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This Is Us: Why the Trump Era Ended in Violence

The Capitol insurrection was born of a violent minoritarian tradition that is as American as apple pie—and it isn’t done yet.

The Trump era begins and ends with stories of capitol buildings and Confederate flags. On July 10, 2015, the emblem was taken down once and for all from its former proud perch over the statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina. The news was greeted with overjoyed reports in the mainstream media as a milepost in America’s long struggle to overcome racism—oblivious to the import of Donald Trump, three weeks earlier, opening his presidential campaign with the promise to vanquish the hordes of rapists that Mexico and “probably the Middle East” were sending into the United States.

Then this January 6, the American swastika made its famous appearance inside the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., waved proudly as a flag of conquest by insurrectionists seeking to lynch members of Congress—and Vice President Mike Pence—unless they overturned the plain will of the people and kept on Donald Trump as president. The mob was operationalizing a belief affirmed by a majority of the Republican members of Congress (140 out of 211 House members, eight of 53 senators) that America’s reactionary minority must rule by right. That’s a tradition that dates back to the founding of our never-quite-United States.

Any schoolchild can recite the story’s opening chapter: The Southern states refused to sign on to a new constitution absent veto power over the rest of the states that did not organize their economies around the institution of chattel slavery. The veto took the form of the Senate, the Electoral College, and the “three-fifths compromise,” inscribing reaction into the nation’s charter at the level of the human soul. With that victory, something was institutionalized within the psyche of the South itself: the region’s entitlement to an equal say, or even a dominant one, in the governing of the nation, no matter its share of the population.

Early in the next century, as the productive capacities of plantation agriculture were gradually exhausted, and the South’s power began to wane in relation to the industrial North, the next chapter in the story was written: imperialism. The slaveocracy’s leaders sought to create new states—and new electoral votes—in the fertile West. The “compromises” abetting this campaign ensured that, for most of the nineteenth century, the legislature was dominated by Southerners, and set in motion a conflict whose latest apotheosis we saw this past January 6. Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as president in 1861 with the pledge to halt the admission of new slave states in the West—and so the reactionary minoritarians started a war.

When rule by right can be achieved through legal means, they’re glad to rule that way; when politics fails, they pursue the same goal through violence. In the longue durée of American history, one can predict it with nearly Newtonian precision.

With the removal of federal troops from the South in 1877, the end of Reconstruction is best remembered for the violent terror visited upon African Americans. It was also marked by terror visited upon whites who voted the wrong way. The annals of Dixie are full of stories of people casting what they thought was a secret ballot for Republicans, or the Populist Party, and being visited by mobs, or having their loans called in, or seeing their businesses blacklisted. Genuine democratic competition meant that the opposing party could conceivably achieve a cross-racial majority. What’s more, it could break the South’s operational control of the U.S. Capitol, which extended well into the twentieth century: Since the region wasn’t actually a democracy, its members of Congress served virtually forever, storing up the seniority to give them chairmanships of the congressional committees that served as chokepoints for any conceivable liberal reform.

A Trump loyalist bearing a Confederate flag in a ransacked Congress has become one of the most notorious images of the Capitol riot.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Again, such reform was a specter Southern grandees were pleased to ward off by banal bureaucratic means if those did the trick. There was, for example, Georgia’s “county unit rule,” which gave small rural counties equal representation with big urban ones. Another rule preserved reactionary minoritarianism within the Democratic Party, which, since 1832, had required a two-thirds vote of convention delegates to nominate a president—barring any candidate who couldn’t win support from the white supremacist South.

The Democrats struck down their two-thirds rule in 1936. And though Franklin Roosevelt took care to preserve the white Southern portion of his Democratic coalition by acceding to their wishes that New Deal reforms like Social Security and the minimum wage not apply to Black agricultural and domestic workers, the writing was on the wall. Through the course of the Depression and World War II and its aftermath, the Northern wing of the Democratic Party, with its substantial urban African American constituency, increased its power vis-à-vis that of the South, where African Americans were disenfranchised.

In 1948, President Harry Truman, the first Democratic nominee who had never been subject to the South’s two-thirds “states’ rights” veto, introduced a civil rights plank into the party platform at the convention in Philadelphia. When Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota angrily addressed the white South from the podium, saying it was time “for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the sunshine of human rights,” a passel of Southerners walked out of the convention and created their own party with Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as their presidential candidate. The strategy was forthrightly minoritarian: The hope was to deny Truman a majority of electoral votes and take advantage of another potentially minoritarian feature of the federal Constitution—to throw the presidential election into the House of Representatives, where the president would be decided by a vote in which each state delegation got a single vote, and Southern delegations could use their leverage to bargain for the preservation of white supremacy in exchange for their support.

