“Let me be very clear,” Joe Biden assured us on TV yesterday afternoon. “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are.”
This is how we expect politicians from both major parties to talk when vicious, hateful rhetoric incites mass violence. In March 1861, after seven slave states had already left the Union, Abraham Lincoln, the only president revered today by both elite Democrats and Republicans, tried to soothe the rebels who were arming for war. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies,” he told them in his first inaugural address. “Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” At the end he famously appealed to the “better angels of our nature.”
The mob of Trumpers that smashed its way into the Capitol yesterday should serve as a rebuke to such willful innocence. The rioters inflamed by the endless lies and racist conspiracy theories spouted from the White House are just the latest in an unbroken tradition that is as truly American as the people of all races who have struggled for a tolerant, egalitarian, and democratic nation. One cannot honor the latter without coming to grips with the people they fought against.
In 1857, President James Buchanan endorsed a state constitution to protect slavery in Kansas that a minority of white settlers there had drafted after several years of bloody conflict. In 1863, the governor of New York, Horatio Seymour, addressed as “my friends” a crowd of white boys and men who had been protesting the Civil War draft by burning down buildings and lynching Black people on the streets of Manhattan. While bemoaning the violence, the city’s leading Democratic paper asked rhetorically, “Does any man wonder that poor men refuse to be forced into a war . . . perverted almost into partisanship.”
During Reconstruction, Seymour and other leading politicians from his party looked the other way or actively abetted the Ku Klux Klan as it went about terrorizing Black voters and battling the Union troops dispatched to protect them. The revived KKK of the 1920s, which was a scourge to Catholics and Jews as well as African Americans, took over the Republican Party in several Northern states and counties. And Democrats, at their 1924 convention, narrowly defeated a resolution to condemn the violent group whose membership then numbered close to 4 million.
The history of modern American conservatism is strewn with similar examples of bigoted movements that got help from authorities, political and otherwise. There were the police captains and clergymen who promoted the anti-Semitic populist ravings of Father Charles Coughlin during the Great Depression and the White Citizens Councils, full of businessmen and professionals, who led resistance to the Black freedom movement in the South during the 1950s and 1960s.
Barry Goldwater won the 1964 GOP presidential nomination thanks in part to grassroots campaigning by the John Birch Society, whose founder had accused President Dwight Eisenhower of being “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” After decades in decline, the JBS sprang back to life when Trump got elected in 2016. The Texas chapter quickly doubled its membership, signed up a number of legislators, and became vocal backers of such powerful right-wing politicians as Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Louie Gohmert.
Most of the Republicans now mouthing predictable words of censure about the riot are careful to say nothing that would turn the mass of pro-Trumpers against them. A snap poll taken by YouGov found that nearly half of all GOP voters supported the actions of those at the Capitol. And when the president who urged them to storm the building called into a meeting of the Republican National Committee today, he was greeted by what the Washington Post called “a loud and overwhelmingly enthusiastic reception.”
This atrocious national tradition will likely endure years after Trump has retreated to his resort in Florida and his followers have found other leaders and movements to stoke their fear and anger. Sweet talk about “unity” and our “better angels” did not defeat them before and will not now. Confront them with the truth, block them in the legislatures and the executive suites and the courts, protest them in the streets, and crush them at the polls.
Michael Kazin is emeritus co-editor of Dissent.