Donald Trump’s mantra, to “make America great again,” plays on the word “again,” and is presumably meant to evoke among his supporters a return to an earlier, more bountiful, time. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it all depends on what the word “again” means. According to the OED, “again” means repeat or return. Trump, however, is typically unclear about what era he means to repeat or recall; surely not the recent Obama years, which he so robustly criticizes, nor the George Bush period, when the President was a man he now calls a liar. No, Trump’s appeal is meant to tap into other memories of a more distant past, of an ideal golden age when no one who mattered had to worry about political correctness, or Muslims, or immigrants, or African Americans, or assertive women, but a time when white men felt secure in their control of all our national life.
The reality is that our history is quite different from the Trump allusion. Our evolving narrative is of a national quest for inclusiveness, or “wholeness,” and has led to the election of an African American as President, and a woman as the presumptive nominee of a major political party. The evidence reveals that a majority of Americans have decided that white supremacists are no longer the gate keepers of opportunity, a rejection of the seemingly “golden time” alluded to by Trump. But by constantly calling up a vague time past, he evokes the darker angels of our nature, and speaks to the fears of his supporters about the diversity of our present age, realized for many in the person of Barack Obama.
Brent Staples of the New York Times in one of his recent columns made the connection quite specific. He said that as he surveyed what has occurred “in the wake of Barack Obama’s presidency,” he has discerned a similarity “in tone” to the post-Civil War years of Reconstruction when slaves became freed people able to vote and claim their civil rights. That period was followed by a white counter-revolution.
Trump’s campaign smacks of the racism that was the centerpiece of that counter-revolutionary era. In the preceding Reconstruction years of the nineteenth century, many Southern whites spoke of a sense of fear, afraid they would lose control over the levers of power in their society if former slaves voted and held civil rights. Politicians, sensing the mood, quickly capitalized on those fears. As Staples noted, “Every era of racial progress engenders a racist backlash,” and it was not long before the revolutionary gains of Reconstruction—black voting and civil rights–were undone. White politicians, variously known as Redeemers or Bourbons, after ginning up fears of a “race war,” returned Southern state governments to white control. The unfolding social revolution went backwards.
Our evolving narrative is of a national quest for inclusiveness, or “wholeness,” and has led to the election of an African American as President, and a woman as the presumptive nominee of a major political party.
The most vivid Southern historical example of that retrenchment familiar to me relates to the experience of black people in the countryside and small towns of Mississippi. The Magnolia State in our own time has many progressive people working on efforts to polish its tarnished image as a racist stronghold, most notably through the programs of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. The Winter Institute staff, unlike the Redeemer politicians, does not cast around for scapegoats on whom to place the blame for the manifold misdeeds of a once-divided society. Rather, the Institute program is attempting to build bridges between communities, not walls. In Trump’s agenda, however, scapegoating is in full flower, with thumping calls to make America great again that recall a xenophobic era of America First. His nationalistic fervor can unfortunately be heard in echoes from across western Europe, where there, too, narrow populist movements advance their own anti-immigrant diatribes.
America’s experience with this kind of behavior in the closing years of the nineteenth century created an apartheid society that endured until the civil rights movement. Trump’s flirtation with David Duke, and with vestiges of the Ku Klux Klan, among other racist actions, suggest that it is not too far a reach to see parallels in his campaign to “make America great again” with the movement that “redeemed” the white South, created Jim Crow, and not incidentally coincided with the spread of world colonialism.
It is therefore important that the historical resonance of the Civil War era, and the cause for which the war was fought, not be lost. In the years before the conflict, there was a tiny portion of the Southern white population for whom life in the region was indeed “great,” and they were the wealthy planters whose cotton profits allowed them to buy expensive European goods. But the war ended their extravagant way of life, and with the proposals advanced by Reconstruction leaders, they feared that not just their resources but their power would be undermined. Business leaders tried to recoup their losses through investments in railroads and financial industries, and when the economy still faltered, they looked for scapegoats, but also new adherents, who might be recruited from among the poor and struggling whites. Politicians raised the specter of “race war” in Mississippi, arguing that tax dollars were going to educate former slaves, ignoring the fact that many whites also benefited from the new social programs. The pattern is not an unfamiliar one in the rise of nationalist/populist movements: a powerful leadership group appeals to the economic insecurities of the poorer elements in their ethnic society, nurturing prejudices of “outsider” communities who are blamed for creating the prevailing economic and social distress.
In Mississippi beginning in 1876, whites went to great lengths to restore their hegemony. As Redeemers or Bourbons, they rigged elections, stuffed ballot boxes, intimidated or misled black voters, and finally resorted to lynching. By August, 1890, the Mississippi Redeemers were able to call a constitutional convention that effectively ended Reconstruction reforms, and replaced black civil rights with the segregation of Jim Crow.
Not until the 1950s did hope for a racially just society re-emerge on the national scene, beginning with the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. Many believed we were on the cusp of a Second Reconstruction. The civil rights movement opened up opportunities closed for over fifty years, and black Americans began voting again, finding jobs and school acceptance open to them. But as America encountered the headwinds of wars and recession, old patterns reappeared, and responsibility for the nation’s problems was again blamed on those at the margins, in particular people who were black or brown.
This painful pattern of scapegoating, whether by Mississippi Redeemers or Republican presidential candidates, only leads to more disruption and distress. As the eight years of the Obama administration come to an end, many of those who locate their problems in the black Presidency may find it reassuring to climb aboard the Trump train, expecting to be saved from the complexity of our present age by another who poses as a “redeemer.” An American majority will never allow the Second Reconstruction to end as the first one, but it will require an active and vigilant electorate to protect against politicians who would pander to the fears of people who believe their economic needs are ignored for the benefit of social “outsiders.”
Featured image credit: “President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on” by Cecil Stoughton, White House Press Office (WHPO). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.