HCR: “Saving America” – just as white supremacists “saved” the Jim Crow South

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

May 14, 2021

This morning, as expected, the House Republicans elected Elise Stefanik (R-NY), Trump’s choice for conference chair, to replace Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY). This means that the four top House Republican leaders—Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), Stefanik, and Policy Committee Chair Gary Palmer (R-AL)—all voted to overturn Biden’s 2020 victory after the January 6 attack on the Capitol. 

Stefanik thanked “President Trump for his support,” saying “he is a critical part of our Republican team.” She went on to say that “House Republicans are united in our fight to save our country from the radical Socialist Democrat agenda of President Biden and Nancy Pelosi.”

Today’s vote confirmed that the leaders of the current Republican Party are willing to abandon democracy in order to save the country from what they call “socialism.”

But what Republicans mean when they say “socialism” is not the political system most countries recognize when they use that word: one in which the people, through their government, own the means of production. What Republicans mean comes from America’s peculiar history after the Civil War, when new national taxation coincided with the expansion of voting to include Black men.

In the years just after the firing stopped, white southerners who hated the idea that Black men could use the vote to protect themselves terrorized their Black neighbors. Pretending to be the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers, they dressed in white robes with hoods to cover their faces and warned formerly enslaved people not to show up at the polls. But in 1870, Congress created the Department of Justice, and President U.S. Grant’s attorney general set out to destroy the Ku Klux Klan. 

In 1871, southern leaders changed their tactics. The same men who had vowed that Black people would never be equal to whites began to say that their objection to Black voting was not based on race. No, they said, their objection was that Black people were poor and uneducated and would elect lawmakers who promised to give them things—hospitals, and roads, and schools—that could be paid for only through tax levies on people with property: white men. In this formulation, voting was not a means to ensuring equality; it was a redistribution of wealth from hardworking white men to African Americans who wanted a handout. Black voting meant “socialism,” and it would destroy America.

With this argument, northerners who had fought alongside Black colleagues and insisted they must be equal before the law on racial grounds were willing to see Black men kept from the polls. Black voting, which northerners had recognized as key to African Americans being able to protect their interests—and, for that matter, to defend the national government from the former Confederates who still wanted to destroy it—slowed. And then it stopped. 

The South became a one-party state ruled by a small elite class, defined by white supremacy, and mired in poverty. For its part, the North also turned on workers, undermining the labor movement and focusing on protecting the new industrial factories whose owners claimed they were the ones driving the economy. 

In the 1930s, the Great Depression changed this equation. When the bottom fell out of the economy, Democrats under Franklin Delano Roosevelt transformed the government to regulate business, provide a basic social safety net, and promote infrastructure. As early as 1937, Republican businessmen and southern Democrats began to talk of coming together to stop what they considered socialism. But most Americans liked this New Deal, and its opponents had little hope of attracting enough voters to stop its expansion.

That equation changed after World War II, when Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower began to use the government to advance racial equality. Truman’s 1948 desegregation of the military prompted southern Democrats to form their own short-lived segregationist party. The Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, decision declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional enabled opponents of the new government system to tie racism to their cause. They warned that the expanded government meant the expensive protection of Black rights, which cost tax dollars. They argued it was simply a redistribution of wealth, just as their counterparts had done in the Reconstruction South.

With the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that argument increasingly fed the idea that Black and Brown people were lazy and wanted to receive government handouts rather than work. Businessmen and social traditionalists eager to get rid of the popular New Deal government told voters that government programs to help ordinary Americans were “socialism,” redistributing money from hardworking white people to lazy people of color. They talked of “makers” and “takers.”

To purge the nation of socialism, then, and return it to the pre–New Deal government, they set out to limit voting. In 1980, Paul Weyrich, the co-founder of the Heritage Foundation that has designed much of the legislation currently being passed in Republican-dominated states, said “I don’t want everybody to vote….our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” 

By 1986, Republicans were talking about cutting down on Black voters through “ballot integrity” drives. As Democrats sought to expand voting, most notably with the 1993 Motor Voter Act, Republicans began to charge that they were losing elections only because of voter fraud, although experts agree that voter fraud is exceedingly rare and does not change election outcomes. Since then, arguing that they are simply protecting the vote, Republicans have become dependent on ID laws and other voter suppression measures. 

