Between 1870 and 1901, there were 20 black representatives in Congress and two black United States senators. Between 1901 and 1929, there were none.
Those simple numbers offer a small glimpse of the totality of the Southern counterrevolution against Reconstruction after the Civil War, and the subsequent bloody Southern Redemption, after which the political power of Southern blacks was effectively extinguished. The radical dream of an interracial politics, with its attendant federal investment and redistribution of resources towards the poor, had been destroyed. The optimism of emancipation leading to racial equality in the South was annihilated with a completeness that is difficult to fathom.
Southern Redemption had been led by white Democrats and their paramilitary allies, but crucial to their decisive victory was the willingness of the Republican Party to abandon blacks in the South to their fate. “Many Northern Republicans also hoped to use the crisis to jettison a Reconstruction policy they believed had failed,” wrote historian Eric Foner in Reconstruction. “The freedmen, insisted former Ohio Gov. Jacob D. Cox, must moderate their ‘new kindled ambition’ for political influence and recognize that they lacked whites’ ‘hereditary faculty of self government.’ Ulysses S. Grant, who had sent federal troops into the South to suppress the Ku Klux Klan, privately concluded that the 15th Amendment, adopted to protect the freedmen’s right to vote, had been a ‘mistake.’”
House Speaker Paul Ryan announced Wednesday that “this needs to be a time of redemption, not a time of recrimination.” But however hopefully the speaker meant it, the idea that America needs to be redeemed, like the notion that it needs to be made great again, rests on the notion that something has gone horribly wrong.
The notion that Trump’s victory, and the perception that society must be “redeemed” has nothing to do with a racist backlash might be comforting, but it flies in the face of available statistical evidence.
A Reuters survey in June found Trump supporters were more likely than Clinton supporters to see blacks as ‘criminal,’ ‘unintelligent,’ ‘lazy’ and ‘violent,’” though Clinton supporters were certainly not immune to those prejudices. Analysis by the RAND Corporation’ Presidential Election Panel Survey found that “Trump performs best among Americans who express more resentment toward African Americans and immigrants and who tend to evaluate whites more favorably than minority groups.” And even those Trump voters who did not approve of his remarks and policy proposals aimed at blacks, Muslims, and Latinos did not find them disqualifying.
The election of Donald Trump, and the complete dominance of the Republican Party both in the federal government and in the states, may usher in a new era of Redemption, one which could see the seemingly astounding racial progress of having a black president relegated to little more than symbolism.
The federal government currently protects people’s ability to find a home, to make a living, to cast a ballot, to worship freely, to drink clean water and breathe clean air. A Trump administration can leave these rights unprotected for the people most vulnerable to having them denied because of the color of their skin or their faith, before having to ask Congress for a single vote on legislation.
The conservative backlash against Obama limited much of his agenda after the first two years to things that could be achieved by the executive branch. Trump can easily reverse these steps, beginning, as Bloomberg reports, with Obama’s extension of relief from deportation to undocumented immigrants. That will affect some 750,000 people. Trump can shift deportation priorities so that undocumented immigrants previously considered a low priority for deportation––mothers with U.S. citizen children, for example––no longer will be. That proposed ban on Muslim immigration? He won’t even need Congress.
The entire civil-rights enforcement apparatus of the federal government will be under the control of a candidate who campaigned on using the power of the state against religious and ethnic minorities, proposing to ban Muslim immigration, establish a “deportation force” to purge the country of America’s largely Latino population of undocumented immigrants, and establish “national stop and frisk,” a policy that has targeted black communities. The Obama administration’s aggressive enforcement of anti-discrimination law in housing, employment, and voting is likely to suffer. The Obama era saw an unprecedented rise in the Justice Department’s efforts to combat racial discrimination in local policing. Trump campaigned with the explicit support of unions representing law enforcement, and on “giving power back to the police.”
Will a Trump administration continue to enforce federal religious-freedom laws in cases where local jurisdictions attempt to prevent mosques from being built? Will it advocate for Muslim women who are told by their employers they are not allowed to cover their hair at work? Would a Trump Equal Opportunity Employment Commission continue Obama’s aggressive interpretation of civil-rights law protecting LGBT workers? Should women who are sexually harassed by their bosses expect that a president who bragged about sexual assault will defend their rights? Will the strict rules on sexual assault on college campuses to survive in the Trump Department of Education? In each of these cases, the Obama administration moved to use federal power to protect the rights of minorities; absent the same commitment, they will not enjoy similar protections under Trump.
