Steve Inskeep had a fascinating op-ed in the New York Times the other day that detailed the similarities between our current political environment and the period immediately preceding the Civil War. Inskeep points to the 1856 election where the nascent progressive Republican party, fueled by demographic changes, was intent on stopping the spread of slavery to the prospective new states in the West. Inskeep writes, “Northern states had grown far more rapidly than the South in population, which gave them increasing political power. The admission of California as a free state in 1850 gave them even more leverage over the South. In 1856, Republican leaders saw an opportunity to win the presidency with Northern votes alone. White Southern leaders perceived a plot to shut them out of power and believed they would be permanently outnumbered if they were blocked from creating new slave states in the West”.
That 1856 election was dominated by the question of slavery. But it also contained some elements that mirror our current politics of fear and lies. The increasing political power of the Northern states was largely driven by an influx of immigrants, resulting in a wave of xenophobia in both the North and the South as well as anti-religious bigotry against the Catholicism of those most recent arrivals. The Republican candidate, John Fremont, was in many respects the classic American success story, a son of an immigrant who became a famed explorer of the West and one of the most admired men in the country. The Democrats, however, floated a birther conspiracy, claiming Fremont was not born in the US, and depicted him as an agent of the Pope. In addition, each side lived in their own media reality. When pro-slavery Representative Preston Brooks physically attacked anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner in the US Capitol, Brooks was treated as a hero in the South which only added to the outrage felt by those in the North. Lastly, Democrats openly expressed their view that the election was an existential one and would determine if the Union would survive, threatening to secede if Fremont and the Republicans won.
In the end, Fremont lost the election to the pro-slavery Northerner James Buchanan who used the courts to entrench slavery as well as influencing and endorsing the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision that declared blacks could never become US citizens in the bizarre belief that such a decision would make the constitutionality of slavery evident and end the attempts at abolition.
The parallels between then and today, especially the 2016 election, are striking — the xenophobia, the anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic bigotry, the media silos, the “Flight 93” election, the corrupting of the judicial branch, and even the birtherism. And, while the run-up to the 1860 election looks far different than where we are today, there are still some parallels. In 1860, Republicans were determined to remain unified while the Democratic party fractured, with Northern Democrats refusing to endorse a pro-slavery platform and nominating Stephen Douglas while Southern Democrats nominated John Breckenridge who supported slavery and states’ rights and was endorsed by Buchanan. In addition, a fourth party consisting of other disgruntled Democrats and former Whigs created the Constitutional Union party but bizarrely took no position on slavery other than defending the Constitution and the Union. Just months before the election, Republicans had enormous success in state elections in Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, providing them with the some confidence that Lincoln would win the election.
Democrats may look to their sweeping victories in 2018 as perhaps a similar indicator, as could also be the case with the wave of suburban Republicans who have abandoned their party. In the end, we all know the result of the 1860 election was that Lincoln was elected. Because of the fractured nature of the campaign, Lincoln only won a plurality of the vote but an overwhelming Electoral College victory. The expanding demographics of the North and West allowed him to rack up enormous victories in those regions, winning 54% of the vote there, but only receiving a miniscule 2% of the vote in the South.
Within days of Lincoln’s inauguration, the South fulfilled its promise in the election of 1856, seceding from the Union and a short time later starting the carnage of the Civil War. For Southern Democrats, 1860 was another existential election and they were prepared for its loss. Some Democratic extremists actually longed for Lincoln’s victory, hoping it would finally push the South to fight for its own independence. The post-election mood was summarized by a Washington newspaper which wrote, “We can understand the effect that will be produced in every Southern mind when he reads the news this morning-that he is now called on to decide for himself, his children, and his children’s children whether he will submit tamely to the rule of one elected on account of his hostility to him and his, or whether he will make a struggle to defend his rights, his inheritance, and his honor”.
For many current Republicans, the 2020 election will once again be an existential election. As Inskeep notes, “As Democrats and progressives count on an evermore diverse population to ensure victory, some of President Trump’s supporters foresee permanent defeat. Fox News stokes dread of demographic change with repeated images of migrants climbing fences. The president told supporters as a candidate in 2016 that he was their ‘last chance’ to save the country”. And like the Democratic extremists in 1860, some are preparing to “wreck the system” if Trump is defeated at the ballot box or simply removed from office before then.
