At every opportunity possible, I like to draw comparisons between so-called modern-day America and our not-too-distant past, to jar people from the belief that atrocities committed back then can’t be repeated today.
As I tend to say, half-jokingly: The only thing differentiating today from the Civil War era is color photography. President Joe Biden’s speech Wednesday about the rise of right-wing, political violence helped paint that picture.
Biden was in his Ulysses S. Grant bag, and comparisons between the two presidents were stark.
Grant was driven to denounce the post-Civil War terrorism in the South, led by violent ethno-nationalist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Biden’s speech on Wednesday warned of an increasingly violent conservative movement, as well, embodied by right-wing lawmakers and ethno-nationalist groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.
In fact, if you look at remarks from the two presidents side-by-side, it’s clear they’re essentially talking about the same danger.
Here’s Biden warning about election deniers and violent intimidators:
[N]ow extreme MAGA Republicans aim to question not only the legitimacy of past elections, but elections being held now and into the future. The extreme MAGA element of the Republican Party, which is a minority of that party, as I said earlier, but it’s its driving force. It’s trying to succeed where they failed in 2020, to suppress the right of voters and subvert the electoral system itself. That means denying your right to vote and deciding whether your vote even counts. Instead of waiting until an election is over, they’re starting well before it. They’re starting now. They’ve emboldened violence and intimidation of voters and election officials. It’s estimated that there are more than 300 election deniers on the ballot all across America this year. We can’t ignore the impact this is having on our country. It’s damaging, it’s corrosive and it’s destructive.
To me, Biden’s longing for peace mixed with his warning of chaos mirrored Grant’s 1871 proclamation about rising violence carried out by the KKK and other fascist forces in the South after the Civil War.
Here, for example, Grant basically puts people on notice about violent intimidation. And he tells the people responsible to stop:
[I]nasmuch as the necessity therefor is well known to have been caused chiefly by persistent violations of the rights of citizens of the United States by combinations of lawless and disaffected persons in certain localities lately the theater of insurrection and military conflict, I do particularly exhort the people of those parts of the country to suppress all such combinations by their own voluntary efforts through the agency of local laws and to maintain the rights of all citizens of the United States and to secure to all such citizens the equal protection of the laws.
And here’s the “f— around and find out” passage, where Grant lays out the threat these violent intimidators pose to the multiracial democracy being built after the Civil War.
It is my earnest wish that peace and cheerful obedience to law may prevail throughout the land and that all traces of our late unhappy civil strife may be speedily removed. These ends can be easily reached by acquiescence in the results of the conflict, now written in our Constitution, and by the due and proper enforcement of equal, just, and impartial laws in every part of our country. The failure of local communities to furnish such means for the attainment of results so earnestly desired imposes upon the National Government the duty of putting forth all its energies for the protection of its citizens of every race and color and for the restoration of peace and order throughout the entire country.
Biden’s speech lacked this kind of energy. It was heavy on hopefulness, but far less confrontational than Grant — which I think is necessary to truly stop fascism from irreparably harming our political system. Nonetheless, the two presidents faced similar scenarios at the time of their respective speeches.
The election of President Barack Obama was just as injurious to the white conservative psyche as the end of federally authorized slavery, in that it symbolized, for many of them, a loss of status. And I think the consequences of both instances, which Biden and Grant have both faced, are clear: a predominantly white, Christofascist movement focused on re-establishing its position atop the social hierarchy by any means, be it insidious voter suppression laws or outright violence.
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