Historian: White Terrorist Groups Attacked Democracy During Reconstruction, They Are Doing It Again

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As Washington reels from the storming of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob intent on overturning the 2020 election results, lawmakers are considering new impeachment proceedings against President Trump for fomenting the insurrection. Civil War and Reconstruction historian Manisha Sinha says this isn’t the first attempt to disrupt the democratic process by right-wing white domestic terrorists, citing the 1898 Wilmington coup and other efforts before that throughout the Southern states. “These groups today remind me of those people,” says Sinha. In response to the call to invoke the 25th Amendment against Donald Trump, she argues, “This is an awful portent for our democracy, and we need to respond forcefully to it.”

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AMY GOODMAN: But going from the immediate history and this week the white supremacist Proud Boys leader being arrested in D.C. with long guns, with automatic weapons — very clear what was going to be happening in Washington — to centuries analysis, let’s turn to Manisha Sinha, in addition to Bree Newsome Bass, who is still with us. Professor Sinha is a historian of slavery, abolition, Civil War and Reconstruction and the author of The Slave’s Cause and The Counterrevolution of Slavery, professor at University of Connecticut.

Thanks so much for joining us, Professor. So, if you can respond to what happened yesterday? And then explain this discussion right now of the 25th Amendment and what this would mean.

MANISHA SINHA: Thank you for having me, Amy. Well, I think what happened yesterday was rather astounding. As a historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction, I have often made comparisons between what has happened under the Trump regime — and I call it a regime, not an administration — and what has happened earlier in our history. But I did not think that this would actually come to pass, though I should have suspected it, considering what had happened in Michigan just recently.

Now, as Bree mentioned, this attempt to disrupt the democratic process — in this case, the counting of the votes of the Electoral College — by the use of domestic terror has happened repeatedly in our history. And it especially happened during Reconstruction, not just the Wilmington coup of 1898, but before that. In each of the Southern states, either voting or actually democratic governance was disrupted by right-wing, white terrorist groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camelia, the White League, the Red Shirts for Wade Hampton in South Carolina. There were a number of them. And so, these groups today remind me of those people. And they were the ones flying the Confederate flag in Congress. That did not happen during the Civil War, and it happened yesterday.

So I think this is an awful portend for our democracy, and we need to respond forcefully to it. Either enforce the Enforcement Acts from the Reconstruction era to arrest and prosecute or — I am shocked at the few who have been arrested so far.

Now, clearly, we need to evoke the 25th Amendment against Donald Trump. I don’t think we have the time to go through a lengthy impeachment process anymore, but we do have the time to invoke the 25th Amendment.

The question is: Will Mike Pence and his Cabinet and a section of the Republican Party go on with this? They have clearly enabled Trump so far. Even those who denounced violence yesterday were clearly complicit in the extent to which Trump has challenged the election results. And there is still a segment within the Republican Party, 102 members of the House of Representatives and seven senators, because Rick Scott joined the challenge for the Electoral College votes of Pennsylvania, so we are seeing right now a substantial group within the Republican Party, too, that is enabling Trump.

And this is extremely dangerous. A message needs to be sent. Trump needs to be disabled. And these members of Congress, as Cori Bush has called, need to be censured, expelled. They need to bear the consequences of their actions in inciting violence.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Now, Professor Sinha, you’ve also suggested that the reason Trump called on these, effectively, domestic terrorists was because it became clear that the U.S. military was not going to support him in his attempts to subvert the election — effectively, to instigate a coup. So could you talk about that, the resistance of the military to participate, and what it means, if it’s significant? And also, you know, you were talking about Reconstruction. Could you talk about the significance of discussing Reconstruction now?

MANISHA SINHA: Yes. So, I think that it was quite clear in the last few days, by the statement made by former secretaries of defense, by statements made by senior military officials, that they would not enable a coup.

And for all those who poo-pooed the idea that Trump would go that far, that likened him more as an authoritarian working within the structures of our government, I would say that they have not actually comprehended the extent of the madness of this man. You know, it was clear, when he tear-gassed protesters and used the Army to do that, that he would go that far; when he actually applauded people who were gunning down protesters on the streets of the United States, that he would go that far.

