O let America be America, the land that never has been yet- Langston Hughes
Since Donald Trump’s repugnant attack demanding that four Democratic Congresswomen “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came,” (hint: America, in 3 out of the 4 instances) a cottage industry of Kremlinologists has attempted to discern his intent. Is Trump a master manipulator, throwing the public off of the scent of his association with the disgraced Jeffrey Epstein? Is he attempting to shape the table before the Muller testimony to Congress? Is he pulling the strings of the Democratic party, forcing them to line up behind the most liberal members in advance of 2020? Or is he simply creating drama for its own sake, the reality-show president thirsting for ratings at any cost?
Any of these explanations, or a combination thereof, is possible, but largely irrelevant (and needlessly exculpatory, as if injecting the concentrated poison of racial divisiveness into the public domain for electoral gain makes it more excusable). The guts of Trump’s version of the Two Minute Hate is, however, explicable largely in terms of the wider arc of American history. Whether he knows it or not, Trump’s diatribe against four American citizens and public servants for daring to propose better for the country (while he himself ran on an argument that America had descended into an unlivable shithole) fits well within the struggle for multiracial democracy and the counterreformation against it, the ying and the yang, which has marked the majority of our history. “This is not who we are,” said a million times in a million ways since 2016, is less true than we want it to be. We have, after all, seen this play before.
Speaking from the lectern in front of thousands of potential voters, the candidate can sense he has his listeners in the palm of his hand. In his audience sees a sea of red headgear perched on the heads of a predominantly- or entirely- rural white audience, many nodding or yelling agreement with particular points in a manner the more pristine members of the candidate’s party would disdain as uncouth. The politician welcomes the establishment’s disgust as central to his appeal and wears it as a badge of honor. He is tall and broad shouldered, an effect he uses to project a confident machismo to his male and female supporters alike. Topping it off is a distinctive, flowing hairstyle that becomes his calling card, even as the depth of his policy knowledge leaves some wanting: his opponent’s backers will describe the race as “hair versus brains.” Yet his supporters do not principally love him for his policy knowledge. It is the crude manner of his speech, the belligerency he launches at the aristocratic members of his own party as well as the culturally permissive nature of his opponents, that bring thrills to his supporters. Charges of bribery, tales of lechery and women, are harmless against him, for he has the common man in his pocket; alone, he tells them, he can deliver uplift to their lives with a mixture of racially charged broadsides and redemptive appeals to the lost era recalled by wisp of memory in these more downtrodden times.
The common story is not as recent as we think, for the time is not 2019, but the turn of the 20th Century, and the voluble, irascible man whipping the crowd into a frenzy is speaking not in a hard Queens accent but rather a Deep Southern one. He is James K. Vardemann, an archly divisive Mississippi politician described by a contemporary as having “more loyal and devoted friends, and more bitter and implacable enemies, than any other public man in Mississippi.” The red headgear is not a duffer’s cap with a loaded phrase but a bandanna tied around the neck as a sign of support, earning the supporters the dismissive sobriquet of “rednecks.” And the mixture of policies, both progressive and authoritarian, racially hostile and overtly supportive of governmental-led economic development, is a third-way appeal to people that had the term existed, might well have been called the “white working class. “
History may not repeat, but in Twain’s redolent phrase, it does rhyme. In the post-Civil War South, the world in which Vardemann was shaped, the ashes of the prewar structure left a political void that was briefly filled by a short flirtation, supported at Northern gunpoint, with biracial democracy. The flirtation ended a decade later, in 1876, with Southern Redemptionism, as whites launched a broad-cased counterassault on their diminished power. So-called Bourbon Democrats, the remnants of the Southern planter aristocracy, seized control of southern state governments in the waning days of Reconstruction. Mostly concerned with reinstituting an aristocratic power structure within the Southern states, they kept state governments weak and taxes low, inflaming the demographic and societal concerns of hardscrabble rural white Americans to keep the rubes in line, but without recourse to abject racial hatred as the basis of policy. Low taxes and paternalism may have served the aristocrats well, but the poor white farmers and laborers who made up the demographic majority of the South feared for political primacy above all else. Low taxes were fine, but the more racially ordered society of their youth was what they truly thirsted after. The tension between oligarchical interest and poorer whites could not be contained long, and it burst forth in the 1890s as economic panic brought widespread despair to the lower classes.