That set the stage for a remarkable development that has escaped most observers insisting that Donald Trump’s frantic efforts to overturn the Electoral College are “not America”: Five straight presidential elections, beginning with Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat run, featured efforts by Southerners to do just that if the winner was judged a threat to white supremacy.

The effort in 1952 was not particularly threatening: Early that year, the Democratic Party of Alabama refused to certify an elector named Edmund Blair who wouldn’t pledge to support the party nominee. The Alabama state party sued for the right to demand loyalty to the national nominee and won in the Supreme Court. That was ironic, given that Alabama would later be at the center of such electoral nullification schemes (in November 1964, there were no electors on the ballot pledged to Lyndon Johnson; Alabamians literally could not vote for him for president). But at the time the decision was handed down in April 1952, the issue was moot: All the likely nominees were either segregationists themselves or entirely traditional in their deference to the South’s reactionary minoritarians. The eventual winner, Governor Adlai Stevenson, chose a segregationist Southern senator, John Sparkman, as his running mate.

Then, though, came Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, and all the federal efforts to extend full citizenship to African Americans that followed. America’s reactionary minoritarians once again went on war footing.

It is a frequent feature of all sorts of extremist insurgent movements that they comprise both political and paramilitary wings, and, to the extent a movement representing the power structure of a major region of the most powerful nation on earth can be described as an “insurgency,” the mid-twentieth-century South’s reactionary minoritarianism was no exception. The sites of the South’s armed struggle comprise the familiar monuments; they constitute a modern liturgy of redemption, its martyrs our present-day civic saints. Less well known was the region’s accompanying war on the heresy that presidents should be chosen by democratic means.

In 1956, Dixiecrats drafted T. Coleman Andrews, a Virginia segregationist who had served as Eisenhower’s IRS commissioner, to run for president on a platform of white supremacy, abolishing the income tax, and banning the government from any “activities that compete with private enterprise” (it was never just white supremacy). He was on the ballot in 14 states but also had the loyalty of “independent” electors in several others. The aim, like Thurmond’s in 1948, was to deny the major parties an Electoral College majority, then bargain for their support in the House.

The effort was slapdash but served as embryo for a far more sophisticated effort four years later. The name the organizers gave their panicked plot, the “Plan to Give the South a Partial Vote in the Affairs of the Nation,” said it all: Absent the power to dictate white supremacy, the reactionary minority believed it held no vote worthy of the name.

It happened like this: After John F. Kennedy, who had signaled his support for Martin Luther King Jr. in the closing days of the campaign, won the November balloting (and after judges threw out election-challenge suits filed by Nixon supporters in Illinois and Texas), all eight electors from Mississippi and six of eight from Alabama announced they would go to the Electoral College pledged to no candidate, and got to work trying to persuade enough electors to do the same. They strategized to present JFK with an ultimatum—their votes in exchange for his promise to support “states’ rights”; or, if that ploy were to fail, to vote for the Texan Lyndon Johnson for president and Kennedy for vice president; or to vote for Senator Harry Flood Byrd, the Virginian architect of the “Massive Resistance” campaign against desegregation, in order to throw the whole thing into the House. Ted Sorensen wrote in his 1965 book Kennedy that the plot represented a “real threat” to JFK’s presidency.

The reactionary minoritarians’ political wing failed. That, just as my little theory predicts, was when their violent terror was revived once more—against Freedom Riders in 1961, against James Meredith in Ole Miss in 1962, against Freedom Summer vote registrars, all acting under duly constituted federal constitutional authority.

It surely would have gotten even uglier, year upon year upon year, had not one of American history’s most remarkable plot twists ensued. Having lost operational control of one of the country’s two major parties, the Democrats, the reactionary minoritarians began their successful crusade to take over the other one—a development that takes us all the way to the shattered windows of the blood-splattered and shit-stained and Confederate-flag-defiled “temple of democracy” on January 6, 2021.

When Barry Morris Goldwater, six weeks after casting his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, won the Republican presidential nomination at the party convention in San Francisco, one of his exuberant delegates from Texas blurted out to a reporter the most resonant insight about the soul of modern American politics ever uttered: Goldwaterites had “taken the Mason-Dixon line and shoved it clear up to Canada.” That fall, the original Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond celebrated by joining Goldwater’s Republican Party.

Barry Goldwater was said to have “taken the Mason-Dixon line and shoved it clear up to Canada.”
William Lovelace/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Democratic Party’s purge of Thurmond’s brand of reactionary minoritarianism had been merciless in the first half of the 1960s. In 1961, in one of the greatest unsung accomplishments of constitutional hardball in American history, the Kennedy administration was able to successfully expand the size of the House Rules Committee and pack it with liberals. Without the evisceration of that ancient chokepoint—the South’s hold on key committee chairmanships—none of the progressive legislation of the following decade would have been conceivable. Between 1962 and ’64, a series of Supreme Court rules struck down state-level malapportionment schemes like Georgia’s county unit rule. Then, of course, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which extended the franchise to African Americans and cemented the Democratic Party’s identity as the party of civil rights and democratic rule.

