The Insurrectionary Ideology of National Conservatism
Today’s national conservatives, like the Redeemer Democrats of the insurrection of 1876, endorse “herrenvolk democracy.”
Even by the usual dour standards of national conservatism, the months following the failed January 6th insurrection have been an embittered time. National conservatism was created in an ex post facto attempt to give a sheen of intellectual legitimacy to Donald Trump’s surprise presidency, combining skepticism of global trade and cultural exchange with a hefty dose of paranoia about the threat that immigration poses to an inchoate sense of national identity. As evoked by Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” that meant keeping out Chinese exports, Latin American migrants, and subversive anti‐American ideas. It was supposed to be the ideological basis for an enduring mass movement that would unite middle Americans in the flyover states.
Yet despite loudly claiming a mandate from a “silent majority” of Americans, Trump failed in two consecutive elections to attract anything close to a popular majority. Indeed, he is the most unpopular president in polled history, a man who only won election by dint of the quirks of our electoral process and the collapse of the modern party system. Despite national conservatism’s claim that Trump embodied the authentic will of the people, those same people had decisively rejected the man who would be their florid tribune.
National conservatives are trying to define away the problem. If those who voted against Donald Trump are ipso facto not really Americans, then, presto, that means Trump won a popular mandate among those who are! Glenn Ellmers took this approach in an essay for The American Mind. He writes off all who voted against Trump as those “who may technically be citizens of the United States but are no longer (if they ever were) Americans.” Ellmers uses a variety of terms for those whom he would exclude from the body politic: “citizen‐aliens,” “non‐American Americans,” “gerbils,” “human rodents,” “robots.” Regardless of the term, his basis for exclusion is that “they do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people.” Ellmers does not bother defining what any of that means beyond making it clear that “American Americans” are necessarily Trump supporters.
Commentators have called both Ellmers’s essay and national conservatism more broadly “anti‐democratic” or even “fascist.” But there is another term for this vision of an idealized nation dominated by ethnic majority that has even deeper historical roots in America. National conservatism aspires to convert America into a “herrenvolk democracy,” a term taken from the German for “master people,” which historian George Frederickson defined as any “formally democratic political system in which voting and office holding is limited to members of a dominant ethno‐racial group.”
Historians typically apply the concept to the political situation of the post‐Reconstruction South beginning in the 1870s, a time when white Democrats sought to disenfranchise newly freed black Republicans. But the term could just as easily describe white Republicans today who seek to disenfranchise black and brown Democrats. In both cases, herrenvolk ideologues would retain democratic forms while gating participation in that democracy along cultural, ethnic, and racial lines.
Likewise, Ellmers’s exclusionary logic—he calls immigrants unassimilable—and dehumanizing language are a reminder that national conservatism trades on a conception of American democracy as rooted in native born blood and strictly bordered soil. Sometimes that belief is as overt as Amy Wax’s comments at the inaugural National Conservatism Conference, in which she encouraged “taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.” But even when they don’t say the quiet part out loud, it is common for national conservative pundits like Tucker Carlson to heavily imply it, routinely claiming that immigrants make America “dirtier” or that they bring in significant disease, terrorism, and crime. (They do not.) America, to the national conservative, is not a transmutational society united by adherence to a set of ethical and political principles; no, it is the unified will of the majority people, one which, unsurprisingly, also tends to share a particular complexion.
This sentiment undergirds routine (and generally evidence free) conservative claims of voter fraud. It bubbles up in the suspicion that votes from black, urban districts are necessarily fraudulent simply because they run counter to the preferences of white, rural districts. It boosts conservative fears that illegal immigrants might be voting in significant numbers. And it informs the fixation on political candidates of color and of Muslim faith, who are considered undeserving of office simply because they fail to show sufficient gratitude for the way that “real” Americans have tolerated their presence in a country that cannot ever truly be theirs. These fears have led Republicans at alllevels of government to support extensive voter suppression efforts, often using the specter of in‐person voter fraud to minimize the number of mostly Democratic people of color that can cast their ballots. In this way, conservatives seek to save America from the imagined existential threat posed by an overly expansive democracy.
