The Confederate Constitution and Trumpism
How the Party of Lincoln Became the Party of the Confederacy and Why Defeating Trumpism Will be the Final Battle of the Civil War
Donald Trump has traded in explicit racist appeals from the very first day of his campaign for president to a year ago when he famously created moral equivalency between neo-Confederate marchers and anti-racist protesters after a violent encounter in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Trump Administration pursues policies that make it harder for people to vote or influence public policy. And Trump has become the chief champion of the modern Republican Party’s crusade against the very idea that the people can choose to utilize their government to pursue the common good.
This cruelty and chaos that marks the Trump Administration is new and shocking, yet at the same time it bears an unsettling if difficult-to-place familiarity. We can gain some clarification on why there is this familiar aspect of the Trump presidency and modern Republican Party by looking back to 1861 — the last time a major effort was made to establish authoritarianism on U.S. shores.
An Authoritarian Nation on American Shores
When 11 States seceded to form the Confederate States of America, they created a constitution to both lay the framework for the new country’s government and to articulate the values that would be embodied in the Confederate States. It is striking how many aspects of the constitution of the Confederacy - an unjust, corrupt, apartheid nation that hundreds of thousands of loyal Americans died to defeat - are manifested today in the presidency of Donald Trump and the modern Republican Party.
The Union of the Republican Party and Trumpism
Trump did not force racism and bigotry on the GOP. The Republican Party has been playing footsie with bigots since Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, though this was largely done with dog whistles prior to Trump. The GOP has also, in a process stretching back to the Reagan Administration and ramped up after the 1994 Republican sweep of Congress, become more rigidly centered around an ideology that is hostile to the very notion the people, rather than powerful special interests, should have control over their own government.
But the birth of Trumpism in 2015 accelerated the Republican Party’s downward spiral. In three short years, despite toothless protests from some Republican leaders, the GOP’s flirtation with bigots has become a full-blown love affair while the party no longer even bothers concealing the fact it works almost exclusively to defend the interests of the wealthy and powerful over the general public. In the course of this process, the Republican Party has adopted a worldview more in line with the Confederacy than the United States.
Before getting into the comparisons between the modern Republican Party and the Confederate Constitution, it is necessary for a few caveats.
The U.S. Constitution’s Flaws at the Time of the Civil War
The U.S. Constitution created institutions to guard individual rights, to give the people control over their government, and to lay the foundations for a prosperous economy. However, at the time the U.S. Constitution was ratified, the right to vote was generally limited to land-owning white males; millions of people were held in brutal bondage; and campaigns of ethnic cleansing were ongoing against Native American nations.
But the genius of the U.S. Constitution, and where it stands in stark contrast to the Confederate Constitution, was in its provision of a system to remedy the injustices and inequality contained in the original document, which ultimately allowed the expansion of the franchise, more direct control of the government by the people, and the use of a strong interstate commerce power to combat racism and discrimination in public life.
The Modern Republican Party Doesn’t Believe in Slavery (But it Does Believe in Some Other Awful Stuff)
While the U.S. Constitution went to pains to never mention the word slavery, the Confederate Constitution repeatedly and explicitly creates legal protections intended to perpetually safeguard a race-based system of chattel slavery.
Obviously neither Trump or the Republican Party endorses slavery. However, the Republican Party in the era of Trump does endorse the state-sanctioned abuse of immigrant children, religious-based travel bans, and the promotion of perpetual white supremacy.
A Comparison in Light of the Civil War Amendments
The following comparison between the modern GOP and the Confederacy’s founding document is made in light of the fact the States that remained loyal to the U.S. Constitution quickly passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments upon defeating the Confederacy. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery; the 14th Amendment extended the rights guaranteed under the Constitution to the individual States and expressly provided due process of law to any person under the jurisdiction of the United States; and the 15th Amendment prevented limiting the franchise based on race. These Amendments so transformed the country’s governmental structure and values that it has been called “The Second Founding.”
The framers of the Confederate Constitution were starting from scratch and deliberately chose to create a rigid yet chaotic government structure designed to limit change, protect a racial caste system that robbed millions of any shred of humanity, and promote the concentration of private power into the hands of a wealthy few. The arguments below regarding the comparisons between the GOP after its adoption of Trumpism and the Confederate Constitution are made in light of the divergent paths taken by the founders of the Confederacy compared to the framers of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.
The positions in this article are also taken in acknowledgment that de facto authoritarianism was pervasive in many States and localities across the country for almost a century after the end of Reconstruction. But the Confederacy was a full-blown effort to create a legalized authoritarian regime on U.S. territory, the closest modern analogue to which would be apartheid South Africa.
