’t really waded into that. If he truly is interested in a message of harmony and reaching out to the other party, he should have made his feelings known. This impeachment trial is only going to set back his agenda in the early days of the Congress.”

Many Republicans in the House and Senate, meanwhile, refused to accept the validity of Mr. Biden’s election victory. Even after a violent, pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol on January 6, encouraged by Trump and fueled by election conspiracy theories, some GOP lawmakers still falsely questioned November’s outcome. A new Quinnipiac poll says 73 percent of Republicans believe there was widespread voter fraud despite a complete lack of evidence.

The bitter partisan divisions and conspiracy theories of today share important similarities to the climate of the 1850s, according to Paul Quigley, the director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech.

“We can see the danger of the polarization cycle being really hard to break… a quickening process of negative identity formation. Each side is defining itself as against the other one. And the more terrible you depict the other side, the better you look,” Quigley said. 

As Mr. Biden prepares to call for national unity after the endless rancor of Donald Trump’s term, Quigley says the U.S. might learn something from other countries that have formed truth and reconciliation commissions. 

“What my message would be is, reconciliation must be based on justice. It’s based on truth. I cannot be achieved simply by papering over divisions with hollow talk about unity. It requires the hard work of looking at the past, reckoning with the past,” Quigley said. 

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