Insurgency, Made in America
Without realizing it, many Republicans today are unknowingly imitating the example, rhetoric, and ideology of Democrats during the contested presidential election of 1876. To understand that connection, it is first necessary to know the immense stakes involved. The Civil War had ended a decade before, but several of the former Confederate states remained under occupation by federal troops. As long as those soldiers remained in the South, black freedpeople could more freely vote and hold political office, generally doing so as Republicans. Former Confederate officers and planter elites were overwhelmingly Democrats who sought to return the South to what it was like prior to the Civil War.
Thus, the priority of most white southerners was the end of the federal occupation. To that end, they fomented the most successful paramilitary insurgency in American history. Tens of thousands of Confederate veterans formed into organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, the fittingly titled “White League,” and hundreds of gun clubs that acted as shadow militias. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, these groups perpetrated violence on a truly massive scale, including targeted assassinations of Republican office holders, lynchings of black voters, and wholesale massacres in predominantly black neighborhoods.
For example, a congressional investigation found that in Louisiana from April to November 1868 white supremacists had murdered at least 1,081 predominantly black Republicans, with many more beaten, whipped, or raped. To put these numbers in modern context, the white supremacist insurgency in a single state was more than twice as deadly as the entire Iraqi insurgency in the early twenty‐first century on a year‐by‐year basis. And such outrages had become commonplace throughout the occupied South by 1876.
Where is a Redeemer?
But this mass violence, which exhausted the will of northern Republicans to maintain the occupation of the South, also served another political purpose. It allowed a more moderate faction of conservative Democrats to take power by promising to stop the violence while still fulfilling the purpose of that violence. These moderates styled themselves “Redeemers” because they believed they were saving southern states from federal captivity.
They also accused Republican state governments of rampant corruption, excessive taxation, and election fraud. Of course, these accusations were rooted in racist assumptions. Thus, taxes raised to pay for public schools for black children were considered necessarily excessive, black support for Republicans was inherently fraudulent, and so on. The Redeemer Democrats built a political movement on the rhetorical proposition that the only legitimate government was one which looked out first for the interests of the common (white) man.
They pit themselves against Republican governors and legislatures, which were filled with out‐of‐state “carpetbaggers” and supported by black voters who, according to Redeemer Democrat Martin Gary, were “men of a different race and caste, uneducated slaves, just emancipated, an impressible people, whose passions and prejudices could be easily excited” but who “were suddenly clothed with the elective franchise, and made not only a power, but the controlling power in the State.” It is not hard to hear an echo of Martin Gary’s argument in Glenn Ellmers’s essay a century and a half later. Indeed, the main difference between the two arguments is that Ellmers used even more dehumanizing language—“human rodents,” “gerbils,” etc—than the overtly white supremacist Gary had.
The problem facing white Democrats in the 1870s was simple. Black men were voting in numbers large enough to determine elections, did so in support of the Republican Party, and that simply could not be tolerated. Democrats realized that white supremacist control hinged on white unity; if lower class whites crossed the color line and voted with black Republicans, then white supremacy would crumble. White elites needed to create a democracy marked by universal suffrage for white men and united around the principle that white supremacy elevated even the lowest‐born white man above even the highest‐achieving black man. It was a democracy of white people, by white people, and for white people, established in blood and fire so that white supremacy should not perish from the earth.
Now consider national conservative Tucker Carlson’s recent defense of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, in which he asserts that Democrats are “trying to replace the current electorate…with new people, more obedient voters from the third world.” And they are doing so, according to Carlson, to “dilute the political power of the people….I have less political power.” In the 1870s, Martin Gary believed that expanding the electorate to include “impressible” black men would dilute the political power of white men like himself. In 2021, Carlson believes that expanding the electorate to include “obedient” immigrants would dilute the political power of native‐born people like himself. Both are correct; expanding the franchise does threaten white, native‐born supremacy. And both Gary and Carlson clearly articulate herrenvolk ideology in response.
The Political Utility of Violence
Certainly, the violence on January 6th, 2021 does not approach the level of mass, routinized violence that drenched the South in the 1870s. But in both cases the violence served a useful function for ambitious politicians. The existence of a violent and loosely (but unofficially) affiliated faction creates political opportunity for those who then seem moderate by comparison. It allows the politician to condemn the violence while simultaneously advancing the goals of those violent actors by nonviolent means. Each approach reinforces the other. Either face the mob or support those who can channel the mob’s outrage in a less openly violent direction.
