A world of fantasy

Isaac Chotiner at the New Yorker talked to Eric Foner about the attempted insurrection.

These events have drawn comparisons to coup attempts around the world, but also to the Reconstruction era, when white mobs inflicted violence on citizens and legislators throughout the South.

To better understand the lessons of Reconstruction for our times, I recently spoke by phone with Eric Foner, an emeritus professor of history at Columbia, and one of the country’s leading experts on Reconstruction.

He literally Wrote the Book on the subject.

Foner: I guess the sight of people storming the Capitol and carrying Confederate flags with them makes it impossible not to think about American history. That was an unprecedented display. But in a larger sense, yes, the events we saw reminded me very much of the Reconstruction era and the overthrow of Reconstruction, which was often accompanied, or accomplished, I should say, by violent assaults on elected officials. There were incidents then where elected, biracial governments were overthrown by mobs, by coups d’états, by various forms of violent terrorism.

There was the Colfax Massacre, in 1873, in Louisiana, where armed whites murdered dozens of members of a Black militia and took control of Grant Parish. Or you can go further into the nineteenth century, to the Wilmington riot of 1898, in North Carolina. Again, a democratically elected, biracial local government was ousted by a violent assault by armed whites. They took over the city. It also reminded me of what they call the Battle of Liberty Place, which took place in New Orleans, in 1874, when the White League—they had the courage of their convictions then, they called themselves what they wanted people to know—had an uprising against the biracial government of Louisiana that was eventually put down by federal forces. So it’s not unprecedented that violent racists try to overturn democratic elections.

One big difference, he goes on to say, is that they just straight up said it was white supremacy.

Let the white man rule, this is a white Republic. I mean, racism was totally blatant back then. Today, they talk about dog whistles or other circumlocutions, but back then, no, it was just that armed whites in the South could not accept the idea of African-Americans as fellow-citizens or their votes as being legitimate.

Chotiner asks, cautiously, about the absurdity of the whole thing.

Chotiner: But you see some of these guys, you see some of the things they’re wearing, you see them taking photos with statues, you see them with their feet up on desks. You see the fact that it was obviously not going to work. And I think some people say, “There’s something ridiculous about this”—as indeed there’s been something ridiculous, as well as awful in many ways, about the last four years. And I’m curious if that has any precedent in the Confederacy, too.

Foner: I think these people are living in a world of fantasy. That’s why it seems absurd. They thought, honestly, that they would be able to overturn the election. They thought that by seizing the Capitol, they would somehow get President Trump reëlected. I mean, President Trump has been living in a world of fantasy for the past couple of months, as we know, insisting that he won the election in a landslide and that the result was not fixed and could be overturned. And these are his followers, who have been soaking up his lies and fantasies for four years. So it looks ridiculous to us.

Trump has been living in a world of fantasy the whole time. He was playacting throughout. He was like a child wearing a parent’s work clothes, but not cute.

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