But by 2020, it was clear that the Republicans’ drive to slash the government back to its 1920 form, along with the racism and sexism that had become central to the party to pull voters to their standard, had become so unpopular that it was unlikely they could continue to win elections. And so, Republicans began to say that the United States is “not a democracy,” as Utah Senator Mike Lee tweeted in October. “Democracy isn’t the objective,” he continued, “liberty, peace, and prospe[r]ity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” 

With the election of Democrat Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, along with a Democratic Congress, the leadership of the Republican Party has taken the next step. They are rejecting the legitimacy of the election, doubling down on Trump’s Big Lie that he won. Claiming to want to combat “voter fraud,” they are backing bills across the country to suppress Democratic voting, making sure that no one but a Republican can win an election.

Just as white southerners argued after the Civil War, Republican leaders claim to be acting in the best interests of the nation. They are standing firm against “the radical Socialist Democrat agenda,” making sure that no wealthy person’s tax dollars go to schools or roads or social programs. 

They are “saving” America, just as white supremacists “saved” the Jim Crow South.

HCR: Cheney shines a light on the “threat America has never seen before”

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

May 11, 2021

Tonight, in a speech that claimed every piece of the Republican landscape since 1980, Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney launched a broadside against the Republican leaders who have shackled the party to the former president.

“Today we face a threat America has never seen before,” Cheney said. “A former president who provoked a violent attack on this Capitol in an effort to steal the election has resumed his aggressive effort to convince Americans that the election was stolen from him. He risks inciting further violence. Millions of Americans have been misled by the former president. They have heard only his words, but not the truth, as he continues to undermine our democratic process, sowing seeds of doubt about whether democracy really works at all.”

Cheney recalled the determination of those in Kenya, Russia, and Poland to risk their lives to vote for freedom, and talked of how the dream of American democracy had inspired them. She touched on religion, assuring listeners that God has favored America. She invoked Reagan, claiming that his Republican Party won the Cold War and saying that America is now on the cusp of another cold war with communist China.

This impending struggle highlighted the importance of today’s domestic struggle: “Attacks against our democratic process and the rule of law empower our adversaries and feed communist propaganda that American democracy is a failure. We must speak the truth. Our election was not stolen, and America has not failed.”

Cheney went on to claim that she stood on conservative principles Republicans like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has abandoned. The fundamental conservative principle is the rule of law, she reminded listeners, and those backing Trump’s Big Lie are denying that rule and undermining our democracy. The election is over, she said, and “Those who refuse to accept the rulings of our courts are at war with the Constitution.” It is imperative, she said, to act to prevent “the unraveling of our democracy.”

“This is not about policy. This is not about partisanship. This is about our duty as Americans. Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar.”

Tomorrow, House Republicans will vote on whether to keep Cheney at the number three spot in the party in the House—she is expected to be removed—and Trump’s own former deputy attorney general, Jeffrey A. Rosen, will tell the House Oversight Committee that after the election, the Justice Department “had been presented with no evidence of widespread voter fraud at a scale sufficient to change the outcome of the 2020 election.”

On Thursday, over 100 former Republican leaders will drop a letter saying that if party leadership does not separate itself from former president Trump, they will start a third party. They are calling themselves the “rationals” against the “radicals,” and they include former governors and representatives, as well as Republican officeholders.

This revolt against the Trump loyalists in the Republican Party signals that, no matter what leadership is saying, many Republicans—including Republican lawmakers—are not, in fact, united behind the former president. After all, he never broke 50% approval when he was president, and he lost the White House and Congress for the party. And, now that he is locked out of Twitter and Facebook, it appears he can no longer command the audience he used to. In the week since he launched a new blog, it has attracted a little over 212,000 likes, shares, and comments. The top post got just 16,000 engagements.

Meanwhile, 63% of Americans approve of the job President Joe Biden is doing.

What’s at stake in the fight over Cheney’s position in the Republican Party—admit it, did you ever think you would care about who was the third most important House Republican?—is not some obscure struggle for political seniority. It’s a fight over whether the Republican Party will wed itself to the Big Lie that a Democratic president is illegitimate, despite all evidence to the contrary. Cheney is not a Democrat by a long shot, and she is correctly calling out the danger of the Big Lie for what it is: a dagger pointed at the heart of our democracy.

HCR: Liz Cheney, Rudy, and the Big Lie

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

May 4, 2021

n any normal era, the big story right now would be the country’s dramatic economic recovery from the recession sparked by the coronavirus. In the first three months of 2021, the economy grew by 1.6% as economic stimulus measures kicked in and people started to buy things again. Amazon posted profits of $8.1 billion for the first three months of the year; the same months last year brought the company $2.5 billion. Supply chains are still frayed, pushing prices upward, but those problems are expected to ease as the chains heal.