Bourbon Democratic power was shaken and destroyed in that turbulent decade by a colorful group of demagogic leaders who harnessed poor white farmers’ hatred of their degradation and remembrance of a more ordered time. These cagey men practiced the purest form of redemptive politics; by providing both stringent white supremacy, rather than the watered-down version offered by the Bourbon Democrats, and economic policies targeted directly at poor whites, they seized electoral might in a defeated and destitute polity; adding in colorful, showman’s flair grabbed the imagination that sealed the argument with the average white voter. The broadsides against the establishment only cemented the attraction; South Carolina’s Ben Tillman was known as “Pitchfork Ben” for threatening to stab President Grover Cleveland, whom he described as a “bag of beef,” with a pitchfork, earning him both a permanent ban from the White House and the permanent support of his tribal voters. (Upon his election as Senator, the New York Times deemed Tillman “a filthy baboon, accidentally seated in the Senate chamber”).
Ecclesiastes reminds us: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Trump rode to power in 2016 by aping Vardemann’s long-ago appeal. The modern-day Republican party elite mimicked the long-lost Bourbon Democrats, serving their own needs, but leaving those of their white constituents largely aside. Trump kicked every sacred cow, opening his campaign with a racist screed against Mexicans and continuing to pour the stimulant of distilled racism in its purest form on the primary fires. But he also distinguished himself by promising progressive economic policies to his supporters. For years, the Republican standard-bearers have assumed the guts of the party was largely economically conservative and socially and racially moderate: the John McCains and Mitt Romneys writ large. Only Trump realized that the base voter of the party was instead quite the reverse: heavily socially and racially conservative, but economically desirous of government assistance. In the course of the 2016 campaign, Trump promised, at different times, universal health care, an increase in the minimum wage, increased taxes on the wealthy, a pledge not to cut Social security, a massive infrastructure bill, and the return of jobs to the white working class. His supporters understood and reflected his message: racially concerned about the country’s culture and their place within it, and devastated by the financial calamity of 2008 and deindustrialization, what they really wanted above all was white dominant progressivism.
Here, however, the story takes its turn. The Dixie Demagogues of the early Jim Crow era actually did deliver for their white constituents. Mississippi’s renegade governor and Senator Theodore Bilbo was known as “Bilbo the builder” for his focus on state infrastructure. The fancifully named Furnifeld Simmons similarly delivered for the whites of North Carolina. Year after year from his perch in the Senate he wangled appropriations for the maintenance and development of the rivers and harbors of his state, creating thousands of jobs for white labor. So too, the odious Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith, the longtime South Carolina senator, whose love of white supremacy and cotton was rivaled only by his support for industrial development; as a Senator, he sponsored the Muscle Shoals nitrate project. Dixie demagogues were not necessarily policy wonks on fiscal matters: Fiddlin’ Bob Taylor of Tennessee, when asked his opinion on monetary issues, included a “sprinkling of counterfeit” among his proposals, and Bilbo concluded his second term as governor with $1,326.57 in the state treasury as against $11.5 million in debt. Yet overall poverty was unimportant, so long as their constituency of the white lower and middle classes felt the psychological and material “wages of whiteness”, in W.E.B Dubois’ pungent phrase.
Trump, however, has not delivered the material wages. His revolution was quickly overtaken by the plundering plutocracy of establishment conservatism. The White House never put any political muscle behind an infrastructure bill, the evisceration of health care was saved only by dint of three Republican Senators, and while unemployment is low, an AP poll found that the growth hasn’t fallen on Trump Country: 35.4 percent of Trump counties have shed jobs in the past year, compared with just 19.2 percent of Clinton counties. The mass return of manufacturing has similarly been a mirage: the US now imports more goods from China than ever before, and Trump’s pledges to tear up NAFTA and force Apple to stop making iPhones in China vice America have been no less ephemeral than any of his promises. The only economic promises Trump kept were to slash taxes and cut environmental regulation, a combination which warmed the hearts and stock portfolios of capital accumulators — bank profits, in particular, have soared- but did nothing for his baseline supporters.
