As pageants go, presidential inaugurations are tame affairs. I went to one—Bill Clinton’s first, when I was 12—and don’t remember a thing about it. The parades are dull, the balls forgettable, the poetry vapid, the speeches boilerplate. The biggest story about President Donald Trump’s inauguration, after all, was its paltry attendance.
But talking heads and politicians seem to cherish these traditions precisely because of their blandness. These last few months have seen a cavalcade of tributes to the “peaceful transition” between administrations. Some commentators invoked Lincoln, others George Washington, and still others Ronald Reagan, who, in his first inaugural address, called the ceremony “nothing less than a miracle.” Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski even deemed peaceful transitions “the source” of American exceptionalism. And the New York Times columnist Dan Barry was downright mawkish about the danger Trump posed to the “sacred transition of power.”
This interest in the transition is a sign not of confidence but of insecurity about the country we claim to be. In quintessentially American fashion, we fall back on “exceptionalism” in moments when we face mounting evidence that our political system is just as frail and corruptible as any other. This truth became evident on Wednesday when a mob incited by Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, violently disrupting and delaying a normally perfunctory process, the certification of the election.
The concept of a peaceful transition of power is itself an artifact of the Cold War. One of its earliest appearances in The New York Times is in a piece on the Guatemalan military’s plans for a “peaceful transition” after the 1957 assassination of the country’s dictator. The first U.S. president to invoke some version of the phrase at his own inauguration was Richard Nixon, who celebrated the “majesty” of the “orderly transfer of power” on his Inauguration Day in 1969, after a year of uprisings, assassinations, and war. And in 1981, on the same day that Reagan invoked the “miracle” of transition, Iran released its American hostages, and the pair of events made for a flattering image of the United States. The Washington Post took care to point out that the Iranian Revolution should make readers admire the “peaceful transition of power that is the American way.”
Various pundits and presidents since then assured Americans that they were envied around the world for their transitions. A dull ritual, rarely compelling in its own right, became a way to measure ourselves against other countries. But as these comparisons grew more strained, our self-congratulation only seemed to get louder.
And then came Wednesday. During a Senate debate over the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, Chuck Schumer wondered whether “America is still the shining example of democracy, the shining city on the hill.” It wasn’t long before he and his colleagues had to be evacuated from the building, while rioters overtook the Senate floor.
Meanwhile, a familiar American parochialism overtook parts of the cable news media. CNN’s Jake Tapper interviewed a reporter on the scene in Washington and struggled to find some foreign analogy for the violence and dysfunction, as if, at this point, we need one. Tapper paused, seemingly racking his brain for some example of a world capital less civilized than Washington, D.C., before settling, for some reason, on Bogotá, presumably thinking of the cartel-fueled political violence in the city three decades ago.
The unrest at the Capitol has inspired even more calls for a “peaceful” transfer of power, notably from a chorus of American corporations and their CEOs. Chevron said the demonstration “tarnishes a two-century tradition of respect for the rule of law.” And Brian Moynihan, the CEO of Bank of America, added, “Today’s appalling events in our nation’s capital underscore the urgent need for all Americans to unite behind one of our most cherished principles: the peaceful transfer of power that has happened without interruption since our country’s founding.”
He and his cohort are so drunk on American exceptionalism, they can’t see that this peaceful streak is over. We are the envy of no one.