It’s fitting that the House Jan. 6 committee’s hearings last week coincided with the U.S. Senate’s herculean effort to pass incremental gun regulations even as an ultra-conservative Supreme Court fired off another imaginative expansion of the right to bear arms. The committee hearings have served as a funeral for the passing of a great American political tradition, the peaceful transfer of power. They have also warned that what lies beyond can only be violence.

Or as Republican Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling put it in a December 2020 appearance replayed for the hearing, “Someone is going to get hurt. Someone is going to get shot. Someone is going to get killed.”

A month later, on Jan. 6, 2021, Sterling’s prophecy proved accurate. And if future elections don’t alter the course of events, its prescience will continue to reverberate.

The tradition Sterling saw crumbling began near the beginning. In 1783, George Washington famously stood before a fledgling Congress in Annapolis, Md., the first peacetime U.S. capital, to voluntarily relinquish command of the Continental Army that had forcibly created the country. His gracefully concluded military service would earn the retired general political power that, after eight years, he gave up, too, establishing a customary presidential term limit that held for a century and a half.

As it turns out, years before Donald Trump led a coup, he harbored an ominous preoccupation with the only president who broke Washington’s precedent, Franklin D. Roosevelt, which was especially strange for a Republican with a shaky grasp of history. True to form, Trump repeatedly and wrongly suggested FDR served 16 years in office — while implying he might do so himself — even though the longest-serving president died shortly after assuming his fourth term, keeping him to just over 12 years.

Roosevelt’s long reign nevertheless ushered in the 22nd Amendment, which codified Washington’s conventional term limit. In any case, given Trump’s de-election after one disastrous term, the 22nd proved far less relevant to him than the 25th, under which he might have been removed on unfitness grounds if he had not surrounded himself with a Cabinet of people who wouldn’t do anything so principled.

In his 1981 inaugural address, which was quoted during the June 21 hearing, Ronald Reagan noted that “in the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.” And yet the miracle held with the exception of the Civil War and our latest brush with national disintegration.

Former Trump White House lawyer Eric Herschmann tried to impress the import of the miracle on California coup lawyer John Eastman in profane terms.

“I only want to hear two words coming out of your mouth from now on: ‘orderly transition,’ ” Herschmann recounted telling Eastman in his committee testimony. “I don’t want to hear any other f—ing words coming out of your mouth.”

Reagan later chafed at the constitutional term limit, but only insofar as suggesting it be repealed, not ignored. He also saw his vice president succeed him, which is the closest a post-22nd Amendment president can come to a legal third term. Trump, by contrast, not only failed to win a second term but also seemed at peace with the prospect of his own veep swinging from a makeshift gallows.

“When Donald Trump used the power of the presidency to try to stay in office after losing the election … he broke that sacred and centuries-old covenant,” committee member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said. “And when he used the power of his presidency to put enormous pressure on state and local elections officials and his own vice president, it became downright dangerous.”

Indeed, as the hearings showed, implicit and explicit threats of violence bloomed as the prospects of an orderly transition withered. From Vice President Mike Pence to elected state officials such as Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to rank-and-file Atlanta election workers Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman, anyone who stood in the way of the coup — even if only by representing the old, orderly order — faced a palpable possibility of physical harm to themselves or their loved ones.

“If the most powerful person in the world can bring the full weight of the presidency down on an ordinary citizen who is merely doing her job … who among us is safe?” Schiff asked. “None of us is — none of us. In city councils and town councils, on school boards and election boards, from the Congress to the courts, dedicated public servants are leaving their posts because of death threats to them and to their families.”

The worst breach of the Capitol since our second war with the British was, for the time being, the culmination of that threatened and realized violence.

“After corruption and political pressure failed to keep Donald Trump in office,” the committee’s chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said, “violence became the last option.”

It’s difficult in this context to consider the Supreme Court’s latest bid to arm its supporters as incidental. Judging by his wife’s unearthed and unhinged communications, Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the majority opinion expanding the right to carry firearms, is effectively married to the mob. The same people are furnishing a false motive for violence and the real means thereof.

Our first president surrendered military and then political power to the people. Our last president and his loyalists are raising and arming an unregulated militia to wrest power from us.

Josh Gohlke is a columnist for The Sacramento Bee.

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