Effective violence requires some degree of organization. In South Carolina in the 1870s, paramilitary groups began wearing red shirts as an informal uniform. The Confederate butternut brown or grey had been replaced with blood red. The sight of red shirts parading through town was a warning to black residents; even the predominantly black state militias learned to fear them. For example, after a petty dispute in the little town of Hamburg in 1876, the red shirts attacked the National Guard armory, killing six of the outnumbered black servicemen (executing four of them in cold blood after they surrendered). And in Aiken County, red shirts killed more than one hundred black residents, telling a reporter “they intended to carry the election [of 1876] if they had to wade in blood up to their saddle girths.”
Clever Democratic politicians like Wade Hampton III—the scion of an old planter family and a former Confederate general—would simultaneously condemn these acts of violence while winking at those responsible. The red shirt gun clubs even provided security at Hampton’s gubernatorial campaign rallies, often flanking the stage while he gave his stump speech calling for “force without violence” and “peaceful coercion.”1 Hampton promised that, if elected as governor, he could hold red shirt violence in check; but if voters chose poorly, well, then he could not be held responsible for what might follow. Sure, it would be unfortunate if more violence broke out, but what else can you expect of working‐class white folk who have been pushed to their limits by the corruption and tyranny of carpetbagging Republican elites?
Indeed, when the 1876 gubernatorial election resulted in a standoff, with both Democrats and Republicans claiming victory, Hampton warned, “I can protect the people of the State, black and white alike, while Chamberlain [the Republican incumbent] cannot protect either….Governor Chamberlain cannot protect his own life. I have had to protect him from the just indignation of the people, and if I were now to take my hands off the brakes for an hour, his life would not be safe.”2 Hampton did not want Chamberlain to be lynched by his supporters, so Chamberlain should probably step down and spare Hampton such regrets over the course of his long, successful political career. Hampton was the velvet Redeemer glove on a violent insurrectionary fist.
Law(lessness) and (Dis)Order
Although today the red shirts have passed out of memory, a similar role was being played on January 6th, 2021 by those wearing red MAGA hats as they streamed through the broken doors and windows of the US Capitol. Trump’s term in office coincided with a flurry of organizational activity by far‐right militias, organizations, and gun clubs, including Proud Boys, Three Percenters, and Boogaloos (wearing their ubiquitous Hawaiian shirts). Confrontations with left‐wing protestors and street brawls with antifa activists became routine, creating a drumbeat of low‐level violence and vandalism that had utility for ambitious Republican politicians. The groups had informal connections with multiple GOP political campaigns, with some even providing security at campaignrallies.
While politicians like Donald Trump might officially condemn far‐Right acts of violence—albeit half-heartedly—they can still benefit from the implicit threat of violence generated by such groups. After a spate of Proud Boy violence at Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, Donald Trump publicly told members of the group to “stand back and stand by” when asked to condemn the organization at a presidential debate. But Trump’s call for the Proud Boys to (temporarily) abstain from violence was immediately followed with, “I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.” Commentators at the time called this a mixed message, but the meaning was actually quite clear. Donald Trump, like Wade Hampton before him, sought to channel the implicit threat of violence for maximum political benefit.
The Proud Boys heard that message loud and clear. As scholar Megan Squire noted, “To say Proud Boys are energized by this is an understatement…. Their fantasy is to fight antifa in his defense, and he apparently just asked them to do just that.” Within days of the debate, Proud Boys began selling t‐shirts with the phrase on it and the organization’s national chairman suggested it would become “another Proud Boy saying” along with prior slogans like “The West is the Best.” And stand by they did until December 19th, when Trump issued a call to his supporters to descend on Washington, DC on Jan. 6th, tweeting, “Be there, will be wild!” We now know from FBI charging documents that these far‐right paramilitaries spent the next two weeks developing detailed plans for the Jan. 6th insurrection and showed up carrying zip‐ties and (literally) armed for bear.
But the Proud Boys and other far‐Right groups had wider utility than just their actions during the insurrection. Trump had run a law and order re‐election campaign that attempted to stoke white suburban paranoia about black urban chaos in order to drive voter turnout. But to work, a law and order message needs lawlessness and disorder; and if there are insufficient quantities of either, it can be useful to have groups around to generate them for you. These violent displays exhaust the general public, who turn on the news and see Proud Boys and antifa clashing in the streets week after week. It allowed Trump to pose as a peacemaker. If elected as president, he could keep red hat violence in check; but if voters chose poorly, well, then Trump could not be held responsible for what might follow, any “violence in the streets.” Sure, it would be unfortunate if more violence broke out, but what else can you expect of honest, hard‐working folks who have been pushed to their limits by the corruption and tyranny of liberal, cosmopolitan elites?
“Peaceful Coercion” vs “Peacefully and Patriotically”
This strategy—using the implicit threat of violence to extract political advantage—means playing with insurrectionary fire. Keeping one’s followers poised in a state of readiness for violence increases the odds that any given situation will escalate out of your control. In 1876 at the height of the post‐election standoff, an audience member at a Wade Hampton rally in Columbia, South Carolina, shouted, “We’ll leave everything we’ve got with you and tear down the State House with our hands if you’ll just give us the word, General!” Hampton had to quickly calm the crowd, promising that the standoff would soon end in their favor. But then, knowing that the threat of violence was more politically useful to him at that moment than actual violence, he said, “When the time comes to take the State House, I’ll lead you there.” Hampton sought to harness the mob, to use it as a latent threat to bend the elected representatives of the state legislature to his will. It was the epitome of Hampton’s strategy of “peaceful coercion.”3 And Hampton pulled off that balancing act perfectly.
Likewise, Donald Trump called on the crowd gathered on the National Mall the morning of January 6th, 2021 to “fight like hell” or else “you’re not going to have a country anymore.” He told them that the outcome of the election depended on Vice President Mike Pence “com[ing] through for us.” And to ensure that victory, they would “walk down to the Capitol” in order to “cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women” though “we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them.” He did suggest that they should “peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard,” but the message was mixed, given that he had just said “you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong. We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing.” Trump pointed the crowd towards the capitol, gave them their marching orders and targets, and then attempted to capitalize on the riot he had fomented by calling multiple members of Congress and asking them to delay the election certification. Like Hampton before him, Trump had certainly planned “coercion”: a shouting mob surrounding the capitol building. The “peaceful” part, however, turned out to be entirely optional.
It appears that the Jan. 6th mob escalated beyond what Trump had planned for it. Verbally harassing members of Congress from outside of the Capitol is one thing; pitched battles with Capitol police inside is quite another. Trump’s initial glee over the riot in the early afternoon turned to sullen denial by early evening. Play stupid insurrectionary games and win impeachment as a stupid prize.
But when the violence goes from implicit to explicit, when it stops having political utility and becomes mere liability, those ultimately responsible have an easy out: blame the other side. In the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6th insurrection, Trump and his allies blamed antifa for the assault on the capitol building. Trump’s supporters, or so the story went, were merely peaceful attendees at the rally. At most, perhaps a few lookie‐loos innocently wandered into the already evacuated capitol. Those to blame for the sturm und drang that day were actually antifa activists who had infiltrated the rally and sparked the violence as part of a false flag operation to discredit a peaceful protest.
These claims were promptly debunked and hundreds of registered Republicans and vocal Trump voters eventually arrested by the FBI, including several minor government officials and law enforcement officers. But simply planting a seed of doubt about the provenance of the riots, no matter how risible those claims were, served a useful function. Even a month after the riot, half of Republicans still believed that antifa was responsible for the violence on that day.
Likewise, when the threatened violence spilled over into actual violence in 1876, Wade Hampton’s allies would simply blame someone else. For example, after the massacre of the six black National Guardsmen in Hamburg, Matthew Butler—a Hampton surrogate and one of his former Confederate subordinates—blamed the attack on “factory people” and “Irish” who had crossed the river into town “for the purpose of plunder.” You might think you saw a mob of red shirts storm the armory, but it was really industrial workers and immigrants that were to blame!
And it was an obvious lie. In the hours before the attack, Butler had told his red shirts, “Things over in Hamburgh [sic] look squally; young men, we may want you over there this evening; get yourselves in readiness.” (It might be less direct a statement than Trump’s “be there, it will be wild,” but the sentiment is the same.) But when less bloodthirsty Democrats expressed shock at the “wholly unjustifiable affray”—as one newspaper editor put it—and called out the lie, the red shirts intimidated them into backing off. There was no political future for Democrats who criticized the redemption of South Carolina.4
Once you know to look for it, you will find that this kind of blame‐shifting is endemic in national conservative rhetoric. Violence by individuals from the other political tribe is framed as acts of aggression while violence by one’s own political side is portrayed as inherently defensive. Thus when a teenager illegally acquired a rifle, joined a militia patrol, and subsequently shot three Black Lives Matters protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin, he was valorized by national conservatives and his homicides excused as self‐defense or even as heroic patriotism.
There is a thirst for conflict that makes it hard to swallow these claims of self‐defense, an impulse that leads these people to strap on body armor, pick up a high‐powered rifle, and drive hours to seek out trouble in a different city or state. It’s so pervasive that even a research scholar like Glenn Ellmers practically drools over the prospect of visiting a little counter‐revolutionary violence on his political opponents. “Learn some useful skills, stay healthy, and get strong,” Ellmers writes, since “strong people are harder to kill, and more useful generally.” It is a pitiful echo of the actor Liam Neeson, in the aging male boomer fantasy Taken, growling, “I have a very particular set of skills.”
How To Steal an Election and Look Good While Doing It
By itself, the implicit threat of violence is an unreliable foundation for launching a successful insurrection. Bare violence is corrosive to the legitimacy of a government, which undermines public willingness to submit to the new regime (and can lead in extreme cases to rolling coups and failed states). That stick should be paired with a semi‐plausible democratic carrot. In other words, when stealing an election, it is advantageous to claim that you are actually protecting the integrity of the election. It is your corrupt opponents who are the true enemies of democracy. Accusations of voter fraud can themselves be a tool for defrauding an election.
Months before Trump’s defeat at the polls on November 3, 2020, the Trump campaign had already begun laying the foundations for claims of voter fraud. Trump raised the specter of mass voting by illegal immigrants, criticized vote‐by‐mail fraud (while voting by mail himself), and hired an unprecedented number of lawyers to contest ballot signatures, all long before the election had begun. Though those initial efforts failed, they did generate a perception among Trump’s rank‐and‐file supporters that the election had been stolen. This eventually convinced a dozen of Trump’s allies in the US Senate—most of whom had been on the fence in the weeks after the election—to promise to vote against congressional certification of the election (though, in the end, only six did so).
Think about this moment from the perspective of Donald Trump. By mid‐December, the Republican Party leadership had deserted and called for him to concede. But over the next three weeks, Trump rallied his supporters and convinced a dozen senators to come back on side by alleging that the results were the product of mass voter fraud. If he could just lean on them a little bit more, who knew what might be possible? A rally in Washington, DC that would culminate in a show of force at the Capitol building might just do the trick.
One of the senators was Ted Cruz (R-TX), who voted against certification on the afternoon of January 6th just minutes before the insurrection began. He justified his vote with an unusual historical appeal. Given that the election results in three states (Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania) had been close and subject to (failed) legal challenges by the Trump campaign, Congress, Cruz suggested, should appoint a special commission to adjudicate claims of voter fraud as it had done after the election of 1876. Trump, it was implied, should remain President until the investigation was concluded. It is true that the Hayes‐Tilden Electoral Commission provides such a precedent, but Cruz’s appeal to that commission says more about this moment in American history and the nature of the Republican Party than Cruz likely imagined.
The Redemption of South Carolina
Bear in mind that in South Carolina in 1876, Redeemer Democrats had accused Republicans of fraud based on little more than white suspicion that black voting in and of itself was fraudulent (at least, that is, when they voted for Republicans). Rather, it was Hampton’s campaign that had stuffed the ballot boxes, leading to more votes than registered voters in two counties that were Democratic strongholds. But as with so many Democratic criticisms of the Reconstruction governments, the allegations were simply a thin justification for the crude pursuit of power. When the stakes were as high as the defense of white supremacy, little things like election integrity and the rule of law could be ignored.
The conflict in South Carolina had national implications. Three states (Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina) all sent competing slates of electors to the electoral college, with both parties claiming victory for themselves and alleging voter fraud by their opponents. Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes needed all three states to clinch an electoral victory over Democrat Samuel Tilden (even though Hayes had lost the popular vote by a three percent margin). Congressional Republicans wanted a way to avoid responsibility for a decision that could have, literally, explosive consequences given that southern paramilitaries had openly threatened to march on Washington. As a result, Congress empaneled a special electoral commission to make the decision on their behalf. After much backroom dealing, the commission gave the states to Hayes in exchange for a tacit agreement to withdraw the final federal troops from the South. Abandoned by their national party and absent US military support, South Carolina’s Republican officeholders stepped down and Wade Hampton III became Governor.
