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Shortly before thousands of people stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Donald Trump gave a rousing speech to the crowd, calling them “amazing patriots.” He said that they must “demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated.” Our country, he told them, “has been under siege for a long time,” and “you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”
While it remains to be seen whether Trump’s words that day rise to the level of criminal incitement, it is beyond dispute that by casting doubt on the outcome of the election months before, he emboldened his supporters to take up arms in an effort to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s clear victory.
By wrapping his lies in the cloak of patriotism, Trump fueled the view that a violent assault on the Capitol, which resulted in five people dead, was a legitimate action — similar to the actions of America’s founders in 1776. In fact, the mob seemed to believe the insurrection was their “1776 moment.” Many returned home after the attack expecting a celebration of their actions rather than condemnation.
They evidently thought that no sanction would be forthcoming because, as Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” At the request of their president, these individuals were seeking to refresh this tree in response to his claim of a stolen election. Now facing the prospect of prison time, some of these self-styled patriots requested pardons from Trump, who told them that if they didn’t “fight like hell” to prevent Congress from certifying the election results for “an illegitimate president” they were “not going to have a country anymore.”
Besides being a horrible bookend on the Trump presidency, the storming of the Capitol illustrates how the language of patriotism and revolution has been co-opted to excuse behavior that could be described as inciting an insurrection — or, more pointedly, as a seditious attempt to undermine the peaceful transfer of power. It also echoes another time in American history in which a duly elected government was overthrown by white supremacists seeking to regain political power through any means necessary.
In 1898, nine white supremacists conspired to overthrow the biracial government of Wilmington, North Carolina. They drafted a “White Declaration of Independence” that called not only for the removal of these elected officials but also the disenfranchisement of African Americans. Ignoring the 15th Amendment, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting, the document argued that, “The Constitution of the United States contemplated a government to be carried on by enlightened people” and that “its framers did not anticipate the enfranchisement of an ignorant population of African origins.”
The resulting violence in Wilmington, as whites carried out the declaration, left almost 300 people dead and a majority-African American city in ruins. Like the Capitol insurrectionists, the individuals responsible for the carnage in Wilmington also co-opted the language of revolution, casting themselves as patriots responsible for rescuing oppressed whites from “negro rule.”
The lesson of both 1898 and 2021 is that some Americans have, throughout the course of our history, romanticized the revolutionaries of 1776, selectively using that moment to justify violent behavior that is inconsistent with the democratic ideals that we have committed to as a nation.
Not coincidentally, the language of revolution reemerges when whites feel threatened by the rise of minority political power. For seven weeks, the Trump campaign filed lawsuits in several states key to Biden’s victory, seeking to disenfranchise minority voters in urban centers, including Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Detroit, based on specious claims of fraud. Like the “White Declaration of Independence,” the Trump litigation also called into question the legitimacy of an election, and a government, in which voters of color played a central role.
Resisting a free and fair election is not, and never will be, patriotic or revolutionary. Since Reconstruction, our Constitution’s textual commitment has been not to the violent overthrow of government but to more expansive access to voting rights. The 15th Amendment’s prohibition on racial discrimination in voting and the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law were intended to ensure that a majority, rather than some non-representative subset, selects our elected officials.
Over the course of two centuries, the expanding electorate has negated the need for revolution as the country turned to more democratic forms of accountability. We are governed by a Constitution that has been amended to reflect how “we the people” have changed since the nation’s founding.
The pro-Trump insurrectionists seeking to replicate 1776 ignore that America has consistently recommitted itself to democracy in the two centuries since the Revolution — choosing voting over violence, and ballots over bullets.
Franita Tolson is a professor of law and vice dean for faculty and academic affairs at the USC Gould School of Law. She is the author of the forthcoming book “In Congress We Trust?: Enforcing Voting Rights From the Founding to the Jim Crow Era.”
(c)2021 the Los Angeles Times