In tandem, the right wing of the GOP made its move to take over the party—and expand its war against the American majority clear up to Canada.

In 1960, Barry Goldwater’s ghost-written manifesto, Conscience of a Conservative, declared allegiance to “states’ rights” and went full nullification against Brown. (“I am therefore not impressed by the claim that the Supreme Court’s decision on school integration is the law of the land.”) That summer, South Carolina delegates at the Republican convention sought to draft him for president. In 1962, he gave a famous speech pledging that if he had his way, Republicans “would bend every muscle to see that the South has a voice in everything that affects the life of the South.” In 1963, following Kennedy’s introduction of the Civil Rights Act, Texas’s Goldwaterite GOP chair led “resignation rallies,” where Democrats ritually claimed allegiance to the former Party of Lincoln.

Activists like these conspired to win their man the Republican nomination openly using minoritarian techniques. In his book on how they did it, organizer F. Clifton White proudly explained that he borrowed his tactics from the crooked techniques Stalinists had used to take over liberal organizations in the 1940s, allowing the Goldwater faction to prevail in the backroom meetings by which convention delegates were frequently chosen before the presidential nominating process was reformed in the 1970s. The Republican Party, indeed the nation itself, was the reactionary minoritarians’ to rule by right, whether they had the votes or not.

One of those Goldwater activists, William Rehnquist of Arizona, was not nearly so forthright, first in 1972 in his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court, then in 1986 when he was confirmed as chief justice, when he unconvincingly denied his yeoman’s role in the nationalization of the South’s reactionary minoritarian techniques when it came to general elections. “Operation Eagle Eye,” which seems to have had its origin in Rehnquist’s Arizona Republican Party before going national in 1964, was a bureaucracy built to reinstitutionalize another key component of Southern reactionary minoritarianism. Rooted in the Reconstruction Era notion that elections in which Black people voted were inherently corrupt, it sought to intimidate nonwhites from voting at all.

For the next couple of decades, the Republican Party did reasonably well achieving national power using conventional means: i.e., winning the majority of the votes. One of the ways it managed it, however, was another awful echo of the Dixie reactionary minoritarians of yore: conspiracy theories about shadowy forces seeking to undermine the proper order of the universe itself.

In 1955, for example, there was the mind-numbingly fantastical claim that convinced a Mississippi jury to acquit the men who lynched Emmett Till: that the bloated corpse fished out of the Tallahatchie River and wearing Till’s father’s signet ring wasn’t Till at all, who was surely still alive, but actually a cadaver placed there by outside agitators out to embarrass the South. In 1964, Governor James Eastland claimed much the same thing about the missing civil rights workers James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in the summer when Mississippi was burning—because, as 1964’s version of QAnon had it, Negroes were burning down their own churches in an infernal, Moscow-directed plot to destroy the Southern way of life. And in the late 1970s, as I demonstrate in my book Reaganland, when formerly segregationist preachers built the “Christian right” as a crucial component of Ronald Reagan’s successful electoral coalition, they relied upon conspiracy theories concerning homosexuals: that, because gays “couldn’t reproduce,” they had to recruit children. One televangelist, James Robison, went further: They were doing so in order to murder them. When Robison’s Fort Worth affiliate took him off the air for making the claim, his supporters filled a basketball arena to protest.

As Robison’s publicist, a man named Mike Huckabee, later said, “If someone had gotten to that microphone and said, ‘Let’s go four blocks from here and take Channel 8 apart,’ that audience would have taken the last brick off the building.”

It turned out no such violence was necessary. In 1980, the political wing of reactionary minoritarianism prevailed, both in gaining the presidency and keeping control of the Republican Party. Mere politics, however, could only deliver diminishing returns. With fewer and fewer old, white, terrified reactionaries to draw votes from, the Republicans since 1992 lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight elections—although, thanks to the minoritarian constitutional structures bequeathed them by their reactionary eighteenth-century forbears, they were able to squeeze three presidential terms from that increasingly meager electoral base.

This year, neither the most frantic conspiracy theories imaginable nor a fresh new outbreak of 1950s-vintage Electoral College chicanery were enough for the political wing to prevail. One of America’s founding traditions, however, endures: a rump reactionary minority insisting that the nation is nonetheless theirs to rule by right. Their politicians having failed them, it should be no wonder their paramilitary wing charged into the Capitol behind a Confederate flag to finish the job.