voice for democracy

Perspective | Before Jan. 6, Trump's allies chose a citadel of democracy for their war room – The Washington Post

Recent reporting has revealed that in the intense period before and after the Jan. 6 insurrection, the Willard hotel in Washington became the gathering place for those developing a legal strategy to support a soft coup that would keep President Donald Trump in power. These legal and political strategists, who included Stephen K. Bannon, Rudolph W. Giuliani and John Eastman, were probably unaware of the deep irony of their choice of meeting place. Yet as they plotted to undermine American democracy, they met in a place that exemplified the ability of the American democratic government to withstand even the fiercest challenges.
The Willard hotel dates its preeminence back to the Civil War era. Historian Amanda Foreman chronicled how, at that time, the Willard was “the real political centre” of Washington. “Just a five-minute walk from the White House, this was where the ‘wire pullers,’ the information seekers (and sellers), and those looking for employment seized the opportunity to mix with the temporary occupants of the Capitol.”
In the antebellum period, politicians with diverse ideological and geographical allegiances formed social bonds, despite their political differences. These social networks encouraged political compromise and kept the government functioning, making hubs like the Willard, where politicians and officials nurtured their bonds, critical political arenas. It was the loss of these bonds during the 1850s that eventually destroyed political civility and the ability of government to function effectively — leading to war.
Even as these networks disintegrated, the Willard maintained its key role in efforts to govern and to avert the crisis threatening the Union. For Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 inauguration, the public rooms and corridors were strewn with 475 extra mattresses in an attempt to accommodate the barrage of office-seekers flooding into Washington. That the hotel was a focal point of political activity and aspirations at this moment reflected how it had become known as “the Residence of Presidents,” with the president-elect himself residing on the second floor.
But hosting job seekers wasn’t the hotel’s only role in those pivotal days before Lincoln took the oath of office. While seven states had already seceded on Inauguration Day, some southern states actually had representatives at the Willard meeting with delegates from the Union to try to reach a last-minute compromise to keep these states from joining the new Confederacy.
The negotiations broke down, and once the Civil War erupted, the Willard found itself geographically close to soldiers on the battlefields. The hotel threw itself into contributing to the Union war effort, providing several thousand meals daily and attempting to support soldiers and civilian morale alike with the advent of musical processions upon the occasion of posting any potentially positive news from the battlefront. Concern over morale was shared by other businesses that persisted in operation, such as Ford’s Theatre, which Lincoln frequented.
War correspondent William Howard Russell asserted that the hotel hosted “more scheming, plotting heads, more aching and joyful hearts than any other building of the same size in the world.” It continued to thrive in this vein during the Gilded Age, its prominent guests including President Ulysses S. Grant, who enjoyed people-watching from a nook in the lobby.
Yet the hotel came upon hard times as a result of World War I and World War II, when guests’ stays were rationed due to a lack of housing in D.C., and the hotel’s kitchen made 3,000 meals daily as part of the war effort.
Nonetheless, the hotel’s patriotic contributions to various war efforts throughout U.S. history was rewarded when the Willard became a prized component of D.C.’s revival after the 1968 riots.
Given this history, there is deep irony in Trump’s allies choosing the Willard for their “war room.” Their efforts share unnerving similarities to the actions of the far right “fire-eaters” in the South in 1861. Both tried to galvanize Americans to rally against their own democratic government. Both assaulted the bonds critical to keeping government functional and channeling political disagreements into the political process. And some of Trump’s allies even used symbols such as the Southern Cross that are associated with the Confederate States of America.
While their efforts were thankfully far less successful, in lending their legal and political experience to give credence to the “big lie” of election fraud, the people meeting at the Willard further inflamed the far right, damaging and threatening American democracy in ways that have yet to fully play out.
Their chosen meeting place serves up a reminder that American democracy is not self-sustaining. Instead, safeguarding it required the energies of people like those who met at the Willard during the Lincoln administration’s early days and their successors. The Willard offers up a powerful symbol of those efforts and it reminds of the ability to connect Americans of diverse backgrounds and thought to overcome political and ideological divisions in the long term.
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