Trump’s Red-Hats: Calls for Poll-Watchers Draw Eerie Parallels to the Past

Recent FEC filings show that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has spent more on hats than on internal polling, an interesting tactic that highlights the campaign’s branding of supporters as a top priority. Trump’s supporters proudly identify with the proclamation printed across the iconic red hat’s crown: “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN,” a sentiment raised by Donald Trump across the country at his rallies.

But the Trump campaign’s attempt to return America to that fabled time comes with an eerie likeness to a darker period in our nation’s past, and we must be vigilant to avoid making the mistakes of our predecessors.

Trump has now suggested several times that his supporters monitor polling areas in “certain areas” — further described to the Washington Post by more than one campaign observer as areas with majority black and Latino voters — even in the face of a near unanimous repudiation of a rigged election by political rivals and allies alike. This suggestion to his supporters to monitor voters at the polls is a practice that has its roots set deep in the white supremacist militia organizations of the Reconstruction Era, groups who had the singular goal of keeping minority voters away from the polls during election season.

One such group from the late 19th century was known as the “Red Shirts,” a white supremacist militia group with a goal to “rid themselves of negro rule” and suppress civil rights by intimidating freedmen and pro-civil rights voters at the polls. The Red Shirts operated openly during elections to intimidate and harass voters — especially African-Americans— to ensure their candidate’s victory, and they prided themselves on wearing red shirts and apparel to make themselves more visible and threatening to those they were trying to intimidate. They held large rallies and marched in parades through predominantly-black areas to show off their red attire, spurn the media and pro-Civil Rights politicians, and ensure that black voters knew they were watching.

Even worse, their poll-watching and intimidation tactics worked: in 1898, North Carolina’s Morning Star newspaper reported that black voters were taking their names off of voter registration lists in fear, and that low African-American turnout flipped elections in the Red Shirts’ favor as they had intended.

The Red Shirts were just one of many white supremacy groups and operated in North Carolina for just a few election cycles just before the turn of the 20th century, but their legacy lives on in the language and posturing that Donald Trump and his surrogates use as they describe a “rigged election” against them.

Contrary to research showing only 241 possible cases of voter fraud out of 1 billion votes, Donald Trump has claimed that registered dead voters would be voting against him — a claim that has roots all the way back to the Red Shirts operating in North Carolina during the 1898 election. They spread the same baseless rumor that voters in predominantly black areas would be casting ballots of the deceased in an attempt to rig the election.

‘These Bones Will Rise Again,’ News and Observer (N.C.), November 4, 1898 (courtesy of UNC Libraries)

Both the anti-Civil Rights politicians of the Reconstruction Era and Donald Trump use the anger of a predominantly white, working-class audience to whip up fears of a corrupt government, a corrupt media, and an unfounded assumption that minority voters are going to help steal the election for their opponent. Donald Trump’s plan to send his supporters to the polls to “watch other communities” follows that same shameful parallel, red apparel and all.

Democrats and Republicans alike must come together in a sweeping rejection of these antiquated and racist theories, and Donald Trump should immediately state in no uncertain terms his intention to accept the outcomes of the election instead of toying with these prejudiced notions from our nation’s past.

An 1898 N.C. News and Observer political cartoon shows a “corrupt politician” being paid off by wealthy elites and black voters to “[desert] his own race” (courtesy of UNC Libraries)