At the beginning of the year, economists predicted just 0.6% growth, because they did not expect vaccinations to go into circulation as quickly as they did, and they expected the recession to linger for months. If the current growth rate holds, it would mean an annual rate of 6.4% (it’s unclear, of course, if it will hold).

For the last three weeks, jobless claims have dropped. Restaurants and service industries are not in as good a shape as consumer goods, but they should recover as more and more people get vaccinated. We are still down about 8.4 million jobs lost during the pandemic, but employment is moving in the right direction.

This economic turnaround is possible because of the administration’s vaccine program. That’s another huge story. Just four months ago, it was unclear how vaccinations would happen, and how long they would take. But Biden clearly considered the vaccination program his top priority, a way to prove that an efficient federal government was indeed vital to the country.

As of Monday, more than 56% of U.S. adults have had at least one dose of the vaccine, and more than 246 million doses have been administered. Biden is aiming to get 70% of Americans vaccinated by July 4 and is trying to make getting vaccines even easier to help persuade everyone to get them. The administration wants pharmacies to give shots to walk-in patients, for example, and is giving more doses to rural areas to cut travel distances. Today, the administration announced that states whose people are refusing the vaccine will be able to decide if they want the vaccines allocated to them as a percentage of their population. If not, they can choose to contribute those they don’t want to a federal pool from which states eager for more could pull.  

Biden appears to be betting that Americans of all parties will pay attention to what he is accomplishing and stop listening to Republican lawmakers, who are living in an entirely different political reality than the Democrats.

But it’s hard to get airtime for good, solid, progress when Republican leadership is openly feuding, the former president’s advisor Rudy Giuliani is in front of cameras talking about the Ukraine scandal that led to Trump’s first impeachment, and a federal judge today whacked Trump’s second attorney general, William Barr, for misleading her, Congress, and the public about the Mueller investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

The fight between House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) is escalating. To court the Trump base, McCarthy is trying to bring the caucus together behind the former president, but Cheney refuses to overlook the January 6 insurrection. She is adamant that Republicans must push back on the Big Lie that Trump won the 2020 election, while the Republicans are coming together behind that lie. New York Representative Elise Stefanik, a Trump loyalist, is working to succeed Cheney as the third most powerful Republican in the House. Swapping Stefanik for Cheney will cede the party to Trump once and for all.

On her side, Cheney has the fact that there are already 400 federal cases against the January 6 insurrectionists, and those cases will be in the news, with videos and evidence, in the coming months, constantly reminding people that the Trump Republicans are defending that insurrection. And she is calm and measured, while the Trump loyalists are represented by provocateurs like Lauren Boebert (R-CO), fond of parading around with her guns; Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA); and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) who is currently entangled in a sex-trafficking scandal involving minors. Cheney can do a lot of damage to a Trump party if she wants to.

Tying the party to Trump and the Big Lie also means that party leaders will have to weather whatever might come of the federal investigation into Giuliani, who is publicly accusing officials at the Department of Justice of trying to get to Trump through him. But the investigation into Giuliani’s work in Ukraine began not under Merrick Garland, the current attorney general, but under William Barr, Trump’s attorney general. And today, federal prosecutors in Manhattan asked U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken to appoint an outside lawyer, known as a “special master,” to review the evidence investigators took from Giuliani’s home and office to avoid accusations of political bias.

Since the search, legal analysts have been very visible in the media, suggesting that Giuliani is in, as Trump critic George Conway said, “deep s**t.”

Another story today also grabbed headlines away from Biden and kept the focus on the former president. U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson issued a strongly worded opinion ordering the Justice Department to release a 2019 memo connected to whether Trump should have been charged with obstructing justice during the Russia investigation. Jackson accused the DOJ under Barr’s tenure of misleading her, Congress, and the public both about the memo and about the Mueller Report itself.

The DOJ has until May 17 to decide if it will appeal her ruling or release the memo.

This weird dichotomy between the things that are going very right in the new administration and the things that are going very wrong has unusually profound implications. Republican lawmakers in the states are doing all they can to skew the mechanics of government so they can regain control of the country no matter how unpopular they are.

Paying attention to the fireworks on the Republican side of the aisle threatens to drown out the extraordinary things the Biden administration has already accomplished. But ignoring the growing radicalism of the Trump party threatens to downplay just how dangerous it really is.