The Obama administration promulgated strict rules under the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. Republicans have already indicated their intention to revoke them, consequences that will be borne by everyone, but most explicitly by the poor and people of color.
With the Republican dominance of the federal government however, even Obama’s legislative accomplishments are in peril. Congressional Republicans have long sought to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would not only allow health-insurance companies to discriminate on the basis of preexisting conditions,but would strip health-care coverage from 15 million of the poorest Americans. The 2010 Wall Street Reform Act, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency built specifically to prevent another 2008-style economic crisis, will be on the chopping block. The CFPB’s attempts to prevent financial services from preying on poor and working class Americans is in peril. The impact of repealing these laws will fall most harshly on people of color, but poor and working class whites will be hurt as well.
The Democrats will resist––how strongly or effectively, we will soon see. But history suggests they will fail. And with a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, there would be little else standing in the Republicans’ way.
As Foner wrote in Reconstruction, “1877 marked a decisive retreat from the idea, born during the Civil War, of a powerful national state protecting the fundamental rights of American citizens.” But the consequences were dire for poor whites as well as blacks, for the simple reason that they stood to benefit from an activist government as well. "While the region’s new upper class of planters, merchants, and industrialists prospered,” Foner writes, “the majority of Southerners of both races sank deeper and deeper into poverty." Similarly, Republican dominance of government across the nation will reverse the Obama-era expectation that the state should work to even the playing field between the haves and have nots.
The broad economic devastation wrought by the Redeemers might have been seen by Republicans as a political opportunity to forge an interracial coalition. But it was not to be. “The failure to develop an effective long-term appeal to white voters made it increasingly difficult for Republicans to combat the racial politics of the Redeemers,” Foner argued.
Democrats now face a renewed white-identity politics whose appeal will be immensely difficult to neutralize, and the notion that a more vigorous, left wing economics will return the white working class to the Democratic fold is likely a fantasy. The last Democrat to come close to winning the white vote was Bill Clinton, who combined his economic populism with promises to “end welfare as we know it” and advertised his willingness to use state violence against black Americans, turning the execution of Ricky Ray Rector to his political advantage.
The uncomfortable truth is that, whether you’re Donald Trump or Bill Clinton, economic populism is most effective in American politics when it is paired with appeals to racism. Maybe the Democrats can and will find a way to do so without such appeals. By the time they do, it may simply be too late to stop what is coming.
The Republican Party of yesteryear championed amendments abolishing slavery and seeking to protect the rights of the freedmen. It still abandoned blacks when the political cost of defending them became too high. Today’s Democratic Party is perfectly capable of doing the same to elements of the diverse coalition that twice secured the presidency for Barack Obama.
So America stands at the precipice of a Second Redemption. Unlike the first, it was not achieved by violence, and has not ended in the total disenfranchisement of people of color. Its immediate consequences may not be as total, or as dire. Yet it has a democratic legitimacy that extends far beyond the American South. The erasure of the legacy of the first black president of the United States will be executed by a man who rose to power on the basis of his embrace of the slander that Obama was not born in America.
Early historians of Reconstruction depicted it not as the terrible demise of interracial government, but as an era when corrupt Republicans violated the South’s natural order by “forcing” self-government on primitive blacks who were unprepared for the responsibility. “To the bulk of the white South,” Foner wrote, “it had become axiomatic that Reconstruction had been a time of ‘savage tyranny’” that “accomplished not one useful result, and left behind it, not one pleasant recollection.” Prepare for the Obama era to be framed in similar terms.
It took another few decades of scholarship, and the civil-rights movement, to shift the public perception of the era toward the truth. The few dissenting voices, like W.E.B. DuBois, were ignored at the time, and vindicated by historians only after decades of hindsight.
Perhaps the Trump administration will diverge from what Trump himself has promised to achieve. Perhaps he will move to enact his campaign-trail promises, and voters will repudiate his agenda. But it seems more likely that some day, Americans will look back at the Obama era much as historians have now come to look at Reconstruction: As a tragic moment of lost promise, a failed opportunity to build a more just and equitable society.