The nation has been transfixed by the attempted putsch carried out by pro-Trump fascists Wednesday. Many stunned commentators, believing in some form of American exceptionalism, reached for comparisons to other, supposedly-backward countries to describe what happened. “This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic,” said former President George W. Bush.
Yet this is not the first time that an American government has faced an epidemic of right-wing terrorism threatening the very foundation of democracy. The same thing happened during Reconstruction after the Civil War, when President Ulysses S. Grant faced a white supremacist insurrection in the South led by the first Ku Klux Klan. Congress gave Grant sweeping powers to put down the insurrectionists, and together with Attorney General Amos T. Akerman, he successfully snapped the neck of the Klan in a matter of months.
Incoming President Biden and his choice for Attorney General, Merrick Garland, would be wise to follow Grant and Akerman’s example.
Historian Eric Foner tells the story in his sweeping study of the period, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Akerman, the central figure in the anti-Klan effort, was not exactly a born radical. On the contrary, though he was born in New Hampshire, he later set up a law practice in Georgia and actually fought for the Confederate army during the Civil War. But he had been against secession, and turned against slavery during the war even as he remained loyal to Georgia. After the Confederacy was defeated, he joined the Republican Party, and became a legal advocate for the rights of freed slaves. He was on the moderate side of Reconstruction in terms of policy, but he still supported radical action to defend the victory of the Civil War. This set him apart from many leaders in Washington, D.C., where he noticed “a hesitation to exercise the powers to redress wrongs in the states,” Foner writes.
President Grant appointed Akerman Attorney General in mid-1870 when the Department of Justice was first created, and Grant wanted a determined advocate of civil rights who also had credibility in the South. By this time the KKK, founded in 1865, had been running wild across much of the region. White supremacist terrorists assaulted, tortured, and murdered Black people at random, assassinated members of state legislatures and even one member of Congress (Rep. James Hinds of Arkansas, a white Radical Republican), and spread fear throughout the land. The objective was to overturn democracy by disenfranchising all the freed slaves, and standing up a white supremacist terror state. As the Reconstruction state governments were new and barely established, they found it hard to defend themselves against KKK terror — naturally emboldening the insurrectionists to more and more aggressive acts.
However, the spree of violence shook Radical Republicans into action. They passed several acts empowering Grant to protect democracy, culminating in the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. “This for the first time designated certain crimes committed by individuals as offenses punishable under federal law,” notes Foner. “Conspiracies to deprive citizens of the right to vote, hold office, serve on juries, and enjoy the equal protection of the laws [could] be prosecuted by federal district attorneys, and even lead to military intervention and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.”
Akerman and Solicitor General Benjamin H. Bristow got to work. Because most state courts and juries in the South were unreliable, they set up federal courts with juries from outside the region. KKK terrorists were tracked down, arrested, indicted, tried, and punished by the thousands. In one instance, Akerman convinced Grant to suspend habeas corpus in one exceptionally Klan-infested region of South Carolina and send in federal troops, who arrested hundreds of KKK members and caused thousands of others to flee the state.
All this successfully broke the Klan, which largely disappeared for more than 40 years. In “terms of its larger purposes — restoring order, reinvigorating the morale of Southern Republicans, and enabling blacks to exercise their rights as citizens — the policy proved a success,” concludes Foner.
It’s important to note the punishments for KKK terrorists were exceedingly modest by modern standards. One Klan leader got just two years in prison in Albany, and while one United States attorney “secured nearly 700 indictments in Mississippi … most escaped with suspended sentences and the threat of sterner punishment if violence resumed,” Foner writes. The current criminal justice system is primarily oriented around vindictive cruelty and warehousing the lower class, which is why absurd multi-decade sentences are so common today. But the length of prison sentences is largely beside the point when it comes to disrupting this kind of insurgent group (or crime of any kind, for that matter). The point is to destroy the social tissue of rebellion — by demonstrating that crime will indeed be punished, by seizing the property and weapons of the insurrectionists, by disrupting their communications, by forcing them to put down arms or flee underground, and so on. With few exceptions, an insurgent group cannot stand up to a determined, organized state.
There are dozens of federal laws that are applicable to Wednesday’s events at the Capitol. Assaulting federal law enforcement is illegal, sedition is illegal, conspiracy is illegal, trespassing on federal property is illegal, and on and on. All sorts of anti-terrorism laws are, for once, actually appropriate. Gab, Parler, TheDonald, 8kun, and other websites where the putsch was organized should be shut down as party to a seditious conspiracy, and so should any successors that crop up to replace them.
In the broadest sense, the people who have plotted to overthrow the American government should be held to account, and their organizing networks smashed to pieces — including Trump and the members of Congress who incited the putsch. Just as during the Reconstruction days, this will surely require going outside the traditional law enforcement apparatus, because it is infested with right-wing extremists. (The civil rights section of the Department of Justice might be useful here.) Again, the point is not punishment for its own sake, but protecting the integrity of American democracy by suppressing insurrection.
After all, there is a darker side to this history, which illustrates what is liable to happen if the political descendants of the KKK who stormed the Capitol this week are allowed to get away with treason. Later in Grant’s term, Republicans got progressively more racist and tired of defending their most loyal voting bloc (Southern Blacks), and their failure to fix the economy after the economic crash of 1873 cratered their political support. Federal protection of democracy in the South was gradually rolled back, leading to a presidential election in 1876 that was marred by massive fraud and violence. Eventually after much high-stakes negotiation, Democrats agreed to allow Republican Rutherford B. Hayes to take the presidency so long as Reconstruction was ended.
As a result, a new group of post-KKK white supremacists mounted a renewed assault against Southern democracy. As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie points out, groups like the Red Shirts, White League, and others got bolder and bolder when they found they were largely immune from legal punishment, and over about 20 years successfully toppled Reconstruction governments across the South. They established exactly the white supremacist terror state that Akerman had fended off before: Jim Crow.
Trump’s fascist mob is glorying in what they did Wednesday. The symbolic act of occupying the seat of U.S. power, trashing congressional offices, and forcing Democratic members to run in fear, are all exactly what they have been dreaming about for years. They have owned the libs more than anyone since Robert E. Lee. It turns out if you are a white right-wing extremist who wants to storm the seat of government, the cops will just let you do it! They are certain to try ever-more extreme tactics until someone forces them to stop. If President Biden wants there to be another election, or if he just wants to have as good a chance as possible of surviving his first term, he should look to our own history.