What if Pence did as he was told? A plan dusted off from 1877 may have only been the start…
We all know what the coup planners would do had the “soft coup” worked. That is if Vice President Pence decided on the morning of January 6 that he would comply with Trump’s demands to deny Biden certification. The plan, as far as we can tell, was to delay certification with the ruse not to seat valid electors from the states that had prepared bogus alternate electors. The plot would follow a similar path that was once employed in the Tilden-Hayes election in 1876-throwing the election into a House vote and since Republicans hold an edge there, the House would vote Trump the winner and negate the election result. But Pence balked.
In retrospect, the election of 1876 was quite consequential because while Samuel Tilden, the Democratic candidate, won a majority of the popular vote and held a 20 elector lead in the Electoral College vote, Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican, snatched victory from the mouth of defeat in the most contested election in our history — -until Biden-Trump. The political back dealing that installed Hayes despite Tilden’s leads in both the popular and Electoral College votes was a bit more sophisticated than the insurrection ginned up by the MAGA coup leaders. Here’s britannica.com ‘s summary of the election:
Republican Rutherford B. Hayesdefeated Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. Tilden led Hayes by more than 260,000 popular votes, and preliminary returns showed Tilden with 184 electoral votes (one shy of the majority needed to win the election) to Hayes’s 165, with the 19 electoral votes of three states (Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina) and one elector from Oregon (originally awarded to Tilden) still in doubt. The U.S. Congress subsequently created an Electoral Commission, which by early March 1877 had resolved all the disputed electoral votes in favour of Hayes, giving him a 185–184 electoral college victory.
— Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “United States presidential election of 1876”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 31 Oct. 2021,
Sound familiar? Well, the issue was resolved with both sides agreeing to compromise. The Compromise of 1877 was forged with the real intent by southern Democrats to end Reconstruction, removing federal troops from the former Confederacy in return for surrendering the electoral votes needed to declare Hayes, the Republican, the winner. While history has mostly forgotten the consequences in favor of denoting the curiosity of a brokered election, the consequences were the point.
The decision to end Reconstruction by bartering away a presidency indicates the importance placed by the southern power structure on regaining its hold on power. There would be another election in four years, but ending the federal surveillance on southern soil would be forever. The end of Reconstruction gave birth to Jim Crow and the laws and contrivances which summarily reversed the freedoms enacted by Lincoln’s emancipation decree and the treaty at Appomatox Courthouse. White supremacy, retaining white rule regionally, was more important to the South than holding power nationally. The consequences then were eerily analogous to the plot to deny the rightful victor in the 2020 election using similar mechanisms used to deny Tilden — -only without the backroom backslaps of agreement.
The Trump-inspired rabble who plotted a coup to retain a presidency — national power — was not proposing a compromise if their plan succeeded. They were in effect attempting to complete the failed insurrection of the Confederacy. Had the South won, it is likely that the nation would have simply split along political lines. The North would retain its constituency and the South would have remained a white supremacist haven. The Compromise of 1877 gave permission to the South to reenslave blacks by denying them constitutional rights granted to all white men while maintaining its place in a reconstituted Union. Some historians look at the alternative universe in which the South prevailed and formed a separate nation on the continent and forecast a dissolution of the North as well, with the Midwest, West, and other states choosing to break ties in favor of regionalized autonomy:
If the Union hadn’t stayed together — that is, if the United States had broken into two — then it’s likely that other regions of the US would have taken advantage of Confederate secession or would have seceded themselves, either from the then-existing North or the South. So you could certainly see an independent Midwest, and the area from California through to Washington state probably could have made itself its own place. Even within the Confederacy, there were certainly sections like East Tennessee that were vigorously Unionist during the war, and which might have pulled away.This was one of the major arguments against secession to begin with — where did it stop? So I expect that it would have continued; that process of creating smaller autonomous republics within the space that is today the continental United States.
