Trump’s 2020 Playbook Is Coming Straight From Southern EnslaversRoundup
tags: slavery, racism, Donald Trump, Law and Order
Elizabeth R. Varon is Langbourne M. Williams professor of American history at the University of Virginia and author of Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War.
“Your vote will decide,” President Trump recently proclaimed, “whether we will defend the American way of life, or whether we allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it.” In lockstep with the president, right-wing media has framed the election as a contest between order and anarchy. “Democrats seem totally fine with lawlessness as a new normal in America,” Fox News host Sean Hannity charged, adding portentously that “the president has been ready, willing to do … whatever it takes to restore law and order.”
Although they may not know it, Trump and his supporters are deploying the kind of rhetorical tactics that have long characterized American debates over race and that nearly led, in the mid-19th century, to the destruction of the Union. In arguing that radical protesters endanger U.S. law and order, Trump is echoing the attacks leveled by Southern enslavers against abolitionists. The purpose of such tactics, then and now, is to confuse Americans about causes and effects — and to serve notice that those in power flatly refuse to cede any ground to progressive reformers.
Abolitionism took shape as a movement in the late 1820s. Free Black reformers such as David Walker and Maria Stewart began a campaign in the North to dismantle slavery in the South. They called attention to alarming trends: the continued domination of the national government by enslavers, the exponential spread of slavery into the cotton South and the erosion of free Blacks’ tenuous rights.
A small vanguard of progressive Whites such as William Lloyd Garrison soon joined the abolitionist ranks. Using “moral suasion” — urgent appeals to people’s consciences — abolitionists hoped to build support for measures, such as the restriction of slavery in the federal territories and its abolition in the federally controlled District of Columbia, that would put America on a trajectory toward freedom and equality.
The antislavery movement was met with fierce backlash from those unwilling to change America’s racial caste system. South Carolina politician James Henry Hammond opined to a proslavery New York editor in 1835 that abolitionists could be silenced only by “Terror and Death.”
Anti-abolitionists in the North and South took up the challenge, joining forces in slavery’s defense. They branded abolitionists as lawless agitators bent on “disunion”: on overturning traditional social hierarchies, threatening the sanctity of property rights, fomenting unrest among the enslaved and alienating Southerners from Northerners. At the heart of anti-abolitionism was a zero-sum-game premise that any gains for Black people in American society would come at the expense of Whites.
Such anti-abolition rhetoric was used to justify censorship. When abolitionists attempted in the mid-1830s to distribute their pamphlets and journals in the South, Southern postmasters responded by destroying such literature on the grounds that it would, to quote Postmaster General Amos Kendall, “produce discontent, assassination, and servile war.” When abolitionists flooded Congress with antislavery petitions, proslavery politicians passed a “gag rule” that summarily “tabled” those appeals, prohibiting discussion of them and thereby abridging the constitutional right of American citizens to petition the government for the redress of grievances.
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