The Capitol Riot Was an Attack on Multiracial Democracy

True democracy in America is a young, fragile experiment that must be defended if it is to endure.

An illustration of columns of different colors
The Atlantic

The Capitol building of the United States was breached yesterday by a mob seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election at a sitting president’s behest. Waving Trump banners and Confederate flags, it forced the evacuation of the building and temporarily delayed the timely ceremonial counting of the electoral votes.

The immediate catalyst for the assault on the Capitol was the president himself. After addressing thousands of his supporters who had come to protest the results of the election, Donald Trump called his defeat an “egregious assault on our democracy,” urging the crowd to “walk down to the Capitol. We are going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and -women, and we are probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them. Because you will never take back our country with weakness.”

As the insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, the president, who has a keen appreciation for the better part of valor, retreated to the White House to watch the events unfold on television. Trump delights in violence as a flattering tribute to his own greatness—in 2015, after several of his supporters assaulted a homeless Latino man in Boston, he praised them as “very passionate.” After watching the mob ransack the Capitol building from afar, Trump released a video half-heartedly urging his supporters to leave, while reassuring them that they were “very special.”

The chaotic scene in Washington was familiar to American history but foreign to many living Americans—an armed mob seeking to nullify an election in the name of freedom and democracy. The violence was a predictable consequence of the president’s talent for manipulating dark currents of American politics he does not fully comprehend. What transpired yesterday was not simply an assault on democracy. It was an attack on multiracial democracy, which is younger than most members of the Senate.

Since Trump lost his reelection campaign in November, both he and his supporters across the country have falsely insisted that the election was rigged against him, a claim not one Trump-appointed judge, justice, or federal prosecutor has found a shred of evidence to support. The president has demanded that state legislatures overturn the election results, urged the Supreme Court to reverse the outcome, and attempted to pressure the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, into altering his state’s vote count in Trump’s favor. Trump’s latest scheme was to insist, preposterously, that the vice president has the constitutional authority to choose the winner of a presidential election unilaterally when the electoral votes are counted in Congress. Vice President Mike Pence wisely declined to indulge him.

Rather than relieve the president of his delusions, Republican elected officials have engaged in ostentatious displays of devotion to their leader, with a majority of House Republicans voting to overturn the results last night even after the insurrection at the Capitol. A small group of Republican senators, including Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, demanded that Congress reject the election results and instead appoint a commission to examine whether the results should be overturned, on the grounds that many of their own constituents genuinely believe the false allegations of voter fraud that Republican leaders have been telling them are true.

Demanding that a candidate who lost the Electoral College and received 7 million fewer votes than his opponent be allowed to remain president may seem a strange turn for a party that has spent the Trump years presenting itself as the vanguard of the people. But it represents an old worldview in American politics, one that dates back to the founding.

There is an element of historical truth to this worldview. America did not have universal suffrage at its founding. The Constitution accepted the existence of slavery, and imagined democracy as the responsibility of property-owning white men. But the Founders also created a society where the blessings of liberty they imagined for themselves could be extended to others, the promissory note of which Martin Luther King Jr. spoke.

Although the story of American democracy is often told as an unsteady but certain march toward a more perfect union, there have always been people who recount that story as a tragedy, one in which the Founders’ vision of limited government and individual freedom is effaced by the inclusion of those who were never meant to share it. If democracy must be set aside to defend that liberty, then so be it.

The Washington Post described the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol as “would-be saboteurs of a 244-year-old democracy.” But true democracy in America is only 55 years old, dating to 1965, the year the Voting Rights Act guaranteed suffrage—at least on paper—to all American citizens, regardless of race. Four decades later, a multiracial coalition elected a Black president. As in the past, the rise of Black men to political power made some white Americans question the wisdom of democracy.

