Ever since the attempted insurrection at the capitol on January 6th, the fascism debate has once again sprung to life. Is Trump fascist, is Trumpism fascism, are Trump supporters fascists themselves? While the debate can be useful in the urgency that it provides, I believe that it’s much more telling to look at the precedents to Trumpism that fall closer to home. By focusing on the particular circumstances of post-WWI Europe, we can miss some of our own troubling past.
Historically, the rise of fascism was attributed to many things: the humiliation of losing an important war, a mass base of brutalized veterans, and the opposition of a strong left-wing movement that it opposes. However, these conditions don’t just describe Germany or Italy in the 1920s, they describe the American South in the 1870s.
It is not very common to get a full account of the post-Civil War period in American history classes. When we studied history at my middle school, most of the post-Civil War period was essentially mumbled through until we reached World War I. That is not an accident. If you’re trying to impart any sort of American exceptionalism, the rise and fall of Reconstruction is a hard thing to explain away.
After the Civil War ended, it did not take long for the local white elites to strike back against the new class of freed slaves. Within a few months of emancipation, several states had already passed black codes, locking black people into certain professions and certain public roles, under threat of arrest and imprisonment. Around this time, the Klu Klux Klan was also formed by former officers in the Confederate Army to enforce the white supremacist hierarchy outside the official state apparatus. Racial terror had been an issue before the war, but with the “southern way of life” under attack, it became almost an every day fact of life.
However, at this point there was still an outside force calling the shots, and they were not happy. Black codes and paramilitary violence incensed Radical Republicans in the North, moving them to pass the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. Along with the election of Ulysses S Grant, started a period of Congressional Reconstruction that more explicitly enfranchised freedmen and gave space for a stronger democratic politics.
At this point, it is worth looking into the movements of the freedmen themselves. White supremacist resistance would not have been nearly as frantic if former slaves had not been organizing as a potent political group. Even before Congressional Reconstruction, freedmen had been organizing a vibrant civil society and demanding rights to land and free labor. Then, the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments gave these movements access to state power. Across the south, freedmen were elected to local office, and used that power to elect congressmen and even the first black senator in US history.
While most of the agendas of these Reconstruction governments were quite moderate, the very act of declaring political and economic independence was a threat that white southerners could not abide. Plantation owners were losing a source of pliable labor, and white farmers were losing the only advantage they had in an otherwise inhospitable economy. This it not to say there was never any cooperation between white and black farmers, but it was unfortunately the exception, not the rule.
Even with northern armies on patrol, black attempts at organizing were met with intense violence. During elections, groups like the White League and the Klu Klux Klan organized fraud, intimidation, and violence to keep black voters at home. When those strategies didn’t work, they would attempt to just overthrow the government, seeing black Republican victories as illegitimate.
Eventually, the North began to grow tired of combatting all of this racial violence. Many of them had never been particularly progressive on race to begin with, and many business-oriented Republicans in particular were beginning to worry about a rising left among the northern working class that was using a lot of the same language as southern blacks. After the 1876 election, federal troops were pulled out of the South in order to secure an electoral college victory for Rutherford B Hayes. Black southerners were now left to fend for themselves.
But that was not the end for black and biracial movements. While new conservative governments passed poll taxes, new black codes, and looked the other way on white supremacist violence, many pockets of black political power still remained. In the early 1880s, the Readjusters came to power in Virginia by working with black voters to better fund public services and readjust the war debt. Later in the decade, organizations like the Knights of Labor and the Colored Farmer Alliance built economic and political power for black farmers and laborers. In the 1890s, the People’s Party would occasionally run fusion tickets with Republicans and work with black voters to elect more progressive governments.
Without the support of an outside force, these movements could only last for so long. Facing the rising threats of racial liberalism and economic populism, the white elites doubled down on white supremacist campaigns. Sometimes this was as simple as just convincing white farmers that blacks were inferior to them. When that didn’t work, they would simply overthrow the government.
The final blow against both black and populist political organization, was the passage of new constitutions across the south in the 1890s and 1900s. These Constitutions included what became known as Jim Crow laws, fully disenfranchising black voters (and a lot of poor whites), and establishing a legal system of segregation. This enabled a full political, economic, and cultural domination of white supremacy in the South that would last for over 60 years.
That is what it looks like when fascism wins.
As we know, Jim Crow laws were eventually defeated by the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. They once again faced a massive white backlash, both legal and extra-legal, but they were victorious this time. So why is the Jim Crow south any more relevant to our situation today than Nazi Germany or fascist Italy? Trump was certainly not calling for a return to segregation, and even the most odious of the new right don’t seem to be calling for a complete return to 1930s Mississippi.
To understand the connection, it is important to look at how the modern conservative movement came to be. The National Review, one of modern conservatism’s earliest proponents, was created as a reaction to New Deal liberalism, but also to the Civil Rights Movement. In 1964, Barry Goldwater, one of the earliest prominent modern conservatives, ran on explicit opposition to the Civil Rights Act with the justification that it was an unjustified federal intervention into local affairs.
Both of these built off of the Lost Cause narrative that was formed as an explicit defense of the Jim Crow south. This narrative paints the southern way of life as inherently harmonious in its inequality, a place where everyone knew their spot in life. Only when outside agitators like the Northern government got involved did they use violence, and it was only to restore their rightful way of local control, which they eventually did. It was this connection between federal intervention and racial equality that helped bridge the gap between old southern “populism” and new southern conservatism.
Of course, as conservatism developed in a biracial society, it could not maintain this explicit anti-civil rights stance. No one explained it better than the infamous Lee Atwater:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
As a result, much of modern conservatism is not explicitly white supremacist. Southern white supremacy is also not its only influence. Gender politics, tax revolts, religion, and lower-middle class resentment have all played important roles in developing the modern conservative movement.
This development also shows that Trumpism is not as much of a break from modern conservatism as many would like to think. While Trump himself is certainly more crass that most modern politicians, he often is just saying the quiet part loud. Just because he is no longer in power doesn’t mean that we should expect all of this to go away.
Given the direct connection from Southern authoritarianism to modern conservatism to Trumpism, I feel that it is a much important phenomenon to study when examining the conservative movement. There weren’t a lot of Nazi flags at the capitol insurrection, but there were certainly several confederate ones. It can be easy to assume that the worst of our modern politics originated elsewhere, but sometimes it is important to look in our own backyards.