Ken Wolf, one of my history profs at Murray State and an occasional Forward Kentucky commenter, challenged me to write a column proposing how President Joe Biden and other Democrats might “end the power of Republicans or White Supremacists.”

The dare reminded me of Democratic House Speaker Sam Rayburn’s famous quote on Republicans: “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one.” I know one end of a hammer from another. That’s as far as my carpentry skills go, but I’ll pick up Ken’s gauntlet.

Ending the power of Republicans

First, the Democrats seem poised to “end the power of Republicans” or at least curb it. Besides the White House, they’ve got both houses of Congress, albeit by razor-thin majorities. 

No sooner was he sworn in on Jan. 20 than Joe Biden took decisive presidential leadership in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic — leadership that was tragically, if not criminally, lacking in Donald Trump’s White House. We’ve got a ways to go in eradicating the coronavirus, which has killed more than 500,000 of our fellow citizens. But the future looks brighter today than on Jan.19.

Somebody wise said that “if” is the biggest two-letter word in the English language. If Biden and the Democrats team up on legislation that makes the economy wax and the pandemic wane this year, the party will almost certainly do well in next year’s midterms. So far, Biden is looking good in the polls.

To be sure, history teaches that parties which hold the White House usually lose seats in off-year congressional elections. Biden, however, has been compared to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a notable exception to the rule.

FDR was elected in 1932 in the depths of the Great Depression. His economy and employment-boosting New Deal program, swiftly approved by a Democratic Congress, was so popular with voters that in 1934 the Democrats added 9 House seats and 9 Senate seats to their already whopping majorities in both chambers.

But what about white supremacy?

Ending white supremacist power, though, is a thornier problem. Americans of good will have been trying since the earliest days of our republic.

A history

Thomas Jefferson, though a slaveholder, wanted to condemn the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the Declaration of Independence. Other slaveholding members of the Continental Congress objected, and the passage was left out.

Opponents of slavery hoped the Constitution would abolish human bondage. It didn’t. While northern states abolished slavery, southern states didn’t, and slavery expanded westward into new southern and border states, the latter group including Kentucky.

After anti-slavery Republican President Abraham Lincoln was elected, 11 southern slave states seceded from the Union and founded the Confederacy on the twin pillars of slavery and white supremacy. It took the Civil War and Uncle Sam’s armed might to restore the Union, and a constitutional amendment to end slavery. 

During the postwar Reconstruction period, the states also ratified amendments making African Americans citizens and extending the vote to black men. But after Reconstruction, white supremacy surged anew in the Jim Crow Era, during which conservative, white Democratic “redeemer” southern legislatures passed laws segregating blacks from whites and denying African Americans the vote. 

The Jim Crow era lasted from the late 19th century until the 1960s, when northern and western Democrats in the House and Senate — joined by northern and western Republicans — passed landmark laws aimed at overturning Jim Crow. But white supremacy persisted, and the GOP soon swerved rightward to exploit it. 

From the Southern Strategy to Trumpism to neo-Nazis

The party devised the Southern Strategy, which was calculated to woo white southern Democrats who were angry at the national party for championing civil rights. From President Abraham Lincoln to that time, the GOP had been the party of federal civil rights activism, and the Democrats the party of slavery and Jim Crow. (Today, the Democrats look like the party of “Lincoln and Liberty, too,” while the Republicans look like a party of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.)

Overtly white supremacist Trumpism evolved from the Southern Strategy, which was based on thinly-veiled code words like “states’ rights,” the old term white supremacists used to support slavery and Jim Crow. In turn, Trumpism culminated in the violent white supremacist, neo-Nazi mob that stormed and sacked the Capitol in a deadly putsch he incited to save his presidency.

Ending white supremacy

But back to Ken’s challenge: how do we end, or at least significantly diminish, the power of…White Supremacists? – power that ebbs, only to flow back.

Some people thought we had finally reached the “post-racial” stage when we elected and re-elected President Barack Obama. The advent of the Tea Party, Trump and Trumpism proved them wrong.

The fork in the road – the economy

In an email to me, Ken acknowledged that “racism has long been a part of US History and would doubtless remain so.” But he suggested “that doesn’t mean that measures by Biden can’t lessen it, and perhaps also lessen economic equality and xenophobia.” He added, “small steps can help. I absolutely agree with you that an economic upturn will help.  Money doesn’t just talk; it shouts so loud that even the deaf Trumpers can hear it.”

The fate of Trumpism might indeed boil down to “the economy, stupid.” If business, industry, and employment don’t pick up (Almost all Republican lawmakers are Trumpers and will try to thwart the Biden-Democratic economic agenda at every turn), Trumpism will be set to rise anew. He’s the prohibitive GOP favorite for the 2024 nomination if the polls are correct.

There’s historical precedent for faltering economies becoming springboards for authoritarian rule. In 1923, Adolf Hitler led an armed mob in an attempt to overthrow Germany’s fragile democracy. His Beer Hall Putsch failed and Hitler was briefly imprisoned. In the years that followed, the German economy perked up; after a chaotic start, its fledgling democracy became more stable and more popular. As a result, Hitler and his rabidly anti-Semitic and ultra nationalist Nazi party seemed sure to remain on the far-right, crackpot political fringe. 

Six years later, the worldwide depression hit. Hitler falsely blamed Germany’s widespread economic misery on Jews and other supporters of “weak” parliamentary democracy.

In 1933, Hitler became dictator of Germany. He further inflamed hatred of Jews and democracy through mass rallies, notably at Nuremberg, that featured the Nazi swastika. World War II and the Holocaust followed.

Another solution – young adults

At any rate, Ken, a septuagenarian like me, is a devout Presbyterian – the denomination in which I was reared. He has a deep and abiding faith in the redeemability of humankind, even seemingly irredeemable Trumpian racists – and sexists, misogynists, nativists, xenophobes, homophobes, and religious bigots.

I’m putting my faith in young people to erase or at least reduce to a speck the heretofore seemingly indelible stain of white supremacy – plus the blot of sexism, misogyny, nativism, xenophobia, homophobia and religious bigotry. Young folks are the most reliable change agents, based on my community college students and my nearly 28-year-son son and his friends. Polls show that most youngsters are rightly appalled at Trump and Trumpism and the politics of hate, fear, division, and resentment they reflect. They’re voting accordingly.

So here’s hoping that Berry IV, his generation, and following generations will finally succeed in making real the words about equality in the Declaration of Independence, and succeed in tossing white supremacy and all other forms of bigotry onto the trash heap of history where they belong. Hey, this old guy can dream, can’t he?

–30–

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Berry Craig of Arlington, Ky., is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and an author of seven books and co-author of two more, all on Kentucky history. His latest book is Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy, published last fall by South Limestone Books, an imprint of the University Press of Kentucky.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Yes! The Biden administration is opening doors to opportunity and healing. We must further engage more Kentuckians esp youth in our electoral process ie VOTING!

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