That president’s successor, and many of his supporters, now insists that he must be allowed to remain in power despite having lost his reelection campaign, arguing that his opponent’s victory is illegitimate regardless of the results, and demanding that votes from predominantly Black constituencies in swing states be thrown out. As Trump put it, “Detroit and Philadelphia—known as two of the most corrupt political places anywhere in our country, easily—cannot be responsible for engineering the outcome of a presidential race.” Presenting the disenfranchisement of Black Americans as an exercise in good government is one of the most recognizable constants of American history.

Although these arguments by definition involve rejecting the results of a democratic contest, those who insist that Trump remain in office see themselves as defending democracy by disregarding votes that were never meant to count. Like most of the political ills that Trump has brought to the fore, this one predates him by many years, and has found a home in both political parties at one point or another.

The 1898 pogrom that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina, shattered a thriving middle-class Black community, killing dozens and overthrowing the city government. But the thing that preceded it was a declaration of independence.

Before he forced the Republican mayor of Wilmington, Silas Wright, to resign at gunpoint, Alfred Waddell, a Democrat who had engaged in armed insurrection against the United States as part of the Confederate Army, addressed a crowd of white men at the city’s courthouse. There, he read from a set of resolutions that would become known as the “White Declaration of Independence,” which proclaimed that “the Constitution of the United States contemplated a government to be carried on by an enlightened people,” and that “its framers did not anticipate the enfranchisement of an ignorant population of African origin.” In America, despotism always arrives cloaked in the language of freedom and liberty.

The “time has passed,” the document explained, “for the intelligent citizens of the community owning 90% of the property and paying taxes in like proportions, to be ruled by negroes.” White men who shared political values with the city’s Black population were “unscrupulous,” merely “affiliating with the negroes so that by means of their votes they can dominate the intelligent and thrifty element in the community, thus causing business to stagnate and progress to be out of the question.”

Although the document claimed that Black ignorance was somehow an impediment to prosperity, its demand “to give to white men a large part of the employment heretofore given to negroes” hinted at the thriving world they intended to destroy. The Wilmington conspirators were angered by Black political and economic power, not frustrated by the pace of progress. They saw tyranny in Black male suffrage, the same way Trump sees tyranny in the results of the presidential election being decided by Detroit and Philadelphia.

By the end of the massacre, at least 60 were dead, and the entire city government had been replaced by white supremacists. Afterward, as the historian David Zucchino recounts in Wilmington’s Lie, Waddell announced, “I believe the negroes are as much rejoiced as the white people that order has been evolved out of chaos.” The massacre, Waddell said, was a victory on “behalf of civilization and decency.” This falsehood, that Waddell and his cutthroats had heroically ended the “corrupt and financially devastating rule of Republicans,” persisted for more than a century.

This view of democracy is racial, but it is also ideological. The authors of the White Declaration of Independence argued that people could find themselves unfit to be members of the polity not only by being born into the wrong race, but by holding the wrong views. Black men were unfit, yes, but so were the white men who would ally with them to pursue political goals inimical to the true bearers of the Founders’ genetic and political inheritance. As the future governor of North Carolina, Charles Brantley Aycock, put it, “We have ruled by force, we can rule by fraud, but we want to rule by law.” Whatever the means, their rule was the only acceptable outcome.

After the coup in Wilmington, Republican President William McKinley said nothing. His inauguration speech a year earlier had announced that the “North and the South no longer divide on the old lines,” which was true only in the sense that Republicans realized they could win without the Black vote, and therefore no longer intended to interfere with white rule in the South. The Wilmington massacre, and the inaction of the president of the United States, was one of the key events in the total disenfranchisement of Black men in the South, the near nullification of the post–Civil War constitutional amendments, and the end of the brief post–Civil War experiment in multiracial democracy.

That experiment was revived by the civil-rights movement of the mid-20th century, culminating in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the resistance to multiracial democracy was fierce, and rooted in the same basic notion of American governance possessed by the Wilmington conspirators—that the only democracy worth defending was one in which only those they deemed deserving were enfranchised. Championed for decades by Southern Democrats, it now found adherents in the rising conservative movement.