HCR: Biden’s first 100 days – revising the American dream

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American | April 29

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

April 29, 2021

Today marks the hundredth day of the Biden-Harris administration. In many ways, the hundred-day mark is arbitrary, a holdover from the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who worked with Congress to pass 76 new laws by the end of his first 100 days, setting a high bar for a consequential presidency. A hundred days is not an entirely useless metric, though, because by that time, a modern president has generally set the tone of the administration. Crucial to the success of that tone is having scored a major win. That, in turn, sets the tone for public reaction to a presidency, which then feeds the administration’s momentum.

When President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took office on January 20, 2021, they were facing crises that rivaled the ones faced by FDR and even by President Abraham Lincoln, who took office after a number of southern states had declared they were leaving the United States to form their own confederacy.

Biden and Harris took office after the former president had supported an insurrection to overturn the results of the election and seize power. Trump denied the legitimacy of their election (and continues to deny it) despite more than 60 lawsuit outcomes that upheld it, while 147 members of Congress sided with the former president, challenging at least one of the official state-certified ballots that made Biden president. The actions of the former president were unprecedented, breaking our previous history of peaceful transitions of power, and on January 20, Washington, D.C., was patrolled by troops stationed there to protect the incoming government.

When Biden took office, the novel coronavirus was ravaging the country. More than 24 million of us had been infected with the virus, and more than 400,000 Americans had died of Covid-19, including 2727 deaths the day before Biden was sworn in. New variants were spreading, and while the previous administration had begun vaccinations, reaching about 4% of the population, it had not arranged for distribution of them, planning simply to get them to states and let the states handle the process from there.

The economy was under water. More than ten million people were out of work and another 3.9 million had stopped even looking. Economic growth before the pandemic was modest—2.2%—but the economy contracted during the crisis. Biden also inherited the biggest federal debt since World War II, standing at over $21.6 trillion. That debt was not simply a product of the coronavirus recession: Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, passed without a single Democratic vote, cost almost $230 billion, helping to create a federal deficit of $984 billion even before the pandemic hit. 

The first tweet Biden sent as president made a marked contrast from what Americans had seen for the previous four years. “There is no time to waste when it comes to tackling the crises we face,” Biden wrote. “That’s why today, I am heading to the Oval Office to get right to work delivering bold action and immediate relief for American families.”

And he did.

After he was sworn in and the ceremonies were over, Biden went to the Oval Office and began the process of signing more than a dozen executive actions that either addressed the pandemic or rolled back some of the policies of the previous administration.

During the campaign, Biden had promised to hit 100 million vaccine doses delivered in his first 100 days; on January 25, he increased that number to 200 million. By February, the administration had bought enough vaccines to inoculate all Americans and had begun to open mass vaccination sites. By April 22, the United States had met Biden’s goal of 200 million vaccinations, a week ahead of time.

On January 20, Biden announced the American Rescue Plan to rebuild the nation after the ravages of the pandemic. It appropriated $1.9 trillion to expand unemployment benefits, make direct payments to individuals, increase food security, fund housing, move children out of poverty, support small businesses, and fund support for healthcare and Covid vaccines. The plan passed Congress, and Biden signed it into law on March 11, less than two months after he took office, a major win.

The job market is rebounding. For the third straight week, initial jobless claims—which are a way to look at layoffs– have dropped below 600,000, the lowest they’ve been in a year. At the same time, U.S. employers added more than 900,000 jobs in March, and economists expect to see more than a half a million new jobs a month for the next year. That will not end the economic crisis of the past year—we are still down 8.4 million jobs from the beginning of the pandemic—but numbers are moving in the right direction. In the first quarter of 2021, the economy grew at an annual rate of 6.4%

A problem for the administration that did not show up in the media last January was the budding crisis at our southern border, where numbers of refugees were about to surge both with seasonal migration and with those held at the border by the former administration. The administration adhered to Covid protocols, turning away from admission all but unaccompanied children. This initially created a surge of children in Border Patrol and Health and Human Services facilities, but the administration has worked to get the situation under control. The number of children in the custody of Border Patrol has dropped 82% in the past month, leaving fewer than 1000 still in custody. The problem is not solved—the children still need to be moved out of Health and Human Services facilities—but it seems to be getting into order.

