The myth of American innocence
By Brent Staples
The history of the United States is rife with episodes of political violence far bloodier and more destructive than the one that President Donald Trump incited at the Capitol on Wednesday. Nevertheless, ignorance of a grisly past well documented by historians like W.E.B. DuBois, John Hope Franklin and Richard Hofstadter was painfully evident in the aftermath of the mob invasion of Congress. Talking heads queued up to tell the country again and again that the carnage was an aberration and “not who we are” as a people.
This willful act of forgetting — compounded by the myth of American innocence — has shown itself to be dangerous on a variety of counts. For starters, it allowed many Americans to view the president’s insistence that he had won an election in which he was actually trounced, and his simultaneous embrace of right-wing extremism, as political theater that will pass uneventfully from the stage when Joe Biden is inaugurated.
“What’s the harm in humoring him?” the argument went. “Mr. Trump will soon be gone.”
As it turns out, Republicans in Congress who played along with the ruse encouraged a mob weaned on presidential lies to believe the fiction that Trump had been robbed of a victory.
The resulting invasion of the government — which has thus far reportedly taken at least five lives — should make clear to everyone that the potential for political violence is a proverbial river of gasoline, waiting for a demagogue like Trump to drop the lighted match.
The circumstances that led up to the sacking of the Capitol are reminiscent of the 19th century, when Southerners rolled back the period of Black self-determination known as Reconstruction, unleashing a reign of racial tyranny. During the November election, Trump echoed Southern white supremacists of a bygone era when he falsely asserted that there had been widespread voting fraud in majority-Black cities.
This month, a coalition of Republican senators led by Ted Cruz of Texas summoned up this blood-drenched history when they parroted the voting fraud lie and demanded that Congress appoint an electoral commission to sort out the 2020 election.
Cruz inappropriately cited as a precedent a commission created to adjudicate the election of 1876. At the time, it was unclear who had won the election; some states submitted multiple election returns, a set for the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, and a set for the Democrat, Samuel J. Tilden.
Cruz’s analogy was dishonest on its face, given that there is no valid dispute about electoral votes today. But by bringing up 1876, the senator unwittingly pointed to the ancestry of the voter suppression practices in which his party is heavily invested. The 1876 election, as historians Rachel Shelden and Erik B. Alexander noted this past week in The Washington Post, was riddled with bloodshed and intimidation. White terror organizations targeted African Americans throughout the South in the run-up to Election Day. In the Black stronghold of Hamburg, South Carolina, the authors write, “hundreds of gun-toting whites from South Carolina and nearby Georgia descended on the town, executing members of the militia and ransacking Black homes and shops.”
The federal government eventually withdrew the troops that were protecting Black rights in the South. This set the stage for the system of slavery by another name that persisted until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The days leading up to the mob invasion of the Capitol presented several echoes of the intricately planned coup d’état carried out against the city government of Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898. White supremacists overthrew a government that had been elected through an alliance that included African Americans and white progressives.
As Hofstadter and Michael Wallace report in “American Violence: A Documentary History,” military units poured into Wilmington from other places to assist the new regime: “African continued to cringe before Caucasian as the troops paraded the streets, as the guns barked and the bayonets flared, for a new municipal administration of the ‘White Supremacy’ persuasion.”
Untold numbers of Black citizens were killed, and well-known Wilmingtonians were banished from the city under pain of death. As was the case at the Capitol on Wednesday, the Wilmington mob was especially keen to silence journalists who had resisted the rising tide of racism. To that end, the marauders burned the Black-owned Daily Record, whose editor, Alexander Manly, fled the city.
White supremacists eventually took control of the state, bringing down the curtain on Black political participation. Given this history, it is in no way a coincidence that North Carolina remains a battleground where African Americans continue to struggle against the effects of gerrymandering and other forms of suppression.
Large and small, these violent assaults on Black self-determination continued into the 20th century. While sometimes expressly intended to destroy Black electoral power, they were just as often deployed to crush Black economic independence by destroying homes and, particularly, businesses that competed with white-owned ones in the marketplace.
Perhaps the most pointed example of such an assault was the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 in Oklahoma. A white mob unleashed partly by the Tulsa police murdered at will while incinerating 35 square blocks of the Black enclave of Greenwood, reducing to ashes a muscular business strip known as the Negro Wall Street.
As historian Jelani Cobb noted in The New Yorker two months before the election, America’s record of willfully ignoring the violent suppression of Black voting rights is much more extensive than its record of protecting Black voters. While the public tends to view instances of election violence “as a static record of the past,” he wrote, “historians tend to look at them the way that meteorologists look at hurricanes: as a predictable outcome when a number of recognizable variables align in familiar ways.” As Cobb said last fall — when political violence was clearly trending upward — the metaphorical hurricane was close at hand indeed.
The mob assault on the Capitol was an outgrowth of what came before. It followed a heavily racialized campaign by a president who falsely portrayed African American cities as hot spots of voting fraud, while endearing himself to white supremacists. Republicans who subscribe to this toxic strategy deserve to be held responsible for the chaos it reaps. For shades of things to come, they need look no further than the damaged Capitol and the dead and injured who were hauled away on gurneys.