Interview with Isaac Chotiner
IC: Last Wednesday, January 6th, a day after Georgia elected its first Black senator, a mob encouraged by Donald Trump and his false claims of election fraud stormed Capitol Hill, resulting in at least five deaths. Despite widespread condemnation of these events, the F.B.I. revealed on Monday that it expects protests at all fifty state capitals in the days leading up to next Wednesday, when Joe Biden will be inaugurated as President. These events have drawn comparisons to coup attempts around the world, but also to the Reconstruction era, when white mobs inflicted violence on citizens and legislators throughout the South.
To better understand the lessons of Reconstruction for our times, I recently spoke by phone with Eric Foner, an emeritus professor of history at Columbia, and one of the country's leading experts on Reconstruction. During the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also discussed the use of Confederate imagery by those who stormed the Capitol, balancing unity and punishment in the wake of terror, and the historical significance of the two Georgia Senate runoffs.
The most common historical parallel over the past four years has been to European fascism, for a variety of reasons. But there have also been references to American history going back to Jim Crow and the Civil War. How does what we've seen in the past week, and specifically what we saw on Wednesday, fit into the larger American story and make those American comparisons especially vivid or interesting in your mind?
EF: Well, I guess the sight of people storming the Capitol and carrying Confederate flags with them makes it impossible not to think about American history. That was an unprecedented display. But in a larger sense, yes, the events we saw reminded me very much of the Reconstruction era and the overthrow of Reconstruction, which was often accompanied, or accomplished, I should say, by violent assaults on elected officials. There were incidents then where elected, biracial governments were overthrown by mobs, by coup d'états, by various forms of violent terrorism.
There was the Colfax Massacre, in 1873, in Louisiana, where armed whites murdered dozens of members of a Black militia and took control of Grant Parish. Or you can go further into the nineteenth century, to the Wilmington riot of 1898, in North Carolina. Again, a democratically elected, biracial local government was ousted by a violent assault by armed whites. They took over the city. It also reminded me of what they call the Battle of Liberty Place, which took place in New Orleans, in 1874, when the White League—they had the courage of their convictions then, they called themselves what they wanted people to know—had an uprising against the biracial government of Louisiana that was eventually put down by federal forces. So it's not unprecedented that violent racists try to overturn democratic elections.
IC: Did the rhetoric of that time include the idea that those democratic elections were unfair? Is it similar to the rhetoric we're hearing now, or was there no pretense of saying that they were trying to correct an unfair election, and it was just straight-out violence?
EF: It was straight white supremacy. Maybe one might say there were two different tacks. One was to say that the Reconstruction government was corrupt or dishonest or their taxes were too high, things like that. That was meant to appeal to the North to not intervene, and say that these people were trying to restore good government in the South. But mostly it was straight-out white supremacy: Let the white man rule, this is a white Republic. I mean, racism was totally blatant back then. Today, they talk about dog whistles or other circumlocutions, but back then, no, it was just that armed whites in the South could not accept the idea of African-Americans as fellow-citizens or their votes as being legitimate.
It also reminds me of when President Trump first launched his political career and was pushing the idea that Obama was not really an American and, therefore, could not be president. And the idea that Black people are actually aliens in a certain way—that they are not truly American, that the only true Americans are whites—that's been around for a long time in our history. And it does link what we saw the other day to Reconstruction and the battles over that.
IC: Was there any symbolism used by the people rioting last week that stuck out to you or made you think back to this period, in addition to the Confederate flag?
EF: It was also that there were people carrying these American Revolution flags, "Don't tread on me," that sort of thing. So they identified themselves with the Confederacy, obviously, with their flags. They also identified themselves with the Patriots of 1776. After all, the United States was founded by a revolution that overthrew the existing authority, the British. But, last week, these were fantasy revolutionaries. They weren't really in a position to overturn the government, but they were trying to put themselves in the tradition of the people who overturned British rule here.
IC: How was the Revolutionary flag used by Confederates?
EF: Well, the Confederates claimed to be in the tradition of the American Revolution. After all, the Declaration of Independence says that the people have a right to alter or overthrow the government if they don't like it. They said, "We are in the tradition of 1776." Of course, they also rejected another famous part of the Declaration of Independence, the idea that all men are created equal. That did not appeal to them very much. Alexander Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederacy, very famously gave a speech saying that white supremacy is the cornerstone of the Confederacy—that Negroes, as he put it, that their natural state is being a slave. According to Stephens and most other Confederates, they certainly were not equal to white people. So this is a racialized view of the right to resistance in American history. It excludes African-Americans, but it includes these violent white people.
IC: For a long time, the story of Reconstruction was taught in a lot of history books and was popularly understood as a period of "Northern aggression," to use a loaded phrase, but you know what I'm talking about. And we still have an evolving understanding of it. What I'm interested in is the mistakes that were made about teaching Reconstruction, and why it's so important to understand what happened on Wednesday and to understand it clearly, considering how poorly Reconstruction was taught.
EF: First of all, I think how we think about history is very important. So, as a historian, I do believe that strongly. The mythology, I'd have to say, about Reconstruction was not just a question of teaching it wrongly. It was an ideological part of the notion of the Lost Cause, that Reconstruction was a vindictive effort by Northerners to punish white Southerners, that Black people were incapable of taking part intelligently in a democratic government. And therefore, the overthrow of Reconstruction was legitimate, according to this view. It was correct because those governments were so bad. This was part of the intellectual edifice of the Jim Crow system, that if you gave the right to vote back to Black people—and it had been taken away by the turn of the century—you would have the horrors of Reconstruction again. This image of Reconstruction, as the lowest point in the saga of American history, was very much a vindication and a legitimation of the Jim Crow system in the South, which lasted from the eighteen-nineties down into the nineteen-sixties.
