When critics reach for analogies to describe Donald Trump — or look for examples of democratic deterioration — they tend to look abroad. They point to Russia under Vladimir Putin, Hungary under Viktor Orban, or Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trump, in this view, is a type — an authoritarian strongman. But it’s a foreign type, and his corrupt administration is seen as alien to the American experience.
This is a little too generous to the United States. It’s not just that we have had moments of authoritarian government — as well as presidents, like John Adams or Woodrow Wilson, with autocratic impulses — but that an entire region of the country was once governed by an actual authoritarian regime. That regime was Jim Crow, a system defined by a one-party rule and violent repression of racial minorities.
The reason this matters is straightforward. Look beyond America’s borders for possible authoritarian futures and you might miss important points of continuity with our own past. Which is to say that if authoritarian government is in our future, there’s no reason to think it won’t look like something we’ve already built, versus something we’ve imported.
Americans don’t usually think of Jim Crow as a kind of authoritarianism, or of the Jim Crow South as a collection of authoritarian states. To the extent that there is one, the general view is that the Jim Crow South was a democracy, albeit racist and exclusionary. People voted in elections, politicians exchanged power and institutions like the press had a prominent place in public life.
There’s a strong case to be made that this is wrong. “To earn the moniker,” argues the political scientist Robert Mickey in “Paths Out of Dixie: The Democratization of Authoritarian Enclaves in America’s Deep South, 1944-1972,” “democracies must feature free and fair elections, the safeguarding of rights necessary to sustain such elections — such as freedoms of assembly, association, and speech — and a state apparatus sufficiently responsive to election winners and autonomous from social and economic forces that these elections are meaningful.”
By that standard, the Jim Crow South was not democratic. But does that make it authoritarian? A look at the creation of Jim Crow can help us answer the question.
Jim Crow did not emerge immediately after the Compromise of 1877 — in which Republicans agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South in return for the presidency — and the end of Reconstruction. It arose, instead, as a response to a unique set of political and economic conditions in the 1890s.
By the start of the decade, the historian C. Vann Woodward argued in his influential 1955 book “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” opposition to “extreme racism” had relaxed to the point of permissiveness. External restraining forces — “Northern liberal opinion in the press, the courts, and the government” — were more concerned with reconciling the nation than securing Southern democracy. And within the South, conservative political and business elites had abandoned restraint in the face of a radical challenge from an agrarian mass movement.
Mickey notes how the Farmers’ Alliance and Populist Party “clashed with state and national Democratic parties on major economic issues, including debt relief for farmers and the regulation of business.” What’s more, “A Colored Farmers’ Alliance grew rapidly as well, and held out the possibility of biracial coalition-building.” This possibility became a reality in states like Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina, where Populists joined with a majority-black southern Republican Party to support common lists of candidates in “fusion” agreements against an explicitly elitist and white supremacist Democratic Party. Populists and Republicans won their greatest victories in that era in North Carolina, where they captured the state legislature and governor’s mansion, as well as local and county offices.
Democrats, among them large landowners and “New South” industrialists, responded with violence. Democratic paramilitary organizations — called “Red Shirts” — attacked populist and Republican voters, suppressing the vote throughout the state. In Republican-controlled Wilmington, N.C., writes Mickey, “Democratic notables launched a wave of violence and killings of Republicans and their supporters, black and white, to take back the state’s largest city; hundreds fled for good.”
This basic pattern repeated itself throughout the South for the next decade. Working through the Democratic Party, conservative elites “repressed Populists, seized control of the state apparatus, and effectively ended credible partisan competition.” They rewrote state constitutions to end the vote for blacks as well as substantially restrict it for most whites. They gerrymandered states to secure the political power of large landowners, converted local elective offices into appointed positions controlled at the state level, “and further insulated state judiciaries from popular input.” This could have been stopped, but the North was tired of sectional conflict, and the courts had no interest in the rights of blacks or anyone else under the boot of the Democracy.
The southern Democratic Party didn’t just control all offices and effectively staff the state bureaucracy. It was gatekeeper to all political participation. An aspiring politician could not run for office, much less win and participate in government, without having it behind him. “What is the state?” asked one prominent lawyer during Louisiana’s 1898 Jim Crow constitutional convention, aptly capturing the dynamic at work, “It is the Democratic Party.” Statehood was conflated with party, writes Mickey, “and party disloyalty with state treason.”
Southern conservatives beat back Populism and biracial democracy to build a one-party state and ensure cheap labor, low taxes, white supremacy and a starkly unequal distribution of wealth. It took two decades of disruption — the Great Depression, the Great Migration and the Second World War — to even make change possible, and then another decade of fierce struggle to bring democracy back to the South.
It’s not that we can’t learn from the experiences of other countries, but that our past offers an especially powerful point of comparison. Many of the same elements are in play, from the potent influence of a reactionary business elite to a major political party convinced of its singular legitimacy. A party that has already weakened our democracy to protect its power, and which shows every sign of going further should the need arise. A party that stands beside a lawless president, shielding him from accountability while he makes the government an extension of his personal will.
I’m not saying a new Jim Crow is on the near horizon (or the far one, for that matter). But if we look at the actions of the political party and president now in power, if we think of how they would behave with even more control over the levers of the state, then we might be on a path that ends in something that is familiar from our past — authoritarian government with a democratic facade.