White Backlash is America's Most Destructive HabitRoundup
tags: racism, civil rights, Whiteness, reactionary politics, Backlash
John S. Huntington is a history professor at Houston Community College. He is the author of Far-Right Vanguard: The Radical Roots of Modern Conservatism.
Lawrence B. Glickman is a history professor at Cornell University. He is the author, most recently, of Free Enterprise: An American History.
Although the United States was born of a revolution, one common view maintains that the Constitution tamed our rebellious impulse and launched a distinctly nonrevolutionary political experiment. But throughout American history, an important strand of conservatism has repeatedly championed rebellions—or what are better understood as counterrevolutions.
They emerge like clockwork: Each time political minorities advocate for and achieve greater equality, conservatives rebel, trying to force a reinstatement of the status quo.
The term counterrevolution is significant not only because conservatives have regularly employed it, but also because it highlights their own agency, something they often seek to conceal. In order to portray their actions as defensive rather than aggressive, conservatives tend to depict themselves as acted upon and besieged. As William F. Buckley wrote in the National Review’s mission statement in 1955, conservatism “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” Here the agent is history; conservatives are merely making a reply. But such rhetorical gestures discount what any close look at these movements makes clear: Conservatives have done much more than yell. They have fought against equality vigorously, often violently.
Three historical moments—the revolt against post–Civil War Reconstruction, the mid-century fight against civil rights, and the modern Tea Party and Trump movements—stand out as perfect examples of the counterrevolutionary dynamic. They share certain broad themes: a hostility to racial equality, the invocation of apocalyptic rhetoric—that America is “under siege,” as President Donald Trump told the crowd on January 6 prior to the Capitol insurrection—and a deep distrust of democracy.
During Reconstruction, conservatives denounced its proponents as dangerous revolutionaries, often comparing them to notorious figures from the French Revolution. “We do not know of two men who have come up prominently before the world in revolutionary times more alike than Marat and Thaddeus Stevens,” The New York Herald said in 1866. One Nashville newspaper contended in 1868 that the Radical Republicans in Congress “aim to abolish the constitution, to destroy public liberty, and to concentrate the power of the country in the hands of usurpers … embodying the very essence of despotism … that shocked the world and subjected France to the ‘reign of terror’ under Jacobin rule.”
The “reign of terror” that the Nashville newspaper decried was in fact the emergence of multiracial democracy. Many conservatives were entirely frank about this, such as the one featured in Mississippi’s The Meriden Daily Republican who wrote, “The two races cannot and will not rule jointly and coequally … One or the other must become subordinate. This is the history of all such experiments everywhere.”
Outlawing racial discrimination, in this view, was grounds for regime change, even violence. Take, for example, an editorial statement of Missouri’s aptly named The Lexington Weekly Caucasian from 1872. It began with two demands, “state sovereignty! white supremacy!” and threatened “another rebellion” if they were not acceded to. “Revolution must be met by CounterRevolution—Force by Force—Violence by Violence—and Usurpation should be Overthrown, if needs be, by the Bayonet!” Calling white supremacy a counterrevolution could justify nearly anything, bloodshed included.
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