So history was part of that legitimation. The motto of the historian is generally, "It's too soon to tell." But I do think eventually people will have to see January 6th, I hope will see it, as really a very serious violation of the norms of democratic government. It was not a fly-by-night operation. It was not a misguided group who got a little out of hand or something like that. It was really an attempt to completely subvert the democratic process by violence. And I think that the lesson, if we want to get a lesson out of it, is the fragility of democratic culture. I don't know how many there were, but the thousands who stormed the Capitol do not believe in political democracy when they lose. They believe in it when they win, but that's not democracy. So I think we have to be aware of this strand in our history, which is perhaps, what can I say, less worthy than the strands we tend to talk about more, the notion of equality, the notion of opportunity, the notion of liberty, democracy. You get a lot of talk about that in our history classes. You don't get a lot of talk about the antidemocratic strands in American history, which have always been with us. And this is an exemplification of it.
So I think January 6th was an interesting day from a historical point of view, because it began, if you remember, with people talking about the victory of these two candidates in Georgia, a Black man and a Jewish man, and realizing that's an amazing thing for Georgia. Georgia has a very long history of racism and anti-Semitism. That's how it began. Four or six hours later, you have an armed mob seizing the Capitol building. You have these two themes of American history in juxtaposition to each other. That's my point. And both of them are part of the American tradition, and we have to be aware of both of them, not just the more honorable parts.
IC: I want to ask this next question carefully, but there was something absurd about January 6th. I'm obviously not talking about the people who died, and what it meant to our democracy. But you see some of these guys, you see some of the things they're wearing, you see them taking photos with statues, you see them with their feet up on desks. You see the fact that it was obviously not going to work. And I think some people say, "There's something ridiculous about this"—as indeed there's been something ridiculous, as well as awful in many ways, about the last four years. And I'm curious if that has any precedent in the Confederacy, too.
EF: I think these people are living in a world of fantasy. That's why it seems absurd. They thought, honestly, that they would be able to overturn the election. They thought that by seizing the Capitol, they would somehow get President Trump reëlected. I mean, President Trump has been living in a world of fantasy for the past couple of months, as we know, insisting that he won the election in a landslide and that the result was not fixed and could be overturned. And these are his followers, who have been soaking up his lies and fantasies for four years. So it looks ridiculous to us.
All right, they got in there. Well, what are they going to do to stop the certification of the electoral vote? But no, they believed they would do it. They believed this was actually going to overturn the government. So it's absurd on one level, but it's also kind of worrisome, particularly because many of them were armed and there was a lot of violence involved. In other words, I think, yes, it's a sort of play-acting at revolution. It's not a real revolution. It's a kind of a theatrical, performative revolution maybe. Nonetheless, this is what the President has been doing for four years.
IC: There's been a lot of talk about a kind of reconciliation and unity, especially from Republicans, in the past few days. And there's been a lot of talk about punishment for this bad behavior, both for the people that did it and for President Trump. What does Reconstruction teach us about that?
EF: I think the lesson of Reconstruction, sadly, is that it requires a lot of vigor, I suppose, to actually enforce a kind of a new regime. Reconstruction in our modern terminology was an attempt at regime change. Remember how we used to talk about regime change in Iraq and that kind of thing? Changing a regime based on slavery to one based on racial equality, that was a pretty big job to do. And it required force. President Grant was elected in 1868 with the slogan, "Let us have peace." He wanted reconciliation. Three years later, he's sending troops into South Carolina to crush the Ku Klux Klan. You can't have peace when the other side is out there acting as a terrorist body, assassinating people if they try to vote and things like that. So the tragedy of Reconstruction is that the commitment to enforce it waned much too soon.
It was a national problem, not just a Southern one. And eventually, with the acquiescence of the North, with the acquiescence of the Supreme Court, you get the overthrow of this ideal of equality and the imposition of a new system of white supremacy. It's not the same as slavery, it's different, but it's still a deeply unequal system in the South that then lasts well into the middle of the twentieth century. So, yeah, reconciliation is a wonderful idea, but it takes two to tango. And if Southern whites were irreconcilable, that made it very difficult.
IC: You alluded to Georgia. And, as you said, there is something incredible and kind of inspiring about an African-American being elected to a Senate seat in Georgia. What specifically struck you about that?
EF: Well, it is important. I mean, Georgia, like much of the Deep South, had a long history, first of all, of slavery. It was one of the major cotton-producing slave states. In Reconstruction, it had a very active Klan, which was very brutal and violent toward African-Americans and toward whites who coöperated with them. Later, it disenfranchised Black voters for a long time. In the middle of the twentieth century, you have leaders like Herman Talmadge there who were just absolute outright racist. You also have the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent in Georgia in the early twentieth century. So anti-Semitism was also pretty well entrenched.
I'm giving you a litany of bad things, but what's actually important is that people are able to overcome this. That with that history hanging over you, you still can elect a Black man and a Jew to the Senate from Georgia. So I think that's cause for optimism. We teach history, but history is not determinism. We don't have to just relive our history over and over again. It's possible to move beyond it, and I think what happened in Georgia is a little step in that direction.