Ever since Donald Trump first came down that golden escalator, everyone from laymen to various pundits and historians have debated if it is appropriate to speak of him and his Republican Party as fascist. It has generally been the position of the professionally-contrarian pundit class that to use the f-word is nothing more than childish invective, a lazy political smear, an opinion that once again graced our nation’s op-ed pages after President Biden’s speech in Philadelphia condemned the anti-democratic forces in the Republican Party as “semi-fascist.” Such pundits also hold that fascism is foreign to America and that it is mistaken to attempt to use the concept and its historical examples in Italy, Germany and other places to analyze the modern Republican Party.
I agree with the position of someone like John Ganz or your average #Resist lib—we can examine the American right within the context of various European fascisms. However, while a worthwhile lens, European fascism remains an imperfect historical comparison. The forcefulness of the condemnation of something as “fascist” is appropriate, and there is worthwhile analysis of the threat posed by the right which comes from that framework. Yet the best comparison for the modern Republican party is not Mussolini’s swaggering squadristi nor the Sturmabteilung streetfighters, but rather a homegrown example—the Redeemers.
The Redeemers were a political and paramilitary force in the Southern United States who successfully ended Reconstruction, imposed white supremacy with various laws we collectively dub “Jim Crow,” and were more generally an arch-reactionary movement which sought to reassert white supremacy. It is my contention, as a historian of the American South, that it is here at the turn of the 20th century where we can find the most apt comparison to the modern Republican Party. In rhetoric, ideology and tactics, the similarities are striking and worrying—particularly because while the Redeemers of the 19th century were satisfied with turning the South into a group of one-party autocracies, the modern Republican party wishes to end multiracial democracy across the nation. Ever since the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed in the 1960s, the Republican Party has increasingly become the party of aggrieved white voters, who lash out at the prospect of increasing social, economic and political equality with people of color. The same forces of white reaction which destroyed democracy in the South remain present and deadly in today’s America.
As the Redeemers were a reactionary movement in every sense of the term, it’s worth briefly discussing what they were reacting to. Even as Reconstruction has had something of a revival in historical and popular interest lately, the events in the American South from 1865 until the turn of the century remain obscure if not totally unknown to the average American. The Revolution, the Civil War itself, the Civil Rights Movement—these events exist as touchstones within our historical memory. Even the most ignorant American knows that George Washington fought the British, that Lincoln freed the slaves, and that Dr. King had a Dream. But unless you are the type to have taken AP U.S. History in high school, you likely do not know much about Reconstruction and even less about Redemption.
After the surrender at Appomattox effectively ended the Civil War, President Lincoln (soon President Andrew Johnson) and Congress were faced with the question of what to do with the defeated South. President Johnson prioritized readmitting the defeated South as soon as possible, even as their state governments were full of unreconstructed slave owners and Confederate veterans. These legislatures passed incredibly restrictive “Black Codes,” which attempted to reinstate slavery without technically violating the 13th Amendment. The Southern states also had a wave of white supremacist violence, as Confederate veterans returned home to see emancipated slaves with a growing measure of social and economic equality. They formed groups such as the First Ku Klux Klan who would intimidate and lynch freedmen who attempted to vote, advocate for themselves or generally behave in any way unacceptable to white supremacists. This included assassinating Republican Representative James Hinds of Arkansas, who was shot to death by the First Klan in 1868.
To counter the building reactionary movement in the south, Congressional Republicans passed the 14th Amendment, the most important amendment since the Bill of Rights, and nearly succeeded in impeaching Johnson. After Ulysses S. Grant became President in 1872, he vigorously enforced civil rights protections for freedmen and effectively destroyed the First KKK by trying them in federal courts, away from sympathetic juries. The federal occupation of the South was strengthened, and federal troops intervened on several occasions to prevent voter intimidation and white supremacist violence. In New Orleans, for instance, the Crescent City White League launched an attempted coup in 1874 after a disputed gubernatorial election, which was only ended when federal soldiers intervened days later.
These measures from the federal government, in addition to the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau and freedmen themselves, had a transformative effect on the South. Men who had been in bondage merely five years ago could now vote, serve on juries, and own property. Black men were elected to every office from Senator to county coroner. A variety of white allies, both Northern “carpetbaggers” and Southern “scalawags” (a mix of opportunists and Unionists during the war), controlled most state legislatures and implemented the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, in addition to desegregating public facilities and creating public schools for the first time in the South. These gains would be transformative, although tragically short-lived.
The election of 1876, between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, would be the death knell of Reconstruction, already weakened by the Panic of 1873 and Democrats regaining the House in 1874. Although Tilden won the popular vote, the Electoral College was much closer and turned on three states—Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida, which by long-standing custom and law must be at the center of any American election controversy. A Congressional Committee was formed to break the deadlock, wherein an informal compromise emerged—Democrats would yield on the election and give Hayes the Presidency, but in exchange Hayes would end the Federal occupation. Hayes would withdraw federal soldiers in 1877, ending Federal Reconstruction.