— HistoryAnswers, If the South had won the Civil War Slavery would have lasted until the 20th century, 5thMarch 2018,ByJonathan O’Callaghan
Essentially, this scenario describes a North American version of a multinational Europe with its autonomous nations with their own customs, languages, laws, and destinies.
A failure of imagination
Just as elections have consequences, unintended consequences have their own unique backlash. Unarguably, the Trump-attempted coup would have been the worst-case scenario for America. It would usher in a period, far worse than the era following the Civil War and Reconstruction. Thankfully, the plot weaved by the planners was doomed due to a lack of imagination-it was almost entirely derivative relying on a series of Rube Goldberg-type eventualities. Pence would have to comply. The Democrats would have to be even more ineffective than they at times seem. The Courts and other governmental bodies would have to play dead. In short, it was a longshot — -unless, of course, the plan all along was to take over the government by force. In that case, the plot has another iteration, an unfulfilled Plan B.
The Eastman memo, laying out the coup plot, is an attempt to refresh the underlying venality of those who agreed to auction off the presidency to the lowest bidder in 1877. The South had lost their gambit to retain a slave-driven economy that was eventually doomed by industrialization and modernity. They might have won the war only to have lost the future.
An interesting observation made by those who have studied slavery as a historical phenomenon points to the dehumanizing effect slavery had on those who have supported it — an observation that I maintain continues today within the so-called red states. Slavery, as it was instituted in the southern United States, was fundamentally different from the type of human servitude of earlier times. During the Roman Empire, for example, slavery was the result of conquest and was not racially motivated:
Slavery in Rome wasn’t racially based. In America, it was entirely based on the skin color and/or national origin of the slave. American chattel slavery was entirely based on the idea that some people were not entirely human and their enslavement was a “natural” outcome of their lesser status… In order for American Chattel Slavery to exist, its proponents had to come up with a reason for it that wasn’t covered under the statement that “all men are created equal”, and their solution was to relegate slaves (as largely defined by skin color or ancestral origin) to a lesser status than fully human. It was intensely disingenuous and dishonest at its core, but part of the reason that so many American slaveholders developed a culture so dependent on the concept of “honor” is that none of them had any to begin with.
Who leads…Who follow
A post-January 6, 2021 corollary to what would have happened if the South won the Civil War, would have asked the same about the insurrection. The result, I fear, would have been exponentially worse because it would have had worldwide implications. While the Trump-Hitler analogy is often oversimplified, I believe it fair to imply a successful coup could have led to a large-scale effort by authoritarian powers to take over democracies weakened by the loss of an anchor democracy like the United States. All the historical signposts of the dissolution of empires are pretty much upon us. The rank racism and bigotry, the unbridled quest for power over people, the primordial hatreds that are used to justify land-grabs and pogroms were evident on January 6. The muddled aspirations of the useful idiots who stormed the Capitol with the flimsiest of excuses (the steal, the flag, my rights, pedophilia) were tinged with self-righteousness to help absolve consciences of those whose scruples needed easing. That all this could coalesce around such an inept and mentally crazed leader is a reminder that followers and leaders are sometimes mistaken for the other. We must ask: what came first, Trumpism or the angry mobs? Whose hatreds inspired a holocaust, Hitler’s or the angst-ridden German people? Each scenario required scapegoats to reanimate primal hatreds and prejudices. They each found jaded hucksters to follow their lead.
We are in the throes of living through the ideations of sociopaths under a spell of a psychopath, each placed in the crosshairs of history. Who leads and who follow in a world turned upside down? The answer may well explain the oxymoron of “the good German”, the unthinkable belief system of the Jonestown disaster, the illiberal yearnings of the current Republican Party. In the end, the myriad fallen empires whose ashes fill the dustbin of history are relatable and will inform our times — or not. At this point, it is a good thing Mike Pence didn’t drink the Kool-Aid.
Originally published at https://www.dailykos.com on January 30, 2022.