History does not repeat itself, we are told. It rhymes.
In yesterday’s letter, published one day after Trump incited a violent assault on our Capitol, I told the story of the North Carolina election of 1898, in which a political party used news media to spread big lies, whip up white racist anger, steal a state election through violence, and establish a kleptocratic, racist, authoritarian state.
I meant this history to counter a statement I’ve heard a lot the past few days: “This is not who we are.”
Sadly, it IS who we are.
In the US presidential election of 2020, President Trump and the Republican Party used right-wing news media and profiteering social media to spread big lies, whip up white racist anger, steal a presidential election through violence, and establish a kleptocratic, racist, authoritarian state.
We know the tragic outcome of the North Carolina election of 1898. We’ve been living with it ever since. Most consequentially, Black Americans have been living with it ever since.
But the outcome of the US presidential election of 2020 can be different, depending on the choices we make next.
Americans have already made one critical choice, first through their votes in a free and fair election and then through their outrage over the attack on the US Capitol. As of January 20, 2021, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be in office. The Democrats will then control the Presidency, the Senate, and the House.
Trump, the Republican Party, and their white mob failed to steal the US presidential election. But they tried. They actually tried.
And they had a lot of help. From Fox News, NewsMax, One America News Network, other right-wing news media, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, all of which spread Trump’s big lies about election fraud, whipped up white racist anger about the inclusion of Black and Brown people in the American democratic project, and tried to incite a white mob to violence in an effort to steal the election.
Why do we hear the 2020 US presidential election rhyming so clearly with the 1898 North Carolina election?
Because we as Americans have never come to terms with the central paradox of our country’s founding: we are a democracy founded on the principles of equality and freedom that has, from the beginning, acted on principles of racial domination, caste, and exclusion.
Here’s an unpleasant truth. America has been a true democracy only since, at the earliest, 1965, when the Voting Rights Act finally forced the Southern states to recognize the constitutional right of Black Americans to vote, a right established in 1870, just five years after slavery ended.
So what comes next in our beloved, beleaguered, imperfect, and still worthy country?
Will we finally, truly reckon with the problem that brought us to this point?
In 1962, during the Civil Rights Movement, James Baldwin published a remarkable essay in the New Yorker titled “Letter from a Region in My Mind” that soon became The Fire Next Time. His words still speak to us.
“If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world,” he wrote.
Almost 60 years have passed. Will we falter in our duty now?