But Biden has done more than address the coronavirus crisis, the economy, or the refugee crisis. He is reclaiming the nation from the policies of the Reagan Revolution, rejecting the idea central to that revolution, that government is bad by nature and that the country works best when we turn it over to individual actors. He is doing so by working around the Republican lawmakers who are determined to obstruct him at every turn, appealing instead to ordinary Republican voters, who actually want many of the same things ordinary Democratic voters do. The American Rescue Plan, for example, was popular with 77% of Americans, although it received not a single Republican vote.

Biden is reasserting the idea that government can address problems that can only be fixed at a national scale—problems like a pandemic and the economy—but he is not resurrecting the idea of using the government to protect the ability of men to support their families, as FDR did. He is adapting the idea of an active government to the civil rights movements after World War II, defending the rights of Americans as individuals, rather than as members of nuclear families. His administration is centering children and those who take care of them, rather than shoring up any particular family structure.

His revision of the American dream shows in his appointment of the most diverse cabinet in American history: 58% of his political appointees are women while half identify as non-white, 15% were the first in their families to go to college, and 32% are naturalized citizens or first-generation Americans. He chose the first female vice president, the first female Treasury Secretary, the first Indigenous American to lead the Interior Department, and the first Black head of the Pentagon.

One thing, though, about what sure seems to be a very strong start from the Biden administration…. Never forget that what made the American Rescue Plan possible was the election of Democratic Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia. Had the Democrats not held 50 seats in the Senate, enabling them to enact the American Rescue Plan through reconciliation, Biden would be able to maneuver only through executive orders, since Republicans in the Senate would have stopped all legislation.

Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, traveled today to Plains, Georgia, to visit former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. “We owe a special thanks to the people of Georgia. Because of you, the rest of America was able to get help,” Biden said to reporters while he was there. “If you ever wonder if elections make a difference, just remember what you did here in Georgia…. You changed America.”

HCR: Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American | April 20

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

April 20, 2021

Today a jury in Minneapolis, Minnesota, convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin on all counts in the death of George Floyd. On May 25, 2020, Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds after arresting him for allegedly trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. The jury found Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. He faces up to 75 years in prison, and will be sentenced in two months.

As we heard this verdict today, it was striking how many Americans breathed a sigh of relief. It stands out to me that, although a girl passing by, Darnella Frazier, had the presence of mind to record a video of the entire encounter on her cell phone so we could all see what happened entirely too clearly, we were not certain of the outcome.

When they released information about Floyd’s death on May 26, the Minneapolis police department described it like this: “Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. [He was, in fact, dead.] Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”

If Ms. Frazier had not captured the video, would Chauvin be in prison right now? Between 2013 and 2019, only 1% of killings by police have resulted in criminal charges.

How many of those deaths are like that of Mr. Floyd?

I cannot help but think of the famous image of Deputy Sheriff Cecil Ray Price and Sheriff Laurence A. Rainey laughing at a hearing after their arraignment following the murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964.

Price and Rainey were members of the Ku Klux Klan. On June 21, Price stopped James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, allegedly for speeding, then arrested them on suspicion that they had burned a church. That night, after they paid their speeding ticket and left, Price followed them, stopped them, ordered them into his car, and then took them down a deserted road and turned them over to two cars full of his fellow terrorists. They beat and murdered the men and buried them at an earthen dam that was under construction.

Price and Rainey thought it was funny when they were arraigned along with 16 of their friends—not for murder, because Mississippi refused to bring charges, but for conspiracy and violating the civil rights of the murdered men, both federal offenses. And why shouldn’t they think it was all a joke? The jury was white and, after all, they were law enforcement officers.

But, in the end, Price was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison (he served four) and Rainey, who was not at the murder scene, was found not guilty, but lost his job and his marriage and blamed the FBI and the media for ruining his life.

That’s what at stake today, of course. After 1877, certain white men in the American South could commit crimes with impunity, doing whatever they wished to the rest of us, because the region had become a one-party state. Protesters like Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner set out to reestablish the principle of equality before the law. In 1964, Price and Rainey tried to stop them and found, to their surprise, that the world had changed. Then, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act protecting the right of Black people to vote and the stranglehold of the white supremacists on the one-party South loosened.

In 2021, once again, certain people in our government and law enforcement would like to exercise the political dominance of a one-party state and the power that comes with it, this time on a national scale. Today, Chauvin found, to his apparent surprise, that the world is changing.

May her extraordinary act of bearing witness bring peace to Ms. Frazier.

Rest in power, Mr. Floyd.