Note: I wrote this op-ed on Friday and sent it to the Houston Chronicle with the intention of sending it on to the Kansas City Star and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch if the Chronicle declined to run it. Since writing it the editorial boards of all three newspapers have written editorials calling for resignations and so I have decided to just post it to my blog. The Chronicle’s op-ed calling for Cruz’s resignation is here, the Star’s is here, and the Post-Dispatch’s is here.
The events of January 6, 2021 were an attempted coup. The President of the United States lost the election. He refused to accept the results. Abetted by elected representatives from his own party, especially Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, and by right-wing pundits masquerading as journalists, he spread propaganda and misinformation designed to undercut the legitimacy of the electoral process. And then he incited his followers to storm the halls of Congress and disrupt the peaceful transition of power.
Many questions are being raised about what happened, why it happened, and how to prevent it from happening again. Any analysis that tries to answer these questions must begin by placing recent events within the context of United States history. The political movement mislabeled Trumpism is not new. It did not begin when he announced his candidacy. It has been, for almost two hundred years, one of the country’s major political traditions. Its history stretches back to the first populist President, Andrew Jackson, and runs through the Confederacy, Southern segregationists, and the Ku Klux Klan to the people who stormed Congress and those who incited them.
Trump modeled himself after Jackson. Their shared tradition is white supremacist populism. Populism hinges upon defining who is and who is not part of the people. White supremacist populists believe that the “We the People” of the United States should only be composed of white people; everyone else should be relegated to a subservient role.
White supremacists believe that they are unequal before the law. Wednesday’s attempted coup was, for them, a patriotic act rather than an act of insurrection. When people of color or White people with left of center beliefs protest, white supremacists label them traitors and demand punishment beyond the dictates of the law. When white supremacists protest, or even commit acts of terror, they are rarely held accountable. The most striking instance of this came in the aftermath of the Civil War, a war that white supremacists started in an effort to preserve slavery.
Following the defeat of the Confederacy, in an effort to rekindle white unity, President Andrew Johnson issued a universal pardon to everyone who had fought in the Confederate Army.
This act of re-enfranchisement marked the beginning of the end of Reconstruction and the effort to create a multi-racial democracy that it represented. Within five years, Alexander Stephens, the former Confederate Vice President, had returned to Washington, DC where he re-occupied the seat in the House of Representatives he had held prior to the Civil War. Throughout the Civil War he promoted the belief that only White people were capable of self-government or deserving of citizenship; after it he delivered the major speech opposing the 1875 Civil Rights Act, the last piece of civil rights legislation passed before 1957. Throughout the rest of his life, he vigorously supported the “Lost Cause” of white supremacy, finishing his life as governor of Georgia as the state began its descent into Jim Crow.
Stephens’ political career can be contrasted with the careers of the fourteen Senators who were expelled from the Senate during the Civil War, for their support of the Confederacy. Only one held office after 1865, where he served at the state rather than the federal level. The difference between Stephens’ fate and those of the expelled Senators offers a cautionary tale of what happens when white supremacists are not held accountable for their actions. It should serve as a reminder of what is now at stake if not only President Trump but also his enablers, especially those in the Senate, are not held accountable for their actions.
Senators Cruz and Hawley should be expelled from the Senate. They both have presidential ambitions. Their leadership of the effort to challenge the electoral votes of Arizona and Pennsylvania dangerously undermined the nation’s constitutional democracy. It gave legitimacy to the lie that President-Elect Biden won because of electoral fraud and led directly to the attempted coup. Expelling them from the Senate would probably end their political careers. Letting them continue to sit in the Senate would legitimize the false narrative that they have propagated. It will enable them to continue to undermine the legitimacy of President-Elect Biden and the nation’s electoral democracy. It would offer each of them a path to the White House where, in the mold of Trump, they could do enormous damage to the United States and the world.
Holding them accountable would send a different message. It would be a clear statement that those who peddle misinformation which undercuts democracy, and who incite insurrection have no place in the halls of power. Just as importantly, it would be a crucial step towards transforming the country into a multiracial democracy where everyone is included in “We the People” and held equal under the law.