Without the material uplift, Trump is left with nothing but the psychological wages of whiteness, his supporters given nothing to support but party and pigmentation. And so, in order to rouse his cohorts, he must focus even more on the purity of his prejudice, delivering emotively what he cannot substantively. At base level, that is his rationale for upping the politics of hatred and division: Trumpism has devolved into nothing more than performative cruelty married to corrupt plutocracy. Rather than course correct, and to mask the enriching of the elites he supposedly hates, Trump is consciously leaning into the hyperactive racism. Trump may never change, but his reactions have: in the aftermath of Charlottesville two years ago, he forced himself, after public outcry and expressions of concern from Republicans, to denounce the alt-right. No such false-footedness appears today. The President delights in the attacks on the patriotism and even citizenship of American duly-elected representatives, basking in the charged air of the rally cry “Send her back,” an updated version of 2016’s “Lock her Up” made even more sinister by the lawlessness and rejection of the American identity the demand implies.
During the North Carolina rally, in all its Riefenstalian regalia, Merriam-Webster tweeted out that searches for, among others, racism and fascism spiked, and well that they should. America has been slow, as a whole, to wake up to the fascist undertones of the Trump movement, likely in no small part because fascism was always a purely European movement in the popular imagination. But the Nazis were not sui generis in their appeals to racial purity; Hitler praised the racially motivated 1924 US immigration law (for which the Dixie Demagogues were prime , but by no means exclusive movers) in Mein Kampf, and the first meeting in 1934 of Nazi lawyers discussing what would become the Nuremberg laws began not with a European model but with an enthusiastic review of American Jim Crow laws. For fascists of the 1930s, there was no better example to follow than that of America’s apartheid systems at both the national and state level. The federal union was no less infected with racial separatism. The Nuremberg Laws passed just 32 days after the United States adopted the Social Security Act, in its initial version passed with Dixiecrat support only by excluding agricultural and domestic workers — a large percentage of whom were, quite deliberately, African Americans.
We like to take pride in being the longest lasting democratic republic in the Western World, but American democracy in its full flower has existed only for two generations. Even Joe Biden fell into the morass of recrimination while championing his ability to work with segregationist Senators in the 1970s. Well that he must have — the Senate of the 1970s had precisely one African American (the first in a century), and until 1978, no woman elected in her own right. This is not ancient history — the first time in America’s long history that the Senate seated two African-Americans contemporaneously was 2013. The men — and they are mostly men- screaming “send her back” in 2019 intuitively understand the moment and the part they plan in the vast panorama across our history. “Send her back” is a direct descendant of “Go back to Africa”, screamed by protestors at black children entering a Little Rock school in 1957. It is a howl of rage that democracy is for me, but never for thee, that the material blessings of American citizenship are conditional when applied to anyone not of Christian European descent, and that the people can only mean the in-group favored of the strongman.
American exceptionalism has always been balanced between the unity of the majority and the demands for inclusion from the minority. The post-Civil War era gave primacy to the first, reuniting North and South over the grave of liberty for the freed slaves and ushering in an era, for whites at least, of material uplift and expansion of the political sphere; the post-Civil Rights era pulled back toward the latter, fracturing the white majority and ending the New Deal coalition. That dialectical tension is written in America’s founding document, Jefferson’s creed being defined either as the brotherhood of white men or the universal theory of democratic citizenship, but never both. It is that tension which remains at the core of the Trumpist upheaval today, and it is the pull toward one side that generates the red faced fury at rallies. The election of a black president, potentially to be followed by a female president exacerbated and enlivened the historical resonance for supporters of each vision of America.
The origin is American, but the right word for it is, ironically, German: herrenvolk democracy, literally meaning mater race democracy. The Jim Crow south was its most perfect example: a master race reaping the benefits of democratic process while denying it to anyone outside the mainstream. Today we see the fragility of Jefferson’s claim of equality for all, finally realized de jure, heard in the bellowing cries of the Trumpist crowd’s usurping for itself the right to pass judgment on the Americanness of anyone not fitting the nativist mold.
So how does this ever-present battle resolve? We can hope the courts can be of assistance, but if history is any guide, they won’t be. Jim Crow froze the hopes of the African American population in hardened amber for almost a century, in spite of Constitutional amendments passed entirely to avoid the re-enslavement by another name to which they were soon consigned. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments arguably created a blueprint of great potency for activist federal action in defense of the freedmen, which Congress buttressed with far-reaching Civil Rights Acts in 1866, 1871, and 1875. But faced with white indifference or intransigence, the Supreme Court blanched repeatedly, finally providing the intellectual framework under which white supremacy found welcome shelter.
