These are scary times. Calls for civil war reverberate throughout the country. Said cries have rebounded across the U.S. for some time.
They began to escalate in 2008. In other words, after Barack Obama, a Black person, was elected president. However, since the FBI legally retrieved 11 sets of classified material from former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago compound, such shrieks seem to be reaching a crescendo.
Trump’s White-supremacist supporters’ howls for “civil
war” are cresting at an especially vulnerable moment. Already beset by gross economic inequalities, sharp differences in political ideology and cultural values, the surge in inflation and the Supreme Court’s decision to abolish women’s dominion over their bodies has exacerbated violent right-wing extremists’ assault on democratic norms. And racial oppression, the country’s widest and deepest chasm, continues to grow.
Many commentators compare the divisions characterizing the contemporary moment to those of the 1850s, the prelude to the Civil War. In that pivotal decade, several events exacerbated the fragmentation built into the U.S.’s federal structure.
As is normally the case, the crucial incidents shaping that period began earlier. In this case, the 1842 Prigg v. Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling. Writing for the majority, Justice Joseph Story declared that the Pennsylvania law violated the Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause and the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act and ruled Margaret Morgan a fugitive slave. Prigg laid the groundwork for the infamous decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857).
Other events critical to the march toward the Civil War include the Wilmot Proviso (1846), the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry (1859). Along with the increasingly successful Underground Railroad and the publication of Harriet Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852), these events helped trigger the Civil War.
I don’t think we’re headed for that type of civil war. In fact, I believe the Civil War analogy is wrongheaded. Nonetheless, we can expect the Supreme Court and the Republican-controlled local and state governments to enact more repressive laws that eradicate previously accepted civil and human rights. Yes, we are poised to experience massive civil conflagrations, pitched racialized clashes, and more violent attempts to overthrow local, state and even the federal government. Nonetheless, allusions to the Civil War are misplaced.
The Civil War analogy fails on two crucial points. First, it will not be fought by two opposing armies. Second, it will not be a war for secession. The goal of the fascists, this time, is to take state power, not recede into a new state.
What links the 1850s to the current moment is the doctrine of state’s rights. Then, it was used to rationalize secession. Today, it serves to justify the view that the federal government is illegitimate. The White supremacists want a small, weak federal government because federal law supersedes state law. Like their predecessors, they want control of powerful local and state governments.
For all the above reasons, references to the 1850s and the Civil War address the wrong period. The more accurate historical period is Reconstruction. After the passage of the 1867 Reconstruction Act, the loudest cries from the White South were for “home rule” and against “Negro domination.” By the former, the White supremacists meant the right of White people to control Black people, while the later in the White southern imagination meant White men must prevent Black men from exercising the right to vote and Black people from practicing equal civil and human rights.
Thus, White supremacists during Reconstruction sought to force Black people out of politics, to nullify our vote, if not our right to cast a ballot, and to chain our ancestors forever to grueling, barely paid plantation labor via peonage and convict lease laws.
Maintaining the superexploitation of Black labor required the violent overthrow of Reconstruction-era local and state governments. In the mid-1870s, duly elected local and state Reconstruction governments were deposed by gangs of White militias. Incidents like the 1873 Colfax Massacre or the 1898 Wilmington Coup are better analogies of what Trump’s acolytes’ have planned.
The attempted kidnapping of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by the Wolverine Watchmen, a White-supremacist militia, offers a window into the mind of the Trumpists.
Then, as now, the U.S. Supreme Court played an essential role in disempowering Black people and reinstituting White supremacy. In 1883, the high court revoked the 1875 Civil Rights Act, thereby abolishing Black folks’ access to public accommodations for over 80 years. And in 1896, in Plessey v. Ferguson, the court legalized apartheid as the law of the land. Plessey trapped Black people in disinvested neighborhoods with inferior municipal services and underfunded schools, and subjugated Black people to racialized terrorism at the hands of police.
It appears as if history is repeating itself. It’s not, but the contemporary nadir resembles that of the 1870s-1920s. The Supreme Court’s 2013 nullification of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder recalls the effect, if not the means, of its previous rulings upholding the poll tax in Breedlove v. Suttles (1937) and literacy tests in Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections (1959).
Yes, this moment looks a lot like the one in which Reconstruction was overthrown. To that end, that resemblance requires not only defeating the fascists but accelerating the transformation of the U.S. from a White-supremacist state.