Trump’s debt to the Ku Klux Klan

Photo: Anthony Crider

Donald Trump’s political roots, and those of the heavily armed neo-fascist militias taking to the streets to support him, are in the slave-owning Confederacy and the failure of the post-Civil War settlement known as The Reconstruction writes Andy Stowe.  The man who styles himself as the greatest living American patriot has vigorously defended the statues of the Confederate traitors who led the rebellion against the United States. His sole purpose in doing so is to win the votes of white racists.

Recent research suggests that about half of white Americans have an ancestor who was involved in the Ku Klan Klan when the movement had a major revival in the 1920s and virtually the entirety of the former Confederacy is Trump supporting territory. These ideas are still a huge factor in American politics.

Alexander Stephenson, the vice-president of the Confederacy, was explicit about the philosophical and economic basis of the slavocracy’s state:  

“Its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” 

Those ideas endured long after the war and they are made flesh every time a 21st century white cop kills a black American, when the Trump supporting militias take to the streets or Trump uses the birther mythology about Obama or his assertion that Kamala Harris could never be president.

For a brief historical moment after the Civil War the United States ruling class had an opportunity to crush these ideas and the social forces which represented them politically. It chose not to.  

It was the slave states which started the Civil War which cost an estimated 750 000 lives when they seceded from the Union. Their pre-feudal system of agriculture exhausted the soil and required the constant acquisition of new land, so they insisted that the new administrative territories that the United States was acquiring as its capitalist economy expanded into the country’s interior should be open to the use of slave labour.  

A step too far

Secession was a step too far for the northern industrial bourgeoisie and its representatives in the Republican Party. Its members ranged from radical abolitionists who wanted an immediate end to slavery to gradualists like Abraham Lincoln who thought the practice abhorrent but were not willing until half-way through the Civil War to take the firm measures needed to suppress it.  

The military defeat of the Confederacy offered a chance to destroy the social basis of slavery and to completely dispossess the southern ruling class which had imposed it and a bloody civil war on American society.  

A real transformation was possible through an alliance of the victorious northern government, freed slaves and their potential allies among small farmers and poor whites. The slave owners had been crushed militarily, economically and morally. They were in no position to offer a meaningful resistance to a programme of social transformation.

From 1867 till the early 1870s the radical Republicans, Lincoln’s heirs, used the weight of the US army to institute the only properly democratic settlement the southern United States have ever known.  Black men were given the vote, children were provided with formal education and some of the most aggressively racist laws were repealed. Some ex-slaves seized the land they’d worked on their whole lives in the expectation that the government would give them, in the slogan of the time, “forty acres and a mule”.  

The northern bourgeoisie baulked at this radicalism and left its own revolution unfinished and ready to be undone.  

They didn’t offer the ex-slaves cheap credit, livestock, land or seeds.  In the western territories the federal government handed over vast tracts of Native American land to white homesteaders and railway, lumber and mining companies but they would not seize and redistribute the land of the southern ruling class which had started the war.  

The Black Codes

Having relied on freed slaves and poor whites to suppress the Confederate bourgeoisie, they betrayed them. As early as 1865, President Johnson sponsored constitutional conventions to bring the plantation owners back into local and national government. Johnson supported the Black Codes, a panoply of laws which exist to this day which surgically target black Americans, criminalising them for the most trivial offences and allowing them to be disenfranchised.  

To force these things through required defeating a movement which was organising Colored People’s Conventions demanding the repeal of the Black Codes, the right to serve on juries, to bear arms, own land, vote without hindrance and free public education. This activity was complemented by land seizures, armed self-defence units comprised of former soldiers and some local governments repressed the plantation owners with force of arms.  

 The northern capitalists were as keen to prevent a revolution in the south as they were in the north. The post-war period was a struggle between those who wanted the new society would serve the interests of the poor whites and former slaves or the big bourgeoisie.  

The legacy of this defeat endures today. 

During the 1950s and 60s former Confederate states obliged black voters to do literacy tests. In the state of Florida’s 2000 presidential election, which George W. Bush won by 537 votes “a black citizen was 10 times as likely to have a vote rejected as a white voter.” Even today the anachronism of the electoral college system, itself originally a concession to states dominated by the plantation-owning class, gives disproportionate weight to the former slave states, as happened when Hillary Clinton lost the election despite winning 2.8 million votes more than Trump.  

All this is the result of the victory of a counter-revolution in which the most conservative sections of the Republican Party, which had defeated the Confederacy, effectively abandoned the black population and ceded the region to the white supremacists for generations.

Part of the reason for this was that although New England and other parts of the North spawned an abolitionist movement, the Northern capitalists – at first mercantile and soon after industrial, were heavily reliant on slave-harvested raw materials, particularly cotton, for their own fortunes. To borrow from the most notorious champion of slavery in the Senate, John C Calhoun, cotton really was the thread that bound the Union together for much of the 19th century.

Into the 20th century

Those victories that the freed slaves had won – political representation, education, land, voting rights were largely undone using a revived Ku Klux Klan and the legislative framework that became known as Jim Crow. The realities of de jure apartheid, combined with rural poverty and the dearth of job opportunities in the region’s urban areas, where industrial development lagged, fuelled large-scale migration to northern cities such as Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, especially during and after the First World War through the start of the Second and continued into the 1960s, eventually involving an estimated six million people over five decades.

In general the migrants gained civil and political rights, but frequently encountered systematic discrimination both in the workplace and especially in housing, creating patterns of slum housing and residential segregation that have largely persisted to the present day. In addition, of course, there was the ever present reality of brutal policing and in numerous states, not least Michigan, the growth of the KKK among sections of white workers and the middle class formed part of the response to the newcomers from the ‘Great Migration’.

Photo: Stephen Melkisethian

With the remaining African-American population largely disenfranchised for decades under the Jim Crow regime of the old Confederacy, it was the ‘Dixiecrat’ wing of the Democratic Party, which dominated the region’s politics for decades and wielded grossly disproportionate influence in Washington until the 1970s. In addition to its virulent racism, the Dixiecrats helped ensure that the South remained especially difficult terrain for trade unions and offered only the most meagre social welfare provision.

Republicans court the racist vote

The fracturing of the Dixiecrat wing from the national party began in the late 1940s as the Truman administration pursued tiny steps towards ‘desegregation’ and accelerated dramatically as the reactionary resistance, associated with then Alabama governor George Wallace, hardened into a third party opposition as the Johnson administration introduced civil and voting rights legislation in 1964-65. There is little doubt that without the sustained mobilisation by the MLK-led civil rights movement and various more radical offshoots the Democrats would not have moved to address what really was unfinished business from The Reconstruction period of 1865-77.

Wallace would stand as an independent presidential candidate in 1968, capturing five southern states and more than 9.9 million votes (13.5%) nationally. Still, his hard-line support for segregation was too much for many southern whites at the time and the team around Richard Nixon sensed an opportunity to break the Democrats’ electoral hold over the old Confederacy, thus the Republicans’ adoption of a ‘Southern strategy’, which paid electoral dividends, while hastening the marginalisation of the socially liberal elements within the Republican establishment.

In contrast to Nixon and Reagan, Trump is literally the embodiment of inherited wealth and the rentier section of the US capitalist class, but for all the overt vulgarity there is a real sense that Trump is the Grand Guignol version of a Republican lineage that dates back more than five decades with the likes of Paul Manafort and Roger Stone its physical manifestations.  

In the event that Biden does win the presidential election it’s clear that the Black Lives Matter movement, Bernie Sanders’ supporters and organisations like the Democratic Socialists of America still have to fight to finally defeat the Confederate legacy.

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