By Peter Berger
The election of 1800 ended in a tie. At that time, the Constitution specified that each elector got to cast two votes for their top two choices. The candidate who won the most electoral votes became president, and whoever placed second became vice president. In 1800, the two Federalist candidates, led by the incumbent President John Adams, came in third and fourth. However, Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic-Republican candidate for president, inadvertently wound up tied for first with his intended vice presidential running mate, Aaron Burr. The Constitution required the House of Representatives to choose which man would be president.
Alexander Hamilton was a leading Federalist. He disagreed with Jefferson about almost everything, and the two men had been bitter political rivals when they served in Washington’s cabinet. But he also knew Burr, and in a series of letters to Federalist colleagues, Hamilton condemned Burr’s character and urged them to support Jefferson.
Hamilton acknowledged his own well-known objections to Jefferson’s “erroneous” political principles but warned that Burr “has no principles, public or private” and had, in fact, proven himself “one of the most unprincipled men in the United States.” Hamilton described Burr as “inferior in real ability” and ruled by “great ambition unchecked by principle,” a man who’d asserted that ordinary rules and norms of constitutional governing don’t apply to “great souls” like him.
“More cunning than wise,” Burr “would disgrace our country abroad.” He would lead by taking advantage of “the bad passions of human nature” that he stirred in others. He would undermine “existing (government) institutions” because “under them his power will be too narrow.”
“Mr. Burr,” Hamilton concluded, “loves nothing but himself, thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement, and will be content with nothing short of permanent power in his own hands.”
Burr never became president. While he was sitting as Jefferson’s vice president, he killed Hamilton in a duel. He was later tried for treason, stemming from his alleged role in an armed conspiracy to establish an independent country on land taken from the United States.
Unlike Aaron Burr, Donald Trump did become president. We elected him four years ago, and for the ensuing four years, we witnessed his scorn for tradition, disregard for norms and violations of law. We’ve also suffered his torrent of lies.
Sadly, many Americans are so unfamiliar with those traditions, norms and laws that they don’t realize the extent to which he’s breached them. Many of our elected leaders have prized expediency over virtue and chosen to tolerate his misconduct in the hope of securing their political objectives. Others acquiesced out of simple fear. They turned their backs on former friends who dared to challenge his reign of error, deceit and self-interest.
His election campaign has been marked by the same corrupt intent and base behavior. Ballots accumulate undelivered in a sabotaged postal service. Rally zealots chanting, “Fire Fauci,” demand the dismissal of a lifelong public servant even as they gather maskless and spread the virus he’s trying to fight on their behalf. They cheer for the arrest of their candidate’s political opponents and roar their approval of a plot to kidnap and murder their governor, all with the encouragement of the candidate himself, the president of the United States.
A gang of cars and pickup trucks bearing Trump flags and regalia surrounds a Biden campaign bus and attempts to run it off the road. When the FBI announces it’s investigating the incident, the president of the United States declares, “These patriots did nothing wrong.” He insists, “This story is false,” even though the highway assault was recorded on video.
In the name of the Second Amendment, a judge allows private citizen “poll watchers” to openly carry firearms in polling places, even though the Second Amendment notwithstanding, he wouldn’t allow the same weapons in his courtroom.
In the name of a free and fair election, the current president of the United States announced that he’d won when he knew he hadn’t. He’s demanded that vote-counting stop before all legitimate votes, including millions of perfectly legal mail-in ballots, are counted. He knows that mail-in ballots tend to be counted last, and tend to be Democratic votes.
He’s predicted street violence if the courts don’t rule in his favor and the vote count doesn’t go his way. He’s threatened to arbitrarily disqualify any votes that weren’t counted on Election Day, even though he lacks the power to do that, even though it always takes states days to completely count ballots and weeks to certify election results, even though those processing intervals are entirely lawful, even though it took weeks to finalize the vote count when the current president himself was elected, and even though there’s no evidence of voter fraud or Trump-alleged “surprise ballot dumps.”
As I write this, we don’t yet know which candidate has won. But we do know something about ourselves as a people: Many of us like reality entertainment. Too many of us, though, don’t like confronting reality.
Few freedoms are more at the heart of a free republic than free elections. When Donald Trump struck his blow against the election, he betrayed our republic. So did the usual cast of cowards and sycophants unchecked by principle who stood, and stand, by silently. Unless they find their spines and their love of country, their hands will have helped him place the crown on his head.
Putin holds elections. They just always go his way. Even Hitler was elected. So was Mussolini. Then they decided not to leave.
Regardless of the final outcome in this fraught election, the reality that we have strayed so close to fascism, should keep us up at night.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.