(CNN)For most of the country's history, a peaceful transition of power has defined American democracy. That does not mean we have always been a nation united. What marks Joe Biden's inauguration as different is not the disagreement among parties and peoples, but rather how the opposition expresses those differences.
What Hoover could teach Trump about Inauguration Day
On March 4, 1933, President Herbert Hoover and President-elect Franklin Roosevelt sat next to each other in an open car in stony silence for the short ride from the White House to the Capitol for Roosevelt's inauguration. By this time, the two men despised each other. For the rest of his life, Hoover accused Roosevelt of driving the country deeper into the Great Depression and causing the banking panic that awaited the incoming executive. After the swearing-in, Hoover shook the new President's hand, boarded a train for New York -- and the two leaders never saw each other again.
In the months between the election and the inauguration, a lame duck period of four months before the passage of the 20th Amendment that shortened the interregnum, Hoover warned that Roosevelt would be the death of the democracy. On the campaign trail, he predicted that if the Democrats won, "the grass will grow in streets of a hundred cities, a thousand towns."
"When the American people realize some 10 years hence it was on November 8, 1932, that they surrendered the freedom of mind and spirit for which their ancestors had fought and agonized for over 300 years, they will, I hope, recollect, that at least I tried to save them," Hoover wrote privately to a friend after the election.
On March 3, the day before the inauguration, instead of inviting the Roosevelts for the customary dinner, Hoover had them to the White House for tea. It did not go well. Roosevelt recalled, "I hustled my family out of the room. I was sure Jimmy (his eldest son) wanted to punch him (Hoover) in the eye."
But unlike President Donald Trump, who is leaving town before his successor takes the oath of office, Hoover still showed up the next day. He rode alongside Roosevelt, albeit miserably, down Pennsylvania Avenue to the inaugural ceremony, a moment captured indelibly in photographs with a joyless Hoover next to an ebullient Roosevelt. Hoover had called a special session of Congress to allow for the rapid approval of Roosevelt's Cabinet appointments. And he allowed for the smooth transfer of power, even as he felt certain the country would ignite into flaming embers.
While most schoolchildren can tell you that Franklin Roosevelt was one of the most popular presidents of all time, elected four times over, that did not mean there was not a loyal opposition.
Indeed, the leader of the opposition was Hoover himself. Hoover had come into office in 1929, the first president (and the last before Donald Trump) to have never held elective office or served in the military. He had become a household name in World War I by organizing humanitarian relief to starving Europeans. An engineer by training, he used his technocratic skills to orchestrate tremendous voluntary efforts to help people in need from war-torn Europe to victims of the Mississippi flood of 1927. When he ran for office, he promised an end to poverty, and the country believed him.
But then the stock market crash in 1929 and the desperate conditions of depression overcame his engineering skills. It was not long before the homeless built shantytowns they called Hoovervilles.
As he had during the war, Hoover urged Americans to take up charity once again. And he urged businesses to retain workers and maintain wages. He also orchestrated loans to farmers and ailing banks, and, by the time he left office, Hoover even approved of loans to states for relief.
But those measures were not enough. America needed more government, just like today. At the time of the 1932 election, there were some 13 million unemployed, a staggering one in four out of work. In big cities, the numbers were even worse. One in three residents in Chicago were unemployed. Even for those with jobs, their wages plummeted.
Against this backdrop, Roosevelt won a staggering victory, by 7 million votes, promising Americans a "New Deal." That would come to include federal relief, public works, unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, labor protections, minimum wages, farm subsidies, public power, banking reform, lower tariffs, a departure from the gold standard and much more.
All of which Roosevelt had mapped out on the campaign trail. If the details were murky, Roosevelt left no doubt that his approach would be a radical departure from Hoover's conservatism.
And Hoover knew it. In fact, he did more than anyone else to warn about how radical this departure would be. In his last major campaign speech, at Madison Square Garden, Hoover declared, "This campaign is ... more than a contest between two parties. It is a contest between two philosophies of government." He warned against "so-called new deals which would destroy the very foundations of our American system."
To clarify the stakes, Hoover later claimed that Roosevelt's approach would lead to tyranny, the same philosophy that had "poisoned all Europe ... the fumes of a witch's cauldron which boiled in Russia."
After his defeat and during the transition, Hoover unsuccessfully tried to shoehorn Roosevelt into extending his policies, which would have curtailed the New Deal. As banks across the nation failed, which would prompt Roosevelt to use authority to close them, Hoover refused to act. Hoover discouraged, and at times banned, his officials from meeting with the President-elect.
As world events as troubling as the rise of European fascism were unfolding, Hoover seemed more focused on fighting with Roosevelt. Why? Because, presumably, he thought the domestic threat was larger.
As he would later make clear, Hoover saw his successor as a fascist-like threat. In his memoirs, he held Roosevelt and the New Deal responsible for "introduc(ing) to Americans the spectacle of Fascist dictation to business, labor, and agriculture."
Hoover's main assertion was not only that Roosevelt was a fascist in his approach to the country's economy, but also that his very policies would fail and indeed prolong the economic crisis, destroying democracy in the process. That perspective shaped conservative opposition to the New Deal right away.
In his inaugural address, Roosevelt, too, left no room for doubt that his would be a different style of leadership, the previous President having failed the country in its moment of need. His was a new leadership "of frankness and vigor," a rejection of the "false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit."