With customary ignorance, Mr. Trump has also stumbled unknowingly into history, our long tale of trickery, laws, Orwellian propaganda and violence as ways of keeping the mass of voters from casting ballots. Since the beginning of our Republic, and especially since Emancipation and the stirrings of black suffrage established in the 14th and 15th Amendments, restricting the franchise has been a frighteningly effective tool of conservatism and entrenched interests.
America has a long history of attempts to restrict the right to vote to people with property, with sufficient formal education and, too often, those privileged by gender or race. Political minorities — today’s Republican Party, antebellum slaveholders, Gilded Age oligarchs or rural states empowered disproportionately by the Electoral College — have always feared and suppressed the expansion of both the right and the access to the right to vote. There is no Republican majority in America, except on Election Days.
Mr. Trump’s rhetorical stumble into truth joins a litany of similar expressions in American history. The creation of black male suffrage was the most contested of all the problems of the early new state governments formed during Reconstruction. Most white Southerners were hellbent on trying to restore white supremacy, especially in voting. Appointed by President Andrew Johnson as South Carolina’s governor in 1865, Benjamin F. Perry believed that black suffrage would give political power over to “ignorant, stupid, demi-savage paupers.” In North Carolina, the politician William A. Graham believed enfranchising blacks would “roll back the tide of civilization two centuries at least.”
In Southern history, when the law wasn’t on the side of voter suppression, intimidation, fraud and murderous violence served as ready alternatives. As the historian Carol Anderson writes in her brilliant book “One Person, No Vote,” the techniques of voter suppression in the 19th century were conducted with “warped brilliance” and were “simultaneously mundane and pernicious,” whether by requiring voters to interpret bizarrely complex written passages to prove literacy, in fail-safe grandfather clauses or through allegedly race-neutral poll taxes. Today’s vote suppressors are no less pernicious, sporting earnest outrage at the fraud they cannot find.
As many Americans broadly came to embrace the defeat of Reconstruction in the South, viewing it as a futile, even unnatural, racial experiment, historians at the turn of the 20th century declared black suffrage the great demon of a “tragic era.” Writing in 1901 in The Atlantic, the historian William A. Dunning, whose work helped define a generation’s interpretation of the post-Civil War era, wrote of “The Undoing of Reconstruction.”