As events unfolded at the Capitol last week, I was repeatedly confronted with variations of the same statement: that the US is the home of democracy, that it is synonymous with democracy, that its central mission is democratic in content and form.
This was repeated to such an extraordinary extent – on the news, in podcasts, and on social media – to emphasise how the actions of president Donald Trump, of which last week represented merely the culmination, were an aberration and at odds with the essence of America. Given he won the presidency in 2016, and even in defeat last November garnered 74 million votes, this is hard to believe.
As ever, Twitter was the best place to find outstanding examples of nonsensical hyperbole, with political commentator Jon Favreau claiming the president’s actions were “without question, the most evil, dangerous behaviour exhibited by any American president in history.”
Yet the truth is that Trump tells us a great deal about America, specifically how it is a nation with two distinct and often competing identities. Upholding it as a uniquely enlightened, noble country – which has only made positive contributions to the world – isn’t just inaccurate, but deeply corrosive, and nowhere more so than at home.
On a basic level, the US wasn’t a functional democracy until 1965 and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Until then, many states in the south retained ‘Jim Crow’ laws that disenfranchised black voters through poll taxes, literacy tests and various other measures – the objective of which was voter suppression. Alongside this were ‘anti-miscegenation’ laws, also a remnant of the late 19th century, which prohibited white people from marrying those of African, Asian and Indigenous descent. Such laws existed in half of all US states until the 1940s, though by the 1960s this had fallen to around a dozen. It was only in 1967 that the Supreme Court unanimously ruled interracial marriage was protected by the Constitution.
Inequality and anti-democratic politics is not a ‘glitch’ for the republic, but rather something of a perennial – its founding ‘revolution’ perhaps better described as a rebellion by a slave-owning plantocracy whose elite favoured self-government over diktat from London. As much is clear in a sentence written in 1765 by John Adams, who would be the nation’s second president, summarising the impulse for independence: “We won’t be their negroes”. The ‘they’ here was the British, and these five words reveal the truth of America’s foundation: freedom was never intended as a universal category, rather something which belonged to an elite. Worst of all, this ‘freedom’ included the right to own other human beings as property.
Indeed it was no accident that 12 of the first 16 presidents were southern slaveholders: their interests were favoured in the Constitution by design. Article 1 Section 2 declared that any person who was not free counted as three-fifths of a citizen for the purposes of determining political representation. This meant southern states possessed a third more seats in Congress – and a third more electoral votes – than if slaves had been ignored altogether, the consequence of which was not only to disenfranchise African-Americans (obviously), but to privilege southern whites over their northern counterparts. As Abraham Lincoln would say on the eve of the Civil War: “It is a truth that cannot be denied, that in all the free states no white man is the equal of the white man in the slave states”. This feature was unique to America, and while many other countries extended enfranchisement exclusively to propertied white men, nowhere else did such a divide exist within this group. Similarly unique, and barbaric, was the Naturalisation Act of 1790, a law which permitted only “free white person[s] […] of good character” to become US citizens, thus excluding indentured servants, slaves, free black people and native Americans.
The fact the US was never a democracy is also evident in who the country inspired. While for the French aristocrat De Tocqueville the US was a haven of liberty, for liberation struggles across Latin America it was instead Saint-Domingue, present day Haiti, which was a ‘shining city on the hill’. For such struggles – which unlike America’s War of Independence often believed in racial equality – it was Toussaint Louverture who embodied freedom rather than George Washington. Indeed, it was precisely because of the prestige of the Haitian Revolution that individuals from Saint-Domingue were prohibited from entering a number of states in case they infected the slave-owning republic with, as professor Michael Zuckerman puts it, “dangerous ideas of liberty and racial equality”. If there is a single birthplace for modern democracy in the western hemisphere isn’t the US, but Haiti.
Such events are not recounted as a history lesson. Rather, they show that Trump’s politics, and the deep forces he has mobilised in US society, reside not at the margins of the country’s history but at its centre. Jim Crow laws may have been introduced almost 150 years ago, but the victory of a Jewish man and an African-American in Georgia last week were all the more unlikely because voter suppression efforts have only intensified in the last decade. It was Georgia, it should be remembered, where after 1829 it was a criminal offence to teach an African-American to read.
Nor is this to say America is exclusively evil – far from it. For every John Calhoun there was a Harriet Tubman; for every slave-owning statesman there was a Rosa Parks or a Stacey Abrams. Indeed, given the country was forged by the evils of slavery and genocide, it’s no surprise it is also the place where the yearning for freedom has often sounded loudest. But upholding such freedom, universally, was never its founding objective. This not only explains the crushing of so many domestic dissenters, but also the usurpation of democracy abroad whenever perceived to be in the ‘national interest’. The same principles and interests drove the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran and the murder of Fred Hampton in Chicago.
The idea that America is the home of democracy has no basis in fact, and deference to this comforting but erroneous myth is no defence against rising authoritarianism. On the contrary: it is only by acknowledging that the US is responsible for a great many historical sins – both at home and abroad – that we can better guard against fascism in our own time.