2021 storming of the United States Capitol

Democracy Under Siege

On January 6, 2021, in one last attempt to steal the presidential election from newly-elected Joe Biden, Donald Trump called on his followers to assemble in Washington, DC. His supporters, motivated by his spurious claims of voter fraud, flooded the Capitol to disrupt the certification of the election. Thousands—mostly white and mostly without masks (during the largest surge of COVID 19 in the country’s history)—arrived at the ellipse near the White House. Spurred by former president Trump, they stormed the building to disrupt the Electoral College vote from being certified by Congress. They were successful in disrupting the process but not in stopping the certification.

It is interesting to compare this with uprisings that have recently taken place in Washington and around the country with the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality toward people of color. Very few white people were initially arrested in the January riot; a few members of the police even let protesters into the Capitol building. What accounts for this stark difference in government response?

America is classically schizophrenic. By definition, schizophrenia is characterized by inconsistent and/or contradictory elements. As a historian, I view this collective schizophrenia harkening back to at least the American Revolution.

The American revolt against the British Empire was a conservative revolution perpetrated by the colonial financial elites, primarily the shipping interests in the North and the slave owners in the South.  They represented the top 1%. Leadership in the colonies was brilliant but flawed men; Jefferson, Washington, Monroe and others were slave owners. The irony of slavery is that it psychologically enslaves the slave owners too. Southern slavery was so brutal there was the constant danger of slave revolts. Slave owners never knew if they might be killed in the middle of the night by slaves living in the slave quarters close by. This fear led to the creation of systems to maintain the oppression. Since large slave owners reflected less than 1% of the population, this required persuading the overwhelming percentage of non-slave owners to go along with the systems, even though they did not benefit directly from them. As architects of the revolution, they also needed a buy-in from the general population in order to have soldiers to fight the war. Using the ethos of the Age of Enlightenment, they appealed to the masses through the ideas of democracy.

Over my years of teaching history, I came to realize that slave owners created a social system of class and racial prejudice by holding out the possibility that the majority might one day acquire slaves and wealth through luck and/or hard work. Engaging non-slave owners in the fear of slave revolts against all whites, combined with a system of racial superiority, guaranteed that the majority of whites would go along, though they did not materially benefit from the system. By braiding together race and economic class, they were sold the illusion of superiority.

In the founding of the United States, the fundamental issue of which individuals counted as humans was glossed over for expediency. Compromises were made to keep the union together, but there was never any resolve about the fundamental difference in the belief that slaves were humans rather than chattel. The issue of slavery had been papered over through a series of compromises for three quarters of a century. The issue of class and its tie to racism in the United States is still subconscious but within the psyche of a large sub-set of Americans which Donald Trump and the current Republican Party are capitalizing on.

This is the last generation of Caucasian majority. Prejudice is the rationale of maintaining an apartheid system for much of our history which will end when whites are no longer a majority. Integration has already begun. Mixed-race couples increase every year. African-Americans are our sports heroes. White supremacists are losing their seniority and are in the throes of their last hurrah.

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