Power  /  Antecedent

The Capitol Riot Reveals the Dangers From the Enemy Within

But the belief that America previously had a well-functioning democracy is an illusion.

The events of January 6 are the logical culmination of the disrespect for the rule of law nurtured by the Trump presidency, evidenced in the glorification of armed neo-fascist groups, most notoriously until now at Charlottesville; the whipping up of anti-mask and anti-lockdown riots in Michigan and other states; and the refusal to accept the clear results of the presidential election. But those familiar with American history know that the Capitol riot was hardly the first effort to overturn extralegally the results of a democratic election. The Reconstruction era and the years that followed witnessed many such events, some far more violent than the January 6 riot. Scores of members of a Black militia unit were murdered in 1873 in Colfax, La., by armed whites who seized control of the local government from elected Black officials. An uprising the following year by the White League sought to overthrow the biracial Reconstruction government of Louisiana. (A monument to this effort to restore white supremacy stood for decades in New Orleans until removed in 2017 by Mayor Mitch Landrieu.) In 1898, a coup by armed whites in Wilmington, N.C., ousted the elected biracial local government. By the early 20th century, Black voting and office holding had essentially ended throughout the South. This is not just ancient history. As recently as 2013, the Supreme Court eviscerated key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, opening the door to widespread efforts in Republican-controlled states to suppress the ability to vote. Let’s not assume that until the Capitol riot the United States was a well-functioning democracy.

Alexander H. Stephens, the Georgia political leader who served as vice president of the Confederacy, famously described the effort to create a slaveholders’ republic as an embodiment of the “great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery…is his natural and normal condition.” January 6 may be the first time the Confederate flag was openly displayed in the Capitol building—a shocking sight that, I hope, will never be repeated. But in his opposition to the removal of monuments to Confederate leaders and to renaming military bases on the grounds that they erase “our” history, Trump has consciously identified his presidency with the Confederacy and the white nationalism at its core.