Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election resembles in many ways 1877 and the end of Reconstruction. While 1968 and the elections of Nixon and Reagan were surely a white backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and other progressive campaigns for women’s, Native American, and gay rights, the sort of visceral, nationalist, and openly white supremacist sentiment that emerged during the 2016 campaign feels closer to the tenor of the end of Reconstruction and the decades that followed than the “silent majority” that closed the Sixties. Like the end of Reconstruction, Trump’s victory is as much about a backlash as it is about a restoration of white nationhood.
Reconstruction set out to ensure that the newly freedpeople would be protected by the 13th , 14th ,and 15th amendments to the Constitution that outlawed slavery and gave citizenship and voting rights to blacks. For a brief moment African Americans were a driving force in southern politics and were elected to a number of offices at the local, state, and national levels. Reconstruction ended through a concerted effort by white southerners, mostly former Confederates, to take back and “redeem” their region from the rule of northerners and African Americans. After a close election federal troops were removed from the South in 1877 to ensure Democratic support for the Republican President. Over the next six decades, southern state legislatures backed by northern indifference and the support of the Supreme Court enacted a series of laws known as Jim Crow that segregated African Americans from southern society and politics until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s.
In retrospect the white backlash that followed the successful campaign to overturn Jim Crow represented a chipping away rather than a full mobilization to end the Civil Rights Movement (George Wallace never became President). While some laws fell, the core tenets of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act remained in place. Although African Americans faced daily discrimination and remained the most impoverished group in America, the black middle class expanded. African Americans took on increasingly high profile positions in both government and corporate boards culminating in the election of Barack Obama. Obama was not representative of a post-racial society but a white society willing to support the progress of a few albeit exceptional African Americans.
For many whites in the South and the Rustbelt states Obama was the ultimate marker not of progress but of decline. A black president was indicative that their whiteness mattered less and therefore had less power in contemporary American society. Like the white southerners who worked to end Reconstruction through legal and extralegal methods, many white Americans worked to delegitimize Obama’s presidency. At their head was Donald Trump, leader of the birther movement. On running for President, Trump tapped into this resentment and the door opened for a political movement aimed at re-establishing a white supremacist vision of the United States: Muslims banned, walls constructed, black lives disregarded. Significantly, this was the first campaign after the Supreme Court overturned the Voting Rights Act, one of the key legislative pieces of the Civil Rights Movement. Like the disfranchisement laws that followed Reconstruction this has had a profound effect: Wisconsin’s new voter ID law could have turned away an estimated 300,000 voters in a state where Trump’s margin of victory was 27,257 votes.
In 1877 white southerners claimed that they had “redeemed” the South. Many white Americans who voted for Trump (63% of white men and 52% of white women) feel that the United States’ has been redeemed after sixty years of civil rights expansion, an ongoing grassroots campaign, and eight years of a black President. It is unsurprising that in the days following Tuesday we have witnessed marches of the KKK and the parading of Confederate and Nazi symbols. In the minds of many whites and much like the minds of post-Reconstruction southerners equality is a zero-sum game. While not a perfect historical analogy, 2016 feels a lot more like 1877 than other moments of white backlash in the twentieth century.