The Values of the Confederate Constitution vs. the Values of the Republican Party Under Trump
Political Power Only for the Few
For the past few decades, in ways small and large, the Republican Party has pushed legislation that makes it harder for the people to have their desires channeled into actual policy, whether it be through undemocratic supermajority requirements, the cruder method of attacking voting rights, or the subtle approach of creating a system of legalized bribery.
Our system has traditionally made requirements for legislative supermajorities the exception (impeachment, new amendments, expelling members of Congress), with most legislation passed on a simple majority vote. But the Republican Party has spent years chiseling away at the ability of the people to efficiently govern their affairs through their representatives by successfully championing measures in several States that require 2/3 approval by both legislative chambers to raise any revenue. The practical effect of these supermajority requirements is the prevention of the people from investing in education, infrastructure, and the general welfare.
Then there is the GOP’s assault on the very right to vote, with unnecessarily strict voter ID laws already passed in several States to address the virtually nonexistent problem of in-person voter fraud. The Republican attack on the right to vote has only accelerated since 2013 when a conservative Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
Not content to diminish the people’s voice by making the passage of popular legislation and voting more onerous, the Republican Party is diligently working to create incentives for our representatives to ignore their constituents via the party’s wholesale embrace of the role vast sums of unregulated money play in our political system, tilting public policy in favor of wealthy donors.
The final and most plainly antidemocratic element of the GOP’s plan to create a system where a powerful minority can subvert the will of the majority is found in its concerted campaign waged since 2010 of extreme partisan gerrymandering. This effort has been so successful at subverting democracy that in many States the Democratic candidates need to win nearly 60% of the popular vote just to get a simple majority in the legislature.
A similar distrust in the ability of the people to govern their own affairs is a current running throughout the Confederate Constitution. The Confederacy was designed to be a country where power did not belong to the people at large, but rather to wealthy individuals and commercial interests, with power further limited by a de jure racial caste system. The Confederate Constitution created hurdle after hurdle for the people to control their own government and was tailored to elevate powerful unaccountable private interests over the public interest.
For example, the Confederate Constitution: made it impossible for the people’s Congressional representatives to propose constitutional amendments; implemented roadblocks to spending intended to benefit the public by requiring a 2/3 supermajority to pass spending bills in Congress, and even then appropriations had to be made to the penny; and expressly barred Congress from making investments in areas such as internal State infrastructure, education, or even the post office.
The goal and end result of a government structured to severely limit the people’s ability to determine policy is to promote and preserve concentrations of political and economic power. Wealth inequality in the Confederacy was double compared to the Union, while plantation owners, manufacturing concerns, and wealthy individuals largely determined public affairs. Meanwhile, the policies of the modern Republican Party have resulted in levels of wealthy inequality not seen since just prior to the Great Depression, all while the party works to ensure the wealthiest have the most say over public life. This has culminated in the current Administration having both the richest and most corrupt cabinet in American history.
Elevating Ideology Over Reality
Evidence and facts are meaningless to the modern Republican Party — the only thing that matters is blind devotion to ideology. Part of the GOP’s current lurch toward fighting basic tenets of the Enlightenment is the party’s decades-long attack on science and evidence-based reasoning. The most notable example of this is the GOP’s hostility to insurmountable evidence that climate change is human-caused and according regulatory measures are necessary to curb this damage. But this epidemic among the modern Republican Party also extends to issues ranging from a woman’s right to choose, to offshore oil drilling, all the way to the selection of school textbooks.
This same prioritization of ideology over reality, regardless of the real-world implications, is evident throughout the Confederate Constitution. The Confederacy prized its hostility to the notion of government, causing it to champion a rigid yet chaotic governmental structure that could be called “authoritarian anarchy” which emphasized a commitment to a romanticized idea of hyper-local governance over practical concerns like ensuring the protection of people’s rights or facilitating a strong national economy that provides opportunities for upward mobility.
Racism and Xenophobia are Core Principles
The Republican Party has gone far astray from the time when it championed the first Civil Rights Act back in 1866, waged war on America’s most violent terrorist organization — the Ku Klux Klan — and made fighting Jim Crow a central part of its national platform. Today’s Republican Party is unabashedly racist, xenophobic, and nationalistic. Look no further than the openly white supremacist organizations that not only ardently support Trump and his ilk but are promoted by powerful elected members of the Republican Party on a routine basis.
After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Republican Party made a conscious decision to court disenfranchised southern voters that desired to maintain a racial caste system. Today’s Republican Party has made itself a vehicle for channeling the political energy of white anxiety, and as a result has dispensed with the dog whistles of Nixon and Reagan’s day in favor of the bully pulpit of the presidency, backed by overwhelming majorities of Trump’s own party, to openly compare anti-racist activists to neo-Nazi marchers, to impose religious-based travel restrictions, and to permit state-sanctioned child abuse of immigrant children. The modern Republican Party is also explicit in its desire to maintain a demographically white United States, even if this means flying in the face of two centuries of an American tradition,with few exceptions, of being a beacon to decent folks seeking a better life regardless of nationality.
