^ James K. Vardaman, Sr., the virulently racist, economic populist (and journalist) who dirtied American political life at the height of lynch terrorism’s years. (Note : He even looks like Steve Bannon, a journalist, too; a sly anti-Semitic, white nationalist who will be Mr. Trump’s chief strategist.)
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Three days ago we wrote about the recent election under the rubric “the South Rises Again.” Long before election day, observers saw that what he hopefully call “nation” was “divided.” They were barely half right. What we call “America” is two nations, and for much of America’s existence, it always has been two.
There are two reasons why this is so. First of them is race. It was race 225 years ago, when two grand compromises allowed the Constitution to be approved by the Convention meting in Philadelphia. Those compromises did not solve the issue, because it was insoluble even though the Founders hoped they might eventually don away with it. (they could not. Because they could not — because the issue grew more and more divisive , not less– we ended up fighting a Civil War grounded in race.
Even Civil Wart did not end the issue. It ended slavery, but race remained a cleavage nonetheless, whose virulence increased — and persisted. The Democratic party of 1867 to 1932 was grounded in race. The Civil Rights revolution of the period 1954 to 1965 was about race. Race moved 1867 to 1932 Democrats into the opposite party, and moved 1867 to 1932 Republicans to the Democrats.
Race is the ONLY factor that has realigned the parties. The election of a Black President, Barack Obama, put race at the top of the Republican party’s agenda. He was to be opposed on all things because he was a Black President. A Black President could not be allowed. black votes could not be allowed. Black justice could not be allowed. Nor could the legitimacy of a Black President be allowed. Trump’s rise from charlatan to political prominence began with an attack on President Obama’s birthplace, upon his right to be President.
Because race was and is the paramount urgency for the Trump movement — and its less vulgar but equally racist GOP doppelgangers — every other issue took a back seat. Ted Cruz was supposed to be THE Evangelical Protestant candidate; he was that constituency;s voice on all their issues — and South Carolina, the test case state, was supposed to be an easy win for him because of its large Evangelical community; but Trump easily beat Cruz in the South Carolina primary. Just as racist demagogues of the period 1900 to 1932 always defeated economic populists in the South. Given the choice, race was, and still is, more important to Southern voters than economic justice.
In Southern states today, the greater the percentage of voters therein who are Black, the more its white voters unify on the opposite side. Thus the victory of Trump, a sordid man whose personal values and evil agenda would appear to have nothing in common with Evangelical voters.
Perhaps Lyndon Johnson said it best : “as long as you tell the lowest white man that he is better than the highest black man, he will let you pick his pocket…he’ll even empty his pockets for you.” (I am paraphrasing.)
In 1896 and in two Presidential campaigns thereafter, William Jennings Bryan headed almost the exact same coalition : Evangelical, economically populist, and virulently racist. We might not connect Bryan to Trump — whose vote is very much Bryan — because since Bryan’s era the Democratic party managed to adjust itself enormously : Woodrow Wilson was as racist as Bryan, and as economically populist, but he was not politically Evangelical — was Presbyterian, not Baptist — and his coalition took in a significant slice of northern immigrant city people. Northern immigrants became the crucial constituency for Democrats from Wilson on, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt added culturally conservative city Catholics, Jews, civil rights activists, and good government reformers, whose influence gave the Democratic party an entirely new face. But we know now that the era that began with Wilson and reached its peak with Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson is now over.
All the malcontents of race have gravitated to the GOP even as civil rights and good government reformers — the “party of Lincoln” — were going in the other direction. Toady, except in Massachusetts and to some extent in other Northeastern states — and perhaps in Ohio and Utah — the Republican party of now is the Democratic party of Bryan and Secession. 80 to 90 percent of it is that.
We are now paying the price of racism persisting in all of its tragic absurdity.
One half of America wants full civil rights and respect for people of color (and immigrants), the other half wants the opposite. This was the case in 1820 too. Whence it aggravated all the way to Civil War. Calls to “unify” our country are heard just as they were heard in the 40 years prior to 1860; and went unheeded, just as they are going unheeded now.
To reprise the awful tale : in 1820, when the Missouri Compromise again delayed solution of the slavery issue just as had happened during the Constitution Convention, , the nation’s most perceptive leaders decried the baleful taint of slavery. They wanted it abolished. In the north, slavery was in fact abolished, some of it well before 1820; but an attempt by the Virginia legislature failed, and thereafter Southerners went from powerlessly disliking slavery to defending it to extolling it to seceding in its name.
The same dynamic is happening now. The more we northerners (and West Coasters) decry racism and its cousin bigotries, the more virulently the bigots express their bigotry. Enter the openly white nationalist, racist, anti Semitic “alt right,” whose leader will now be Mr. Trump’s chief strategist.
So much for race. It is now time to discuss the other great divide that made America two nations and still does : the prominence of the merchant elites of our big cities, versus the farm and small town nation.
In 1787, ratification of the Constitution almost didn’t happen because rural delegates to ratification conventions bitterly opposed it as a document written by and for those merchant, city elites. Not much has changed. Cities today thrive on a culture and economy the opposite of that which lives in rural and small town areas. City life is diverse in culture and language, in immigrant origin, and economically dynamic , innovative, and creatively destructive, Cities are beehives of capitalism, of risk taking, of ambition and prosperity, of merit and merit pay. Rural and small town life has never been any of that. Continuity, simplicity, and rootedness are the pillars there. In cities, no one has roots; the drivers of city prosperity are almost always people who move to the cities from the small towns where their aspirations have no prospects.
Trump was the candidate of those small towns and rural areas, of rooted continuity and simplicity, of lives without risk or aspiration. But also of resentment arising from awareness, in rural and small town life, that in cities, people of color; people who wear hijabs and worship Allah; and people of all sorts of lifestyles invigorate one another and succeed by mutual invigoration. Not surprising to find envy of it driving a slew of Trump votes.
Racism dividing Civil War ideals from Civil war defeat, and the (much related) diversity of city life from the uniformity of rural places : these underlie the Trump victory in a society that persists in living as two opposed nations barely coexisting in the dream bubble we call “America.”
Will it change, this bifurcated body politic ? I doubt it. As long as America has cities and rural and small town places, and as long as we are created and bolstered by immigrants of all origins, and as long as people of color are treated as color rather than as people, we will be two peas uncomfortably — irreconcilably — bumping one another in one hemmed in pod.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere