Donald Trump has claimed credit for any number of things he benefited from but did not create, and the Republican Party’s reigning ideology is one of them: a politics of cruelty and exclusion that strategically exploits vulnerable Americans by portraying them as an existential threat, against whom acts of barbarism and disenfranchisement become not only justified but worthy of celebration. This approach has a long history in American politics. The most consistent threat to our democracy has always been the drive of some leaders to restrict its blessings to a select few.
This is why Joe Biden beat Mr. Trump but has not vanquished Trumpism. Mr. Trump’s main innovation was showing Republicans how much they could get away with, from shattering migrant families and banning Muslim travelers to valorizing war crimes and denigrating African, Latino and Caribbean immigrants as being from “shithole countries.” Republicans have responded with zeal, even in the aftermath of his loss, with Republican-controlled legislatures targeting constituencies they identify either with Democrats or with the rapid cultural change that conservatives hope to arrest. The most significant for democracy, however, are the election laws designed to insulate Republican power from a diverse American majority that Republicans fear no longer supports them. The focus on Mr. Trump’s — admittedly shocking — idiosyncrasies has obscured the broader logic of this strategy.
After more than a decade in which Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton provided fruitful targets for an audience fearful of cultural change, conservative media has struggled to turn the older white president who goes to Mass every Sunday into a compelling villain. Yet the apocalypse remains nigh, threatened by the presence of those Americans they consider unworthy of the name.
On Fox News, hosts warn that Democrats want to “replace the current electorate” with “more obedient voters from the third world.” In outlets like National Review, columnists justify disenfranchisement of liberal constituencies on the grounds that “it would be far better if the franchise were not exercised by ignorant, civics-illiterate people.” Trumpist redoubts like the Claremont Institute publish hysterical jeremiads warning that “most people living in the United States today — certainly more than half — are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.”
Under such an ideology, depriving certain Americans of their fundamental rights is not wrong but praiseworthy, because such people are usurpers.
The origin of this politics can arguably be found in the aftermath of the Civil War, when Radical Republicans sought to build a multiracial democracy from the ashes of the Confederacy. That effort was destroyed when white Southerners severed emancipated Black Americans from the franchise, eliminating the need to win their votes or respect their rights. The founders had embedded protections for slavery in the Constitution, but it was only after the abolition war, during what the historian Eric Foner calls the Second Founding, that nonracial citizenship became possible.
The former Confederates had failed to build a slave empire, but they would not accept the demise of white man’s government. As the former Confederate general and subsequent six-term senator from Alabama John T. Morgan wrote in 1890, democratic sovereignty in America was conferred upon “qualified voters,” and Black men, whom he accused of “hatred and ill will toward their former owners,” did not qualify and were destroying democracy by their mere participation. Disenfranchising them, therefore, was not merely justified but an act of self-defense protecting democracy against “Negro domination.”
In order to wield power as they wanted, without having to appeal to Black men for their votes, the Democratic Party and its paramilitary allies adopted a theory of liberty and democracy premised on exclusion. Such a politics must constantly maintain the ramparts between the despised and the elevated. This requires fresh acts of cruelty not only to remind everyone of their proper place but also to sustain the sense of impending doom that justifies these acts.
As the historian C. Vann Woodward wrote, years after the end of Reconstruction, Southern Democrats engaged in “intensive propaganda of white supremacy, Negrophobia and race chauvinism” to purge Black men from politics forever, shattering emerging alliances between white and Black workers. This was ruthless opportunism, but it also forged a community defined by the color line and destroyed one that might have transcended it.
The Radical Republicans believed the ballot would be the ultimate defense against white supremacy. The reverse was also true: Severed from that defense, Black voters were disarmed. Without Black votes at stake, the party of Lincoln was no longer motivated to defend Black rights.
Contemporary Republicans are far less violent and racist than the Democrats of the Reconstruction era and the Gilded Age. But they have nevertheless adopted the same political logic, that the victories of the rival party are illegitimate, wrought by fraud, coercion or the support of ignorant voters who are not truly American. It is no coincidence that Mr. Obama’s rise to power began with a lyrical tribute to all that red and blue states had in common and that Mr. Trump’s began with him saying Mr. Obama was born in Kenya.