The Confederate Constitution was a document where white supremacy was made the supreme law of the land in a legally unassailable manner (thankfully the Civil War ended before a Confederate Supreme Court was ever seated — who knows what horrendous legal theories such a court would have concocted in defense of systemic racism and slavery). In addition to expressly making race-based slavery the cornerstone of the Confederacy, the Confederate Constitution also demonstrated an acute hostility to foreign residents. For example, the Confederate Constitution restricted the ability of foreign residents to vote at a time when permanent residents of the United States from Ireland, Germany, Italy, etc., were permitted to vote in many States.
Let’s be clear — Donald Trump, with the full backing of his party, has called for a Muslim registry, for immigration policies geared toward maintaining a majority-white country, for permitting state-sanctioned child abuse of immigrants, and for a religious-based travel ban. The racism and bigotry that once animated the Confederate Constitution now animates the Republican Party.
Hostility to the Common Good
The U.S. Constitution notes within its first sentence that the people’s government is expressly intended to promote the general welfare and common good. That provision is noticeably absent from the Confederate Constitution. This is no accident, as the Confederate Constitution goes out of its way to prevent any sort of effort to facilitate common national goals, providing another example of the Confederacy’s central view that a government controlled by the people’s representatives is less desirable than a society where powerful private interests dominate public life.
The Confederate Constitution took the reasonable suspicion of concentrated power found in the U.S. Constitution only to dispense with the core belief that, though the U.S. Constitution required checks to prevent any one area of our government from concentrating power, the government is still the people and should be able to act on the people’s behalf, subject to the protections of individual rights from the whims of the majority.
The modern Republican Party has committed itself to the notion that government in itself is an evil that must be contained and destroyed, regardless of whether the government is one controlled by the people. From Republican members of Congress that seek to destroy successful initiatives like Medicare and Social Security to conservative jurists that take a view that the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution does not actually allow the people’s representatives in Congress to regulate interstate commerce, Trump’s Republican Party is hostile to the very notion that we can have a government of, for, and by the people.
Rejection of Universal Human Rights
While the U.S. Constitution at the outset of the Civil War lacked universal protections of due process rights, one the immediate end result of the Union’s victory was passage of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees no person can be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. This is the provision that recognizes all persons have basic human rights regardless of whether they are U.S. citizens. The 14th Amendment mandates the equal application of the law and the provision of procedures designed to protect basic human rights under all circumstances.
The drafters of the Confederate Constitution made a deliberate choice to deny the notion of universal human rights. In the eyes of the Confederacy, only certain people were “deserving” of basic legal protections. The modern Republican Party is moving toward this sort of dehumanizing worldview, which will ultimately result in a de jure “underclass” that lives within our society while being denied the legal protections that should be afforded to anyone by virtue of being a human.
One need not look far to see how the Republican Party in the era of Trump applies the apparent universal protections of the Constitution only to the few. Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to trample on the First Amendment to prevent NFL players from exercising their right to engage in political speech while providing rhetorical cover when neo-Nazis march through the streets. This same double standard is also apparent in the GOP’s position that any reasonable firearm regulation is a radical assault on the Second Amendment while remaining silent in the face of violations of the Second Amendment rights of black citizens. It is frightening to consider how this application of rights only to the “worthy” might play out in the future if the Republican Party is left unchecked.
The Final Battle of the Civil War
Fighting an Authoritarian GOP to Preserve Democracy
The elite white supremacist authoritarianism embodied in the Confederate Constitution was never successfully extinguished after the Civil War. While the Reconstruction period saw the election of the first African-American Congressional representatives and widespread participation of black men in political life, the pendulum quickly swung after the “Corrupt Bargain,” resulting in the nadir of race relations characterized by systemic race-based disenfranchisement, the terror of the noose, and Jim Crow laws.
And now that ancient authoritarian strain in American politics has resurfaced with a vengeance in the form of the modern Republican Party and its unquestioned leader, Donald Trump. It is not surprising that the Confederacy has reemerged, but it is surely one of the most unexpected twists in U.S. history that the party Abraham Lincoln cemented in American political life as a force for promoting social and economic liberty had been co-opted a century-and-a-half later to promote the ideals embodied by the Confederacy.
It’s time to admit it — the Party of Lincoln has transformed into the Party of the Confederacy. A defeated but unvanquished authoritarian rebellion that never fully accepted the tenets of equality, universal rights, and promotion of the common good found in the U.S. Constitution (and strengthened by the 14th Amendment) has unfortunately persisted long enough to make a home in one of the two major parties that dominate American political life.
The ideals of the Confederacy are alive and well — it is the duty of Americans that believe in the best parts of what our country stands for to continue the fight that started in 1861 until this strain of American authoritarianism is finally extinguished.