And I think it is really important to remember that, finally, there were people in the military and others who realized that we are in a democracy. The military is under civilian law, but they cannot obey unconstitutional orders. He has pardoned people who have violated the military’s code of conduct, people who have committed war crimes. Trump is a full-blown fascist, as far as I am concerned. And if he could have used the military to orchestrate a coup, he would have done it. Mark my words. There’s no doubt in my mind that he would have done it. So, I am thankful that even after taking such a battering, some of our institutions have held up, including this principle of the military subservience to constitutional law.

And that is why he called on the Proud Boys and these right-wing terrorists across the country. That’s exactly what happened during Reconstruction when these white terror groups, predominantly white men, would in fact, with impunity, murder people, storm legislatures, kill leading politicians. There was a plot, remember, to kidnap Governor Whitmer. So, they are replaying the playbook of the Reconstruction terror groups.

And we should replay the playbook of the federal government and the Union Army to actually take action against these people. A lot is at stake. Our constitutional democracy is at stake. You know, I’m not one for constantly evoking state power. But in this case, that is the only solution.

And I’m still shocked that law enforcement was found so wanting. We know that the mayor of D.C. had requested National Guard help the day before yesterday. And her request was still under review at the Department of Defense, which is now, of course, staffed by Trump loyalists. So, we are in a very dangerous situation.

AMY GOODMAN: And in the end, it wasn’t President Trump, according to The New York Times, but Vice President Pence, who called in the National Guard, who had been evacuated before almost anyone else, the congressmembers left to fend for themselves, some hunkering down in the galley. They were there to socially distance above. Many had put on gas masks. If you can talk about the Cabinet members who are threatening to resign — you’ve got Elaine Chao, Transportation, apparently, Robert [O’Brien] — these are just reports of this; they haven’t — and what role they would play in the 25th Amendment, as well as Pence, because he would become president in this period?

MANISHA SINHA: Yes, he would. And I think it is high time for them to take action. The problem is that so many people have left Trump’s Cabinet. And besides Elaine Chao, the secretary for transportation, we haven’t heard a peep from the other members of the Cabinet, who presumably are Trump loyalists.

The fact that the National Guard was eventually called out only because of Pence is shameful. That already shows that Trump has abdicated his duties. President-elect Joe Biden has clearly said that. This man is not capable of even governing. And, in fact, he is inciting sedition. He said that he loves these people.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what would it look like? What does it mean to invoke the 25th Amendment?

MANISHA SINHA: So, it’s never happened in the history of the United States. It’s been contemplated, but it has actually never happened. But we are in uncharted waters after what happened yesterday.

A majority of the Cabinet and Vice President Pence would have to agree on invoking the 25th Amendment. And then that action would have to be agreed by a majority in Congress. And I think that should be done. That ought to be done. Let us see if Mike Pence, who has, in fact, in this — after being such a loyalist in all the egregious actions taken by the Trump administration, at least in this particular case has said that he will not violate his constitutional role of merely announcing the votes for the Electoral College. Let us see if he has the backbone to actually invoke the 25th Amendment with a majority of the Cabinet members. It ought to be done.

It’s the only solution we have now to rein in Trump. Remember, he is still president, and he could start a war. He could do anything. And at this point, he is so desperate, and he is so criminal in his actions, that I wouldn’t put it past him to do anything. I think he’s a national security threat to this country. He has certainly been a threat to American democracy right from the start. The 25th Amendment ought to be invoked.

AMY GOODMAN: Manisha Sinha, I want to thank you so much for being with us, a professor of history at UConn, University of Connecticut, author of The Slave’s Cause and The Counterrevolution of Slavery. And thanks so much to Bree Newsome Bass, artist, antiracist activist, took down the Confederate flag that was flying over the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol.

This is Democracy Now! When we return, journalist Allan Nairn on what this looks like, world reaction overseas, and what President Trump’s actions yesterday mean for the world. Stay with us.

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