In 1873 (the Slaughterhouse cases), 1876 (U.S. v Cruikshank) and 1883 (the Civil Rights Cases), the Court repeatedly emasculated the greatest pillar of post-Civil War liberty, adhering to a slim, technical reading of the law which left freedmen at the mercy of southern paramilitary redemptionism. It was but a short step from there to Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, giving formal sanction to Jim Crow. As the veil of racialized apartheid increased its iron grip on the South, the Court continued to ensure that the law was insufficient to intervene. The Court’s minimalist, technical reading of the law reached its apogee (or nadir) in 1906’s Gilles v. Harris. In Gilles, Alabama’s obviously fraudulent voting system, implemented entirely to disenfranchise black Americans, was upheld by the Court. Writing for the majority Justice Holmes wrote ignominiously of the Court’s supposed powerlessness:
The bill imports that the great mass of the white population intends to keep the blacks from voting. If the conspiracy and the intent exist, a name on a piece of paper will not defeat them….. Apart from damages to the individual, relief from a great political wrong, if done, as alleged, by the people of a state and the state itself, must be given by them or by the legislative and political department of the government of the United States.
Black Americans had briefly pushed open the door of equality, but the law sits within society as a whole, and the Court chose for itself the comforting blanket of white unity. In doing so it proved the solvent in which biracial democracy dissolved. It would not rise again for some 60 years.
Today, meanwhile, the Roberts Court similarly chooses to ignore that great battle for racial primacy being fought in front of its face. In 2018’s Trump v. Hawaii, the 5–4 majority credulously disregarded the barely concealed religious malice undergirding the so-called Muslim ban, blinked coquettishly at the President’s own words seeking “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and held that the invocation of national security was a ‘facially legitimate and bona fide reason for the ban.” Just last month, in Rucho v Common Cause, the Court firmly blessed partisan gerrymandering, ending the quixotic goals of good governance reformers to end the practice. Rucho was but the second tool blessed by the Court with locking in white voting power. In 2013’s Shelby County v Holder, the Court disemboweled the 1965 Voting Rights Act, opening the floodgates of a host of voter suppression tactics immediately used to make minority voting incrementally tougher. If history is our guide, where the mass of the people demand white supremacy, and where the executive and legislature bless it, the Courts will generally apply the patina of legitimacy.
Where, then does that leave us? As Trump’s attacks have grown bolder and more profane, Republicans have increased their support for him, suggesting that even worse is to come. The great struggle to preserve the concept of mutiracial liberal democracy, which has ebbed and flowed through American history, now falls again to us. So it is incumbent to be worthy of the moment.
The first place to start is Ilhan Omar. The brash Minnesota Congresswoman- black, foreign born, unapologetically liberal, and female- is the personification of supremacist fears straight out of central casting. Her politics do not appeal to all; worse, judged by her own words, she may be tinged with anti-Semitism or, at minimum ignorance of the stereotype upon which it is built. Yet imperfect vessels are often the conduit for principles of inestimable worth. So fight her policies, demand she do better, demand she learn more, even vote against her when the time comes: but defend her right to sit within the halls of Congress, defend her right to represent her constituents, defend her right to fit her constitutional role without fear or favor, and above all, defend her right to simply be, here, and now, an American, imbued with the rights of speech and citizenship and everything else. Whatever her faults, the American system has survived far worse. What it cannot survive is a strongman strutting about the stage taking the right for himself to determine who is, and who is not, worthy of the label of citizenship he alone can bestow. What it cannot survive, with any decency, is the re-imposition of herrenvolk democracy, and what it cannot survive, shall not survive, is a an increasingly dangerous cultish movement which demands slavish adherence to a leader increasingly unbound from the constitutional moorings of the nation he claims to lead. Composing in the depths of Jim Crow, Langston Hughes wrote “O let America be America, the land that never has been yet.” Whether it will be yet that of Hughes’s dreams of Vardemann’s is increasingly the question of the moment; liberal, multiracial democracy will be defended, here and now, or it will not be defended at all.