Steve Innskeep’s column in the New York Times on Thursday is resonant of the piece I wrote on Wednesday on the conservative movement being identity politics for white people, but it comes with an additional warning. Innskeep recently wrote a book on John C. Frémont, the Republican Party’s 1856 candidate for president. In his article, he warns that the country is in much the same place today as it was then.
Progressives—and Republicans then were the more progressive party—confidently expected that population changes would help them win without having to compromise with conservatives. Conservatives—who then were proslavery Democrats—vowed to wreck the system if they could not reinforce it against the change they dreaded.
Fear prevailed over demographics in 1856. A Democrat won the election: James Buchanan, a Northerner strongly tied to Southern interests…
…Republicans persisted through another election, trying again in 1860 to win the presidency with Northern votes alone. This time their demographic gamble succeeded as their nominee, Abraham Lincoln, prevailed against divided opposition. Southerners followed through on their threat to destroy the system, firing the first shot of the Civil War in 1861.
Looking at the similarities, Innskeep says:
What are lessons for 2020? Expect a terrifying year. What drives Americans to extremes is not losing an election but the fear of losing for all time.
The mistake conservatives are making is thinking that they can thwart the natural movement of history by putting their finger in a dam. The mistake progressives may be making is in thinking that they can win this battle simply by waiting the conservatives out and getting the demographic electoral victory everyone knows is coming.
For now, the conservatives are “wrecking the system” in myriad ways, including changing congressional rules, extreme gerrymandering, aggressive disenfranchisement efforts, disempowering the Federal Election Commission and campaign finance laws, stacking the courts, and seeking foreign assistance. They’ve even attacked democracy within their own party by preventing challengers to Trump from appearing on ballots in their primaries or even eliminating primaries and caucuses entirely.
Kansas, Alaska, South Carolina, Arizona, and Nevada have all canceled their Republican primaries/caucuses in order to throw their support fully behind President Donald Trump, citing the arguably unnecessary costs a primary election would entail when nearly 90 percent of the party approves of his presidency.
“With no legitimate primary challenger and President Trump’s record of results, the decision was made to save South Carolina taxpayers over $1.2 million and forgo an unnecessary primary,” said South Carolina GOP Chairman Drew McKissick in a statement announcing his party’s decision.
In Trump, the conservatives have their “Northerner strongly tied to Southern interests,” and they’re not interested in having anyone from within threaten his renomination.
But there is still something missing in this comparison between the elections of 1856 and 2020, right? After all, the progressives aren’t trying to abolish slavery. They’re not trying to add new states to the Union that will give them some decisive political advantage. So, what exactly are the conservatives so panicked about that they’ll blow everything up rather than accept the risk of defeat?
In reality, it’s the same thing most white Southerners were freaking out about in the 1850s. The average white Southerner didn’t own any slaves and wasn’t exactly advantaged by having to compete with free labor. But they were afraid of what blacks would do to whites if they came to power, and they didn’t want to lose their privileged racial position under the law.
It’s not slavery that is driving conservatives now, but fear of demographic change and the loss of power and privilege. In the 19th century, they did not accept electoral defeat and chose civil war instead. In the 21st century, their first line of defense is to rig the elections by any means available. But if that fails in 2020, they will have grave difficulties accepting the outcome.
We’ve already seen that they will defend the president against charges of seeking foreign interference. How much further will they go to prevent “losing for all time”?