Extremism Is on the Rise … Again
After all this country has been through — from Donald Trump and his election denial, to the insurrection, to what prosecutors call the “politically motivated” attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband — it still appears poised to elect candidates next Tuesday who deny the results of the 2020 election. There are 291 election deniers on the ballot. And Trump — the greatest threat to democracy — may make a comeback in 2024.
It’s hard to believe even though it’s happening right in front of our eyes.
In a major speech Wednesday night, President Biden described election denial as “the path to chaos in America.” “It’s unprecedented,” he said. “It’s unlawful. And it’s un-American.” But in truth, the extremism, racism and white nationalism are neither un-American nor unfamiliar.
I am personally fascinated by precedents and historical corollaries, the ways that events find a way of repeating themselves, not because of some strange glitch in the cosmos but because human beings are fundamentally the same, unchanged, stuck in rotation of our failings and frailties.
The presidential election of 1912 offers a few lessons for our current political moment.
William Howard Taft had been elected president in 1908, succeeding the gregarious Theodore Roosevelt, the undisputed leader of the progressive movement of the age, who endorsed Taft’s presidential bid. But Taft was no Teddy. Taft was, as University of Notre Dame professor Peri E. Arnold has written, “a warmhearted and kind man who wanted to be loved as a person and to be respected for his judicial temperament.”
I hear echoes there of the differences between Presidents Barack Obama and Biden.
Progressives at first seemed satisfied with Taft’s election, as they expected him to simply carry Roosevelt’s legacy forward. But they soon grew disaffected, as did Roosevelt.
It wasn’t that Taft was ineffective; he just didn’t do all of what those progressives wanted, much like Biden hasn’t checked the box on all progressive priorities. Riding a wave of progressive anger, Roosevelt challenged Taft in 1912, and when Roosevelt didn’t secure the nomination, he ran as a third-party candidate, taking many of the progressives with him.
That split all but guaranteed that their opponent, Woodrow Wilson, would win, becoming the first president from the South since the Civil War.
Wilson had not been a favorite to win the nomination of his own party — he only secured it on the 46th ballot after quite a bit of deal-making. But once he reached the general election, he sailed to victory over the quarreling liberals. He would go on to campaign on an “America First” platform, which for him was primarily about maintaining America’s neutrality in World War I. But as Sarah Churchwell, author of “Behold, America,” told Vox in 2018, it soon became associated not just with isolationism, but also with the Ku Klux Klan, xenophobia and fascism.
In Wilson’s case, extremists took his language and twisted its meaning into something more sinister. When Trump glommed onto that language over a century later, he started with the sinister and tried to pass it off as benign.
Of course, Wilson was no Trump. Trump is one of the worst presidents — if not the worst — that this country has ever had. Wilson at least, as the University of Virginia’s Miller Center points out, supported “limits on corporate campaign contributions, tariff reductions, new and stronger antitrust laws, banking and currency reform, a federal income tax, direct election of senators, a single term presidency.” He was a progressive Southern Democrat. The newly formed N.A.A.C.P. actually endorsed him.
But there are eerie similarities between him and Trump. Wilson was a racist. He brought the segregationist sensibility of the South, where he had grown up and where Jim Crow was ascendant, into the White House. He allowed segregation to flourish in the federal government on his watch.
And while Wilson didn’t support shutting down all immigration, as long as the immigrants were from Europe, he did embrace ardently xenophobic beliefs. In 1912, he released a statement, saying:
“In the matter of Chinese and Japanese coolie immigration I stand for the national policy of exclusion (or restricted immigration). The whole question is one of assimilation of diverse races. We cannot make a homogeneous population out of people who do not blend with the Caucasian race.”
It was Wilson who screened “The Birth of a Nation” at the White House, a film that pushed the “Lost Cause” narrative and fueled the rebirth of the Klan.
Trump hosted a screening of “2,000 Mules” — a fact-checker-debunked documentary that purported to show widespread voter fraud carried out by “mules” who stuffed ballot boxes with harvested ballots during the last presidential election — at Mar-a-Lago, which Trump has called the Southern White House. That film has helped boost his followers’ belief in his lie about the 2020 election.
Allow me a quick aside to dissect the dehumanizing language of the “mule.” Mules were synonymous with captivity and servitude, and as such, a comparison between them and the enslaved — and later, oppressed — Black people was routine. In fact, in “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Zora Neale Hurston famously wrote that the Black woman is the mule of the world.
Then came the invention of the “drug mule,” a phrase that first appeared in this newspaper in 1993. Later, the media would often use it to describe Hispanic women.
Now we have ballot mules, an extensive cabal of liberal actors bent on stealing elections.
Once you animalize people, you have, by definition, dehumanized them, and that person is no longer worthy of being treated humanely.
I say all this to demonstrate that we have been here before. We have seen extremism rise before in this country, multiple times, and it often follows a familiar pattern: One party loses steam, focus and cohesion; liberals become exhausted, disillusioned or fractured, allowing racists and nativist conservatives to rise. Those leaders then tap into a darkness in the public, one that periodically goes dormant until it erupts once more.
I fear that too many liberals are once again caught up in the cycle, embracing apathy. My message to all of them going into Election Day: Wake up!