Rainbow Rant: Is this an unprecedented historical moment?

Joy Ellison
President Donald Trump speaks at a June campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma

Today is the last full day of President Donald Trump’s administration and the moment has made amateur historians of us all. 

As the Trump regime draws to a close while armed seditionists make their presence felt on the streets of our city, it’s only natural that we search our history for a way to understand what is happening. We hope that the past might have some lesson to teach us, but many find comfort in insisting that this moment is wholly unique.

“Our democracy is under unprecedented assault,” said President-elect Joe Biden after Trump supporters, at the urging of the president, stormed Capitol Hill. “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America.” 

I am not consoled by Biden’s words, because I see all too many precedents for this moment. 

As I watched Trump’s supporters break into the House Chambers, brandishing Confederate flags, Nazi iconography and weapons, I thought about the Reconstruction era, a time of great hope for Black people that was brought to a halt by rioting white racists. 

During Reconstruction, newly enfranchised Black men used the power of the ballot to begin creating a country in which Black votes and Black lives truly mattered. As Black people began to elect Black leaders, they established public schools and other vital social institutions. But as the balance of power began to shift, Southern Democrats claimed that that Black votes wereunlawfully cast and inherently illegitimate. It wasn’t long before white mobs began waging insurrection.

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In 1873, at the height of Reconstruction, southern white Democrats in Colfax, Louisiana refused to accept the election of a Republican governor and massacred 150 Black citizens. In 1898, white supremacists overthrew the duly elected government ofWilmington, North Carolina. This time they slaughtered approximately 300 people. When the balance of power in Congress shifted because of the election of Georgia senators Raphael Warnock, a Black man, and Jon Ossoff, a Jewish man, Trump and his supporters responded with tactics straight out of the Reconstruction playbook. 

President Andrew Jackson was in power through much of Reconstruction. Famously thin-skinned and quick-tempered, he is easy to compare to Trump. Just as Trump rose to power through anti-immigrant rhetoric, Jackson ranted about the threat of “alien enemies.” In defiance of the Supreme Court, Jackson ordered the forced removal of Native Americans to Oklahoma, a march that killed 4,000 Native people. He asserted that he was making land available for white settlement, his way to “make America great again.” Unlike Jackson, Trump lacked the competence to achieve his goals, but both held a similar vision. 

As we begin to evaluate Trump’s place in history, Jackson is an obvious comparison, but I would like to suggest that he also takes after another president, one whose similarities are much more uncomfortable to acknowledge: Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson is hailed as one of our countries most successful presidents, but he was also an avowed segregationist whose racism was remarkableeven within his own time. Wilson brought segregation back to the Federal government, building White’s Only bathrooms and lunchrooms, firing Black supervisors and designating better-paying jobs for white people. In 1913,W.E.B. DuBois wrote to Wilson in protest of the plight of one Black civil servant “who could not actually be segregated on account of the nature of his work [and who] consequently had a cage built around him to separate him from his white companions of many years.” Yes, the president who created the League of Nations presided over a department that made a Black man work from inside a cage. 

Wilson praised the Ku Klux Klan, calling it “an ‘Invisible Empire of the South,’” and lent his support to Thomas Dixon and D.W. Griffith, the creators behind the film “The Birth of a Nation.” His policies and rhetoric made it easy for the Klan to begin a massive recruitment drive. By the end of Wilson’s administration, America looked much like it does today in one respect: White supremacists were openly marching in the streets. 

Any good historian will insist that no historical analogy is ever perfect. The specificities of any moment are always of critical importance, they will tell you, which is why historians make terrible party guests. But despite its limitations, history is still instructive and the lessons it can teach us now are paramount. 

If we heed the similarities between Reconstruction-era politics and the assault on Capitol Hill, then we must acknowledge that white supremacists are likely to continue operating openly after Trump leaves office. History shows us that they represent a grave threat to democratic institutions and an immediate danger to Black people and other minorities, but it also teaches us that our memories are poor. 

If history repeats itself, the details of the Trump administration will grow hazy in the minds of many Americans, fading away like all nightmares. Some of our neighbors, especially the most privileged, may someday speak of Donald Trump in admiring tones, as though they have forgotten the pain of the last four years. If we want one of the worst cycles in American history to finally end, we must keep the violence Trump incited into our minds. We must, perhaps for the first time, remember.