William F. Buckley Jr. wrote in National Review in a 1957 editorial, “Why the South Must Prevail,” that white people, as “the advanced race,” are “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically.” The Reconstruction Amendments, which guaranteed legal equality and voting rights regardless of race, Buckley later argued, “are regarded by much of the South as inorganic accretions to the original document, grafted upon it by a victor-at-war by force.”

As Congress debated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, National Review lent its cover to James Kilpatrick, who asked, “Must We Repeal the Constitution to Give the Negro the Vote?” Like Buckley, Kilpatrick had previously argued that Black people were simply inferior to white people, but now he couched his argument in terms of limited government and individual liberty. Senator Barry Goldwater, the godfather of the conservative movement, opposed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act on constitutional grounds, characterizing them as tyrannical federal overreach.

President Richard Nixon broke with Goldwater and publicly supported the Voting Rights Act. But privately, he and a future Republican president, Ronald Reagan, joked with each other about Black people being primitive and incapable of self-government. Reagan initially opposed the extension of the Voting Rights Act; one of the young attorneys in his Justice Department critical of that extension, John Roberts, would later become chief justice of the United States and invalidate a key portion of the act, clearing the way for a wave of discriminatory voting laws that restrict the franchise. Ongoing Republican efforts to restrict the franchise are neither as violent nor as effective as the wave of terror represented by Wilmington. But severing Americans from their right to self-government remains a threat to true democracy, for all the careful and polite language deployed in defense of voting restrictions targeting nonwhite constituencies. And it is rooted in the same belief that the rights of certain Americans are less inalienable than those of their countrymen.

To the credit of some Trump-friendly conservative publications, including National Review, they have largely rejected Trump’s attempt to overturn the will of the voters. But the ideology Buckley once espoused retains purchase on the intellectual right; last year the conservative writer Christopher Caldwell insisted, in a book well reviewed by his peers, that the civil-rights movement had overthrown “the Republic established by America’s founders,” replacing it with a society in which white men occupy “the bottom rung of an official hierarchy of races.” This sentiment echoes both the Reconstruction-era cries of “Negro rule” and the howls of segregationists in 1965, and like both, it provides a convenient ideological framework for conservative minority rule that, if history is any indication, will survive Trump’s defeat.

If America were one of the world’s oldest democracies, Trump’s demand that the results of an election he lost be overturned on the grounds that his rival’s victory is illegitimate might seem unprecedented. But in fact, multiracial democracy in America is young and fragile, just a few generations old, and the insistence by a largely white political party that the victories of its multiracial counterpart are illegitimate is deeply familiar.

As night fell yesterday, several Republican senators seemed shaken by the insurrection they had fomented. Cruz called the assault on the Capitol he’d helped inspire a “despicable act of terrorism.” Some were moved to acknowledge, for the first time, the legitimacy of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. But the fire they helped set has grown too large to easily smother. Trump supporters across the country now believe that the nation has been stolen from them. Whether they rule by force, fraud, or law, their rule is the only acceptable outcome.

But this is not 1898. The night before the mob descended on Capitol Hill, Georgia, the state that saw the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, elected its first Black U.S. senator, Raphael Warnock—the pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. Another Democrat, Jon Ossoff, will be the first Jewish senator from the state that saw the lynching of another Jewish man, Leo Frank, in 1915. Racial reaction is a powerful, elemental force in American politics; it has also perhaps never been weaker than it is today. The goons who stormed the Capitol yesterday are a pathetic echo of the southern “Redeemers.”

Yet the lessons of Wilmington still linger. We are no better, no wiser, no braver than our ancestors, but we have the benefit of their experience. The true threat to multiracial democracy in America is not that its enemies are invincible. It is that, even knowing what is at stake, the nation’s leaders will not rise to defend it.

Wilmington was an inspiration. The attack on the Capitol must not be allowed to become one.