Thus, when Ted Cruz called on Congress in 2021 to follow the precedent of the Hayes‐Tilden Electoral Commission, he was calling for Congress to repeat one of the most indefensible mistakes of its nearly two hundred and fifty year history. Faced by a multi‐state insurrection steeped in mob violence, Congress punted and cut a deal. As a result, the first Reconstruction came to an end, clearing the way for nearly a century of Jim Crow rule by a white, southern herrenvolk democracy.
Cruz and his fellow Republican obstructionists on January 6th also unknowingly echoed their counterparts from 1876. They were faced with a similar choice. Like South Carolina had many years before, Arizona Republicans and Democrats in 2020 selected competing slates of electors; Cruz and a dozen other Republican Senators wanted to delay certifying the vote until the completion of an ill‐defined investigation into alleged voter fraud. And, as in 1876, the claims of voter fraud in 2020 were themselves an effort to commit election fraud.
And like its more successful predecessor in 1876, the failed insurrection of 2021was an attempt to erect a herrenvolk democracy that would limit political equality to a select group of individuals. For example, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO)—who was photographed raising his fist to the gathering mob just hours before it stormed the US Capitol—justified his vote with Ted Cruz against certification saying, “It is the right of the people to be heard, and my constituents in Missouri want to be heard on this issue.”
His words echo those of Hamburg massacre fomenter and future South Carolina Senator Matthew Butler in 1876, who said he represented a group of “men who have the right to know and be heard….There is always a moral power with that class of people which entitles them to respect.”5 Of course, the reality is that in both cases the people had been heard; Hawley and Butler simply did not like what the people had decided, and so attempted to more narrowly define “the people” as those with whom they agreed.
While the language—being “heard”—is anodyne, both Senators and their supporters were unhappy with the democratic outcomes of the ordinary political process and were thus willing to entertain extraordinary (and ultimately violent) strategies to swing the political process in their favor. And just as Matthew Butler once attempted to dodge responsibility for the violent actions of his red shirt supporters who were just seeking to “be heard,” Hawley acknowledged no responsibility for the red hat mob that had stormed the US capitol seeking to “be heard.”
Trump used similar language at the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6th, telling the crowd to “make your voices heard.” Like with Hawley and Butler, Trump was not evoking some generic right to freedom of speech. No, it was a reference to the right of a herrenvolk to reject any electoral results they disliked by whatever means they found necessary. Claims of voter fraud would be used to perpetrate voter fraud. Violence—both as implicit threat and explicit action—would be used to bend the legislative branch to the Redeemer’s will. And should a government official—whether Governor Chamberlain or Vice President Pence—persist in defying the will of the people, then they stood not far from the shadow of a gallows. America, the real America, would be heard, the people united, the land cleansed, a nation redeemed.
Take Heed Lest You Fall
In the end, despite the mob chanting “hang Mike Pence” as they streamed through the capitol galleries and despite the apparent plans by the far‐right paramilitary groups to capture and restrain hated members of Congress like Nancy Pelosi, the January 6th insurrection failed. Congress voted to certify, Trump sulked his way out of office two weeks later, and the crisis was over. “Make America Great Again” has proven to be even more lost a cause than was “the South shall rise again.” But a failed insurrection is still a cautionary tale.
Somewhat shaken by the events earlier in the day, Josh Hawley began his anti‐certification speech on the night of Jan. 6th, saying, “In the United States of America, we cannot say emphatically enough, violence is not how you achieve change.” But the history of the election of 1876 is a reminder of exactly the opposite. Rather, it is emphatically true that violence was precisely the tool that had enabled ambitious politicians in 1876 to extract concessions from the federal government.
The fact that similar efforts in 2021 were neither as widespread nor as successful as in 1876 does not mean that such tactics are always guaranteed to fail. After all, while hundreds of individual members of the mob are facing criminal consequences for their actions, political elites like Cruz, Hawley, and Trump—those who fueled the insurrection—have faced no formal consequences. Future aspiring authoritarians take notice. Your attempted insurrection has an 1877 potential of upside reward and merely a 2021 degree of downside risk. And as long as national conservative ideology persists, there are those who share your redemptive vision for America.
4. Stephen Kantrowitz, “One Man’s Mob is Another Man’s Militia: Violence, Manhood, and Authority in Reconstruction South Carolina,” in Jumpin’ Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000): 75–78.