In this environment, cruelty — in the form of demonizing religious and ethnic minorities as terrorists, criminals and invaders — is an effective political tool for crushing one’s enemies as well as for cultivating a community that conceives of fellow citizens as a threat, resident foreigners attempting to supplant “real” Americans. For those who believe this, it is no violation of American or democratic principles to disenfranchise, marginalize and dispossess those who never should have had such rights to begin with, people you are convinced want to destroy you.
Their conviction in this illegitimacy is intimately tied to the Democratic Party’s reliance on Black votes. As Mr. Trump announced in November, “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.” The Republican Party maintains this conviction despite Mr. Trump’s meaningful gains among voters of color in 2020.
Even as Republicans seek to engineer state and local election rules in their favor, they accuse the Democrats of attempting to rig elections by ensuring the ballot is protected. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who encouraged the mob that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 with his claims that the 2020 election had been stolen, tells brazen falsehoods proclaiming that voting rights measures will “register millions of illegal aliens to vote” and describes them as “Jim Crow 2.0.”
But there are no Democratic proposals to disenfranchise Republicans. There are no plans to deny gun owners the ballot, to disenfranchise white men without a college education, to consolidate rural precincts to make them unreachable. This is not because Democrats or liberals are inherently less cruel. It is because parties reliant on diverse coalitions to wield power will seek to win votes rather than suppress them.
These kinds of falsehoods cannot be contested on factual grounds because they represent ideological beliefs about who is American and who is not and therefore who can legitimately wield power. The current Democratic administration is as illegitimate to much of the Republican base as the Reconstruction governments were to Morgan.
This brand of white identity politics can be defeated. In the 1930s, a coalition of labor unions, urban liberals and Northern Black voters turned the Democratic Party from one of the nation’s oldest white supremacist political institutions — an incubator of terrorists and bandits, united by stunning acts of racist cruelty against Black Americans in the South — into the party of civil rights. This did not happen because Democratic Party leaders picked up tomes on racial justice, embraced jargon favored by liberal academics or were struck by divine light. It happened because an increasingly diverse constituency, one they were reliant on to wield power, forced them to.
That realignment shattered the one-party system of the Jim Crow South and ushered in America’s fragile experiment in multiracial democracy since 1965. The lesson is that politicians change when their means of holding power change and even the most authoritarian political organization can become devoted to democracy if forced to.
With their fragile governing trifecta, Democrats have a brief chance to make structural changes that would even the playing field and help push Republicans to reach beyond their hard-core base to wield power, like adding states to the union, repairing the holes the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts blew in the Voting Rights Act, preventing state governments from subverting election results and ending partisan control over redistricting. Legislation like the PRO Act would spur unionization and the cross-racial working-class solidarity that comes with it. Such reforms would make Republican efforts to restrict the electorate less appealing and effective and pressure the party to cease its radicalization against democracy.
We know this can work because of the lessons of not only history but also the present: In states like Maryland and Massachusetts, where the politics of cruelty toward the usual targets of Trumpist vitriol would be self-sabotaging, Republican politicians choose a different path.
The ultimate significance of the Trump era in American history is still being written. If Democrats fail to act in the face of Republican efforts to insulate their power from voters, they will find themselves attempting to compete for an unrepresentative slice of the electorate, leaving the vulnerable constituencies on whom they currently rely without effective representation and democratic means of self-defense that the ballot provides.
As long as Republicans are able to maintain a system in which they can rely on the politics of white identity, as the Democratic Party once did, their politics will revolve around cruelty, rooted in attempts to legislate their opponents out of existence or to use the state to crush communities associated with them. Americans will always have strong disagreements about matters such as the role of the state, the correct approach to immigration and the place of religion in public life. But the only way to diminish the politics of cruelty is to make them less rewarding.
Adam Serwer (@AdamSerwer) is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the forthcoming “The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present and Future of Trump’s America.”
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