It is at this point that most histories of Reconstruction (especially textbooks but including scholarly works such as Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, which is highly recommended) end, with textbooks pivoting to other topics. The Compromise of 1877 was certainly a major turning point, and one of the most shameful actions in the long and shameful history of the United States. But what is not often discussed is that it took fully another twenty-five years in most of the South for white supremacists to reconsolidate power, disenfranchise Black voters, and implement Jim Crow.
Republican governments and Black government officials were removed in quick succession now that white supremacist terrorists had free reign to intimidate and suppress Black voters. These men called themselves “Redeemers,” and the “Redemption” they spoke of was “redemption” from the rule of Blacks, carpetbaggers and scalawags. However, even after 1877, there were Black state legislators and local officials in the South. It was only with an increase in tensions in the 1890s that white supremacists moved to establish more total social and political control over Black voters—Plessy v. Ferguson was decided in 1896, for instance.
The fact that Jim Crow’s social and political restrictions were passed in every Southern state around the turn of the 20th century is not an accident. The 1890s were a time of great social upheaval—the economy was in a depression due to the Panic of 1893 and deflation caused by hard money policies, leading to agitation from both the nascent American labor movement and the budding Populist movement. In the South, disaffected farmers would form various alliances of conveniences with Republicans, who at this point received a majority of votes from Black voters. This was not done out of any sort of class solidarity, but rather out of a genuine hatred of the Bourbon Democrats (so-called due to their reactionary conservatism) who governed the South after the federal withdrawal. These “Fusionist” coalitions posed a major threat to the dominance of Bourbon Democrats, even winning control of the state legislature in North Carolina from 1894 to 1898 and electing the governor in 1896.
However, as the economic situation improved, Bourbon Democrats across the South campaigned on a simple message: voting for Populists or Republicans was to allow Black men to rule over white people. Cartoons all across the South portrayed Black men as vampires who would molest white women with their newfound political power, and warned against the specter of “Negro rule.” This was combined with a new wave of white supremacist terror—lynchings and voter intimidation were common, as paramilitary thugs called Redshirts rode through the South. This culminated in Wilmington, North Carolina, where an armed gang of white supremacists backed by local Democratic powerbrokers overthrew a biracial government and installed their own candidate as mayor.
With their power entrenched by fraud and violence, the Redeemers set out to permanently entrench their rule. From 1890 to 1908, every Southern state passed some sort of law or amendment to disenfranchise Black (and many poor white) voters and resegregated public spaces under the aegis of Plessy v. Ferguson. With African-Americans segregated both politically and socially, the South would remain a one-party autocracy until the 1960s.
The United States might have won the Civil War, but the South won the peace in many ways. Emancipated slaves were returned to near-slavery conditions, prompting the First Great Migration. The civil rights of freedmen were stripped away, and African-Americans went from electing officials from sheriffs to Senators to disenfranchisement. Works such as Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind sanitized the Confederacy and the violence of stripping millions of their rights, and the Northern public largely let it happen or even enthusiastically adopted the new creed of “national reconciliation.” Historians portrayed the Reconstruction governments as corrupt and buffoonish (with heavy doses of racist invective) and portrayed Redemption as the natural and proper response to “Black rule.”
The New Old South
What do the Redeemers have to do with the modern Republican Party? Absolutely everything. The Redeemers were a classic reactionary movement which was supported by white Southerners who were aggrieved by the elevation of their former slaves and social inferiors to political and social equality. As the very name “Redemption” implies, it sought to redress what they saw as a grave injustice. It was the counter-revolution to the social revolution of Reconstruction. The Redeemers saw themselves as pure Anglo-Saxons who were taking a stand against hordes of racial others, who for all of their horror were merely puppets of Yankee carpetbaggers and Southern race traitors. The Redeemers were backed by wealthy businessmen who feared that programs such as public schools, more equitable tax burdens and regulation of banks and railroads would threaten their supply of cheap labor and their profits. They used a combination of voter fraud, intimidation and outright paramilitary violence to achieve their goals, justifying their crimes as necessary to save the white race and their way of life.
Although the terms of abuse might have changed, this describes the modern Republican Party’s ideology and tactics.
In the aftermath of the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, white southern Democrats began to ditch the party en masse due to their racial resentment and animus. Republicans capitalized on such defections to undermine Democratic strength in the Solid South and attempt to break the New Deal Coalition by expanding outside their traditional Eastern Establishment base. However, this brought many new right-wing voters into the Republican Party, and accelerated the process of ideological sorting between the two major parties. This sorting, and the racial resentment which accelerated it, has been the driving force of the Republican Party’s radicalization.
When we examine the ideology of the modern Republican Party, we see traces of the Redeemers that are their ideological predecessors. The precepts of Redeemer ideology are simple: A) there is a social order which is right and proper, B) this order used to exist but was destroyed by uppity racial minorities and their race traitor allies, who are fundamentally illegitimate and C) it is right and proper to use fraud and violence to restore this order. Since the election of Barack Obama in 2008 in particular, the Republican Party has fully become a party of Redeemers. The racist Birther controversy (not coincidentally, Donald Trump’s first major play in conservative politics) showed that Republicans could not countenance the idea of a Black man leading America. The constant rhetoric of the Republican Party today—“take back our country,” “stand up for real America,” “Make America Great Again,” are all calls for restoration, for redemption of a social order which has been destroyed by “Third-World immigrants” and “globalist elites.” We see Republicans and conservatives openly promoting the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, in which “real America” (white, rural and Christian) is once again under threat from hordes of racial minorities. They might now be puppets of coastal elites and liberal globalists (two phrases which should be read with triple parentheses around them) instead of Yankee carpetbaggers, but the rhetoric remains the same. During the attempt to steal the 2020 election, Republicans repeatedly denigrated places such as Philadelphia and Detroit, cities with large Black populations, as areas whose voters stole the election—because any sort of Black political participation is seen as inherently illegitimate.
The tactics of the Republican Party—the mix of attempts at voter fraud and the outright paramilitary violence—are straight from the Redeemer playbook too. Immediately after 2020, state legislatures moved to restrict who could vote as much as possible within the limits of the Voting Rights Act. Republicans celebrated as their conservative justices gutted much of that same Act in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, which removed the Act’s preemption clauses which existed specifically to prevent Southern state legislatures from returning to form. Under Shelby, Republicans have gerrymandered the South “with surgical precision,” as the North Carolina Supreme Court put it, packing and cracking districts to ensure that their already large victories are even more overwhelming in Congress and the state legislatures. And now in Tennessee, they have expelled Black legislators for being too strident, too “uppity,” even in their permanent super-minority status.
There are limits to this comparison, of course. The Redeemers were not particularly concerned with an urban-rural divide, nor with Evangelical Protestant Christianity against secularism, liberal Protestants and Muslims, nor with immigrants, who were a marginal presence in the South at the time. (The Second Ku Klux Klan, which would come to prominence in the 1910s and 1920s, would portray itself as the defender of WASP America against Blacks, Jews, immigrants and leftists, but this is later in time than the Redeemers). But when we look at the modern Republican Party, we clearly see that its driving force is white racial resentment. We see the Redeemers’ rhetorical and ideological echoes—there is a social order which is right and proper, and it has been taken from you by people who look different from you and by the race traitors who abet them. The election was stolen because “real America” voted overwhelmingly for Trump—the only people who voted for Biden are ignorant minorities and leftist radicals in the big cities. The crime of the election must be overturned by violence—storm the Capitol, and redeem America from the specter of “Negro rule” once again. And as we saw Republicans storm the Capitol (and their caucus vote to overturn the election that very night), waving the symbol of the Old South, we saw the same tactics as in New Orleans in 1874 and in Wilmington in 1898.
The men who perpetrated these vile crimes got away with it, and their ideological successors think they can too. In ideology, tactics and goals, the modern Republican Party is the Redeemers come again. Their ambitions have expanded greatly—no longer content with carving out one-party autocracies in the South, they seek to do so across the entire nation. Just as the South used to be, the opposition will not be illegal per se, but it will be controlled by gerrymandering, by the courts and by other obstacles. Armed paramilitary groups such as those already deputized by Republican politicians will ensure voters are intimidated. Good ol’ boy networks of connected politicians and businessmen will divide up the spoils by removing checks and balances, slashing regulations, and cutting the welfare state to ribbons.
We do not need to plumb the depths of European fascism to see the threat in front of us. Not only could it happen here, it already did, and the men who did it then have their ideological successors not just in the South, but all across the nation. These analyses (European fascism and the Redeemers) are complimentary in many ways, for the American right, especially its leadership cadre, has been influenced by European fascism. Whenever I consider how these traditions interact, I am reminded of an exchange from Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here:
‘Nonsense! Nonsense!’ snorted Tasbrough. ‘That couldn’t happen here in America, not possibly! We’re a country of freemen.’
‘The answer to that,’ suggested Doremus Jessup, ‘if Mr. Falck will forgive me, is ‘the hell it can’t!… Remember the Ku Klux Klan? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings?…Not happen here? Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours!’
It is sobering to reflect on the simple historical fact that not only could it happen here, it already did, and most Americans at the time shrugged their shoulders. So thoroughly did the perpetrators win and glorify their actions that most Americans in our time do not even know about their victory. It is up to us all to ensure that they do not win again.
Featured Image is A Ku Klux Klan gathering in Muncie Indiana in 1922 by Garaoihana