Amid the Trump-Biden chaos, Americans should not forget their history

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The writer is chair of public humanities at the University of London and the author ofThe Wrath to Come: Gone with the Wind and the Lies America Tells’

This week, the Supreme Court granted Donald Trump an extraordinary level of immunity from prosecution, described by dissenting Justice Sonia Sotomayor as elevating the president to “a king above the law”. The day afterwards the head of the conservative Heritage Foundation, Kevin Roberts, said he was “really encouraged” by the ruling. “We are in the process of taking this country back,” he declared, before adding an even clearer threat: “We are in the process of the second American Revolution, which will remain bloodless if the left allows it to be.”

In this disturbing election season, we may seek assurance from the lessons of history, but risk looking at the wrong histories. After his disastrous debate performance, in which he looked weak and sounded incoherent, some have pointed to parallels between President Joe Biden and historically weak incumbents who faced internal or third-party challengers and lost after one term.

Of course, Biden’s opponent, merely three years younger, is considerably more incoherent. During the pandemic he suggested injecting bleach as a Covid cure; in a Fourth of July speech, he praised the American revolutionary army because “in June of 1775 . . . it took over the airports”. But he blusters in a loud hectoring tone, so people think he’s strong.

Americans’ lack of understanding of their own history adds to the political chaos we’re encountering right now. One of the most pertinent aspects of the country’s past is the reality of American fascism in the 1930s, when extremist rightwing groups were proliferating across the United States, declaring sympathy with European fascism and organising their own coloured shirt movements.

In 1933, a retired general named Smedley Darlington Butler testified before Congress that he had been approached by a group of financiers to lead a coup against Franklin Roosevelt. Backed by the rightwing Liberty League, he was to mobilise an army of disgruntled veterans to march on Washington and install a military fascist dictatorship. Historians who previously considered Butler foolish to have taken the “Wall Street Putsch” seriously have lately been reassessing this judgment. 

The search for an American Caesar, mentioned by contemporary rightwing think-tanks, has been a long one. The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers who led the 2021 insurrection were the inheritors of the 1930s Silver Shirts: they all thought they were taking the country back — for themselves. Not for nothing was the most popular American film in the early 20th century, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan, called The Birth of a Nation.

They were fighting to reverse the emancipatory efforts of the Civil War, and the legislative foundations created for extending equality to all under the law — which is why the Civil War has sometimes been called the Second American Revolution. The opponents of this revolution, by contrast, wanted only the “right” citizens to be allowed to exercise power. The Confederacy also thought it was engaged in a Second American Revolution in fighting for the independence of states’ rights — the specific right in question being the enslavement of other human beings. 

They also wanted to “take the country back”, leading to insurrections in the South throughout the postbellum 1870s and 1880s. White supremacist vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan, Knights of the White Camellia, Red Shirts, and White League engaged in serial coups against local mixed-race governments — more than one of which succeeded.

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All of this should sound familiar, and deeply worrying. We may deplore that it is an election between two doddering old white guys, but they are not equally problematic. One of them will install an administration of other law-abiding people. The other has been convicted of 34 felony counts, found liable for sexual abuse in a civil case and faces a barrage of accusations over his involvement in an insurrection against his own government. A former aide has claimed that Trump frequently called for the “execution” of people he didn’t like. The Supreme Court’s ruling this week would grant Trump immunity if this conversation had led to actual executions, because it was “official”. 

Many Americans found it difficult to celebrate July 4 this week given its commemoration of our founding democratic principles, and were left recalling John Adams’s ambition of creating “a government of laws, and not of men”. The Declaration of Independence includes a long list of indictments against King George — the justifications for the first American Revolution. These include: “He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries”, and “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us.” 

The case for the prosecution against Mad King George looks a great deal like that against Trump. Instead, the Supreme Court decided to hear a case with the chilling name Donald J Trump vs United States — and ruled in favour of Donald J Trump.

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