Needless to say, Trump and the Republicans have already done a pretty good job of “wrecking the system”. From the GOP’s total obstruction of Obama to the refusal to give Merrick Garland even a hearing to packing the courts with unqualified partisan hacks to now attempting to run a sham impeachment trial, Republicans in Congress have been intent on abusing their constitutional responsibilities. Trump himself is exercising near dictatorial powers and is by far and away the worst agent provocateur for political violence.
Over the past four years, Trump has hinted at a Second Amendment solution for those who appoint liberal justices, instructed his supporters to “knock the hell” out of protesters at his rallies, has called the anti-Semitic white nationalists in Charlottesville, which included the murderer of Heather Heyer, “very fine people”, and described refugees the “greatest Trojan horse of all time”. The President constantly invokes racist tropes against immigrants, Jews, and Muslims. Trump continually calls the media “the enemy of the people”, continually accuses the Democrats of treason, and is now retweeting racist fake photos of Pelosi and Schumer in Muslim garb, accusing them of supporting Iranian terrorism. Both Trump and Pompeo basically accused Obama of funding the Iranian weapons that are used to kill Americans.
Trump’s supporters have taken notice. ABC News has documented 29 instances where “Trump was invoked in direct connection with violent acts, threats of violence or allegations of assault” and just 7 instances where similar acts committed to defy Trump. At a recent rally, a number of Trump supporters threatened violence, including a “second Civil War”, if Trump was actually impeached. At a QAnon rally in Tampa, fliers were passed out encouraging supporters to “defend our country” by joining local militias.
In Washington State, the leader of the Republican caucus in the state’s House of Representatives was actively working with right wing militias and was apparently intent on inciting a civil war with political assassinations in the hopes of setting up a secessionist Christian government in eastern Washington. The GOP Representative worked with Oath Keepers, a group of current and retired law enforcement officials and veterans that has been described as “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today”. Oath Keepers recently tweeted “This is the truth. This is where we are. We ARE on the verge of a HOT civil war. Like in 1859. That’s where we are. And the Right has ZERO trust or respect for anything the left is doing. We see THEM as illegitimate too”.
Oath Keepers is also sending “training teams to help form posses and militia in Virginia” as a response to the Democratically-controlled state government’s effort to pass some basic gun control restrictions. The final legislation may (or may not) “ban assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, bump stocks and silencers; require background checks on all firearms sales and transfers; cap handgun purchases at one per month; and create a ‘red flag law’ to temporarily remove guns from people deemed a threat to themselves or others”. This has prompted a number of Virginia counties to declare themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries” where these restrictions will not be enforced. One particular county has also voted to form their own militia and requires all citizens of the county who are eligible to own a gun to undergo concealed weapons training as well as requiring firearms training in the county’s public schools. As the founder of another right wing militia declared, “Virginia is the state that is testing this unlawful, unconstitutional, Second Amendment gun grab…If this is where it begins, then this is where it will end”. A planned armed protest against these gun control measures is planned for this weekend and the reported “threats of violence” has forced the governor to declare a state of emergency.
Also in Virginia, the FBI has just announced the arrest of a man accused of “swatting”, falsely reporting shootings and bomb threats, which targeted various Virginia locations including historic black churches. The man was part of “an effort by a nationwide ring of white supremacists to incite panic and draw a heightened law enforcement response”.
There are many Democrats, including myself, who also believe that the 2020 election is existential, namely that our democracy may not survive another four years of Trump’s burgeoning autocracy. But, like Lincoln in the 1860 election, Democrats seem to be remarkably focused on maintaining party unity in the hopes that demographics and motivated voters will carry the day in the upcoming election. More than anything else, it seems, Democratic voters are desperately searching for a candidate they can be sure will defeat Trump in November, trying to solve the “electability” riddle. And there are no Democratic politicians out there accusing the Republicans of treason and inciting violence.
The far right is preparing for battle. White supremacists have infiltrated the military and state and local law enforcement. Militia groups are getting stronger and bolder. And Trump has already shown his willingness to use them for his political benefit. In an interview early last year, Trump declared, “I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump-I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough-until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad”. Trump is the man who has given the white nationalists and white supremacists the license to come out of the shadows and spew their hate openly. They will not let that, or him, go quietly.
Inskeep expects 2020 to be a “terrifying year”. This election will be brutal and bruising and we have seen there is no depth to which Trump won’t sink. Sadly, the possibility for real violence both before and after the election is higher than most of us contemplate. More distressingly, we have a leader who will be inclined to exploit such events rather than condemn them and unite the country. It will be up to all of us to do that job for him should it happen.
Originally published at https://thesoundings.com on January 16, 2020.