The Oldest American Trick in the Book

We recently learned that, in attempting to exploit our fears, Cambridge Analytica tested messages that were thinly disguised forms of racism called “race realism.” From Mueller’s Russian indictments, we also know that troll farms set up Facebook pages that attempted to exploit racial divisions. Finally, one of the constants in Trump’s campaign and presidency has been his appeal to racist elements in this country. Bringing it all together, Van Newkirk writes this:

…there’s one main thread running through all of these stories, one that should orient readers to the things that truly matter, whether the news is about Cambridge Analytica or the Russian “troll farm” known as the Internet Research Agency. It’s the fact that the human brain is eminently exploitable—as are, by extension, the civic and democratic institutions the human brain has built.  And in America, a country built from its foundations on white supremacy, where identity is forged in the crucible of a centuries-old “race question,” one of the easiest and most effective ways to “hack” those institutions is the use of racism in disinformation and propaganda campaigns.

Newkirk goes on to provide examples of how exploiting racial fears is the oldest trick in the book. For example, while there are many reasons to respect Benjamin Franklin, it is also a fact that he made up a hoax about American Indians scalping hundreds of white Americans.

During the War of 1812, which is itself a part of the larger American Indian Wars, the imaginary mass scalping was invoked by several newspapers after Pottawatomi warriors and British forces annihilated a contingent of Kentuckian fighters. While the remainder of that war is remembered as a relatively minor series of engagements with few overall British and American casualties, 10,000 indigenous Americans died in the fighting, and that it helped spark a long series of atrocities in the West against hundreds of tribes. Stories like those fabricated by Franklin helped prime white settlers for that violence.

Following the civil war, the so-called “Redeemer” movement employed similar strategies against African Americans. Newkirk tells this story from East St. Louis in 1917 that left dozens dead.

After a black family reported that a car full of white citizens shot into their home on July 1, a police squad car was sent—in the same make of car as the shooters had used—to investigate, and the aggrieved family shot and killed two officers in the resulting confusion. The next day, the St. Louis Republic—with no evidence whatsoever—ran a story alleging that the killings were planned, a story that provoked the violence of July 2. Two days after that episode, the Republic continued its breathless defense of the pogrom, running a headline stating that  “25,000 Whites Were ‘Doomed’ in Negro Murder Plot.” In their account, white violence had been a reaction to the formation of a thousands-strong “army” of black people, one that sought to assassinate prominent white citizens and establish control of the city. None of that was true.

There are a hundred more stories where those two came from. They all provide context for the thinking behind the lies told by Cambridge Analytica and the Internet Research Agency in Russia. If you listen, you can hear the same message loud and clear in Trump’s lies about skyrocketing urban (read: black) crime rates, criminal aliens and Muslim terrorists.

Here is Newkirk’s conclusion:

The strategy of using racism to steamroll democracy is older than America. And as the history of the American experiment shows, this particular strategy doesn’t need masterminds or even competent people in order to pull it off. It just needs the background noise of racism and racial anxiety, along with people devious enough to exploit them.

What he didn’t say that I’d like to add is that these tactics have often led to violence against people of color in this country. That is exactly what Trump was referring to when he talked about the “good old days.”

As Adam Gopnik wrote:

We are shocked by Trump’s language not because we’re prim but because we understand intuitively, instinctively, that the language is itself an assault on the rule of law, not merely a prologue or preface to it…The connection between the language of demonization and the execution of diabolic acts was all too familiar in history.

It is important for us to be very clear about what is going on with all of this. The pump is being primed for the oldest American trick in the book: using racism to steamroll democracy.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.