President Donald Trump has ramped up his inflammatory racist rhetoric in the final days before the pivotal midterm elections that will determine if his corrupt administration will face any oversight from Congress.
Betting that fears of racial minorities will drive Republican voters to the polls, he has centered his closing pitch on a caravan of Central American migrants fleeing violence and poor crop yields in their home countries. He said, without evidence, that the caravan is filled with “many gang members” and “unknown Middle Easterners,” dropping the previous pretense (“terrorists”) to reveal a fear of all members of a minority group. “Women don’t want them in our country,” he added, a not-so-subtle suggestion that the migrants are rapists (similar to a claim he made upon launching his presidential campaign).
Guests on Fox News have speculated that migrants are carrying diseases like leprosy and that the caravan is a plot conceived of by rootless Jewish financiers seeking global domination like George Soros — the latter a paranoid conspiracy the president has also entertained. The president followed this up with a blatantly racist advertisement blaming Democrats for murders committed by an undocumented immigrant.
This racist closing pitch is not just rhetorical. The president deployed thousands of U.S. troops to the country’s southern border to repel “an invasion.” He said that soldiers should shoot any migrant who throws rocks at them. He announced plans for indefinite detention of asylum-seekers. He expressed a desire to repeal the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship to all children born on U.S. soil.
In all of this, Trump has emulated the outrageous, bigoted and violence-encouraging campaign waged by President Andrew Johnson in the 1866 midterms. In his “Swing Around the Circle,” the first time a sitting president campaigned around the country for candidates, Johnson made the election a referendum on himself, with unprecedented barnstorming speeches featuring paranoid conspiracy theories, racist demagoguery and incitement to violence.
Johnson, an accidental president who came to power after an assassin killed President Abraham Lincoln and another failed to kill him, was a boorish drunk, a former slaveowner and a racist who held sympathies with the now-defeated Confederates. He vetoed legislation establishing the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, opposed the 14th Amendment, opposed giving freed black people voting rights in the South and mass-pardoned most Confederate soldiers and officials and offered them property while denying it to freed black people. All of this brought the ire of the Republican Congress, which overrode his many vetoes and passed the 14th Amendment.
And so Johnson took to the campaign trail to defeat congressional Republicans and replace them with proponents of white supremacy. Johnson’s tour began on the East Coast. As he moved westward and faced Republican-heavy districts in the Midwest that opposed his policies, he became increasingly unhinged.
He began by comparing himself to Jesus Christ and Thaddeus Stevens, the anti-slavery leader of the Republicans in Congress, to Judas Iscariot. He attacked Sen. Charles Sumner and Wendell Phillips, two abolitionists turned advocates for black suffrage. Then, at a stop in Cleveland, a heckler yelled out, “Hang Jeff Davis!,” a call to execute the former president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis. Johnson could not resist a reply, “Why not hang Thad Stevens and Wendell Phillips? ... Having fought traitors at the South, I am prepared to fight traitors at the North.”
The “Swing Around the Circle” degenerated from there. Johnson continued to call for the execution of his political opponents Stevens, Phillips and Sumner. He defended recent riots in Memphis and New Orleans where white mobs killed dozens of black Americans in a racist fury by claiming that his political opponents had radicalized black Americans. They had it coming, essentially.
“If you will take up the riot at New Orleans and trace it back to the radical Congress, you will find that the riot at New Orleans was substantially planned,” Johnson said at a stop in St. Louis.
Johnson roped in the famed and beloved Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to support him on his “Swing Around the Circle.” Grant, disgusted by Johnson’s speeches, fell ill and excused himself from the tour. According to a biography of Grant written by his aide Adam Badeau, the general believed the president “fostered a spirit that engendered massacre, and afterward protected the evil-doers.”
President Johnson’s defense of white massacres of black people as the product of his opponents supporting black civil rights only encouraged more violence — violence that would ultimately overtake the country and re-establish official white supremacy over the former Confederate states until the 1960s.
Much as Johnson’s rhetorical leniency toward white mobs killing black Americans inspired further violence, Trump’s racist midterm campaign has done the same.
The constant drumbeat of fear-mongering news about the Central American migrant caravan from the president’s mouth and amplified by conservative media triggered a virulent anti-Semite, who believed that Jews like Soros and the refugee resettlement nonprofit HIAS were funding the caravan, to take up arms and attack a synagogue, killing 11 people. It was the worst anti-Semitic attack in the history of the United States.
That same week, police arrested a Florida man for mailing bombs to a litany of political figures that Trump claims as his enemies and, in some cases, promised to jail, including former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and, of course, Soros.
The president and his supporters claim to be outraged by assertions that their rhetoric and policies have in any way incited violence from right-wing terrorists. That same week, the lawyers for a Trump-loving right-wing terrorist who planned to bomb mosques in 2016 filed a brief asking for leniency from the court because their client was seduced into terrorism by Trump’s bigoted rantings.
“Trump’s brand of rough-and-tumble verbal pummeling heightened the rhetorical stakes for people of all political persuasions,” the lawyers wrote. “A personal normally at a 3 on a scale of political talk might have found themselves at a 7 during the election. A person, like Patrick, who would often be at a 7 during a normal day, might ‘go to 11.’ See SPINAL TAP. That climate should be taken into account when evaluating the rhetoric that formed the basis of the government’s case.”
None of this is pushing Republicans away from Trump. If anything, they are drawing closer to his brand of paranoid racist incitement. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) declared on Friday that his Democratic opponent Rep. Beto O’Rourke may be funding the caravan with his campaign funds. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) is running campaign ads fear-mongering about the “invasion” of migrants in an election in Tennessee, which is further away from the U.S.-Mexico border than the migrant caravan is currently.
Johnson’s campaign of racist incitement didn’t work in 1866. Instead, it became a referendum on the president’s reactionary encouragement of white supremacists in the South and the passage of the 14th Amendment. The Republican Party increased its congressional majorities and, having seen the worst of the president, impeached him after further fights over the future of black civil rights in 1868.
But Johnson survived impeachment, and the white supremacist regimes he helped foster in the South ultimately won full control and acceptance from the national government after a wave of terrorism and murder. “You will not replace us!” the white supremacists promised. A century and a half later, they marched on Charlottesville chanting the same thing. The president of the United States must’ve thought it sounded nice and decided to run on it.