That is the threat he holds over our heads: to “tear our country apart” if Congress holds him accountable, a threat militia groups, including those with ties to white power organizing, are taking seriously. Yet if we bow down to his threats, it will once again be the United States capitulating to extortion, something made possible by Trump’s commitment to a raft of racist policies he promises his base in return for unchecked power.
When it comes to a nation held hostage to racism, we have been here before.
During the Revolutionary War, the British occupied New York City, ran George Washington’s Continental Army nearly ragged and went in for the kill as they attacked the rebellion’s soft underbelly — the South. Georgia and South Carolina were not ready for the onslaught. They simply could not find enough white men willing to take up arms to fend off the oncoming assault on Charleston and Savannah. As the British got closer and closer to Charleston, the Continental Congress rushed a representative to South Carolina with a plan. There were men available, the representative from Congress pleaded, they just were not white. It was time, he said, to arm the enslaved.
The South Carolina government recoiled in “horror” at the suggestion. This war for liberty did not and could not include those of African descent.
Despite the looming peril, South Carolina’s answer to the Continental Congress was simple: It would rather surrender to the British than arm the enslaved. These southern colonists would rather die for white supremacy than live in a nation where the revolutionary language of equality could become the actual reality.
The same choice of white supremacy versus a nation committed to democracy and equality threatened to derail the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The Articles of Confederation had exposed the economic and political incoherence of the new nation. With individual states printing their own money and making foreign policy independent of the federal government — often blindsiding it with their actions — the European powers were eagerly exploiting the United States’ weaknesses and were poised to pick clean the bones of a nation that seemed to be dying before it even really began.
The Constitutional Convention was to be the antidote to that systemic illness by creating a governing structure that would be coherent enough to thrive and strong enough to fend off the nation’s enemies.
South Carolina and Georgia, however, had other plans and held a weakened nation’s very survival hostage to their priority: slavery. Their representatives threatened to walk away from the convention if a series of measures, from the three-fifths clause to the Fugitive Slave provision to a continuation of the Atlantic slave trade for another 20 years, were not embedded in the nation’s founding document.
They won, and the nation lost.
By emboldening and strengthening slavery, the Constitution allowed white supremacy to trump the nation’s founding ideas. The Faustian deal cut in 1787, though, could not ensure national unity.
The South’s insistence on spreading slavery throughout the increasing territorial breadth of the United States, which was land that had been seized from the indigenous people and redistributed to whites, eventually proved to be too much. When Abraham Lincoln was elected to the presidency on a platform explicitly opposed to the expansion of slavery, 11 states rejected the nation’s choice, seceded and attacked the United States. They fought a war for slavery and white supremacy that would leave more than 1.1 million dead and wounded.
But even the bloody Civil War did not end this battle. Nearly 100 years later, white supremacy would again hold the country’s national security hostage.
In 1957, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union launched a satellite, Sputnik, into space. That technological prowess sent shock waves through the national security bureaucracy. It meant the U.S.S.R. had capabilities the intelligence agencies had underestimated and, even more important, that the Pacific and Atlantic oceans were no longer major barriers between the Soviets’ nuclear arsenal and targets in the United States.
Technological heft had to meet technological heft. America needed more scientists and engineers. President Dwight Eisenhower, therefore, insisted the nation could no longer afford to willingly leave so many of its people undereducated. He proposed a bill to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for colleges and universities to create the brainpower to fight the Cold War.
That effort to defend the nation, however, ran headlong into massive resistance to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision. Southern Democrats, who controlled many key committees in Congress, were determined to use every legislative lever to undermine the court’s landmark ruling to end Jim Crow in the schools.
Rep. Carl Elliott (D-Ala.) and Sen. Lister Hill (D-Ala.) insisted the National Defense Education Act would pass only if they received assurances from the Eisenhower administration that whites-only schools could continue to defy the Brown decision, deny African Americans admission, yet still receive millions of dollars in federal funding to build up their labs, faculty and curriculum. The Eisenhower administration agreed, choosing to concede to these Southern demands rather than recognizing that capitulation undermined Brown and the rule of law and severely hampered the nation’s ability to create the full cadre of scientists and engineers needed to fend off the Soviets’ challenge.
In other words, even when faced with the potential of nuclear annihilation, protecting Jim Crow trumped protecting the nation.
That same destructive pattern defines the United States today as it sits at another crossroads: Are we going to defend American democracy, equal rights and the rule of law or bow down to protect Trump and the white supremacist state he is attempting to rebuild?
Following in the path of slaveholders, Trump has popularized racist rhetoric and policies that clearly violate the professed ideals of equality and freedom for which the country claims to stand. Trump has called neo-Nazis “very fine people,” reportedly suggested asylum seekers from Central America be shot, made clear he preferred immigration from Scandinavia rather than from those “shithole countries” in Africa. He has removed “a nation of immigrants” from the mission of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and, instead, targeted Muslim, Asian, Haitian and Latino immigrants for bans, deportation and family separation.
Just as segregationists did before him, he has worked to limit voting rights of minorities, amplifying the lie of voter fraud to enable his state-level allies to pursue discriminatory policies such as voter ID laws, voter roll purges and poll closures, all to keep as many African American, Hispanic, Native American and Asian American voters from the ballot box. He has nominated and the GOP-majority Senate has confirmed more than 150 right-wing judges on the federal bench to solidify these gains.
From the very beginning then, Trump has staked his presidency on a 21st-century version of white supremacy, emerging around the globe. It is in the service of both white nationalism and his own interests that Trump has repeatedly abused his office and American power and, in the process, threatened U.S. national security. All of this should have triggered the constitutional guardrails to protect the Republic. It didn’t.
Why? Because Trump remains in high standing with predominantly white Republican base voters who have been vocal about their fears of diversity. A Pew Research Center study showed 46 percent of white adults believe “a majority nonwhite population will weaken American culture.” A New Jersey police chief blatantly expressed his belief that Trump is the “last hope for white people.” It is Trump’s policies that valorize such views and so endear him to Republicans, which, in turn, protects him from accountability.
It took a Democratic House of Representatives and his attempt to shake down the Ukrainian president to get dirt on a political opponent to finally launch an impeachment inquiry.
Trump’s response to the impeachment investigation is revealing: He has encouraged the well-armed and unregulated right-wing militia to go to war if he is held accountable for violating his oath of office and betraying the United States. Just as Southerners did on the eve of the Civil War, historian Heather Cox Richardson has noted, “when Trump threatens civil war, he is not just talking about saving his own hide; he is calling for his supporters to rally around race and gender so they protect the oligarchy that has been gathering power for a generation or more.”
Since the nation’s founding, the refusal to believe in democracy and follow through on the nation’s ideals — equality and freedom — has been the nation’s consistent enemy. Time and time again, white supremacists have sacrificed these principles to advance their own interests and that of their white supporters. Trump has followed suit, adding the disregard for the rule of law to the list. When challenged, he has also invoked the strategy white supremacist leaders have also mastered: threats of violence and extortion.
Unfortunately, Trump’s threats seem to be working. Although “democracy is fighting for its life,” some have contended that regardless of how well justified impeaching him is, it would be perilous for the nation to follow the constitutional mandate for accountability and the rule of law. It would be “dragging America into new and stormy seas.” But that sentiment is the same Damocles’ sword that has hung over the United States since the Revolutionary War.
It is time we have to call white supremacy’s bluff.
It is not a belief in democracy that could tear this nation apart. Rather, it is not believing in it that has been this nation’s consistent enemy.