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Fruits of the Twin Roots of Evil: Slavery and Imperial Expansion.
On the Thursday of the second week of the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings, former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara had a special guest on his weekly podcast, Carl Bernstein. It was Bernstein, with fellow Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, whose reporting broke open the story of how the Committee to Re-elect the President burglarized Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C. That reporting and the impeachment hearings that followed eventually forced President Richard Nixon to resign in disgrace in 1974. Bharara wanted to hear about what differences Bernstein sees between the Nixon impeachment proceedings and Donald Trump’s today.
That was the week when the New York Times reported that viewership of those “boring” hearings was proving to be “as big as Monday Night Football.” That was the week when the world heard from, among others, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman on Donald Trump’s July 25th “perfect” phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky; from ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland on how “everyone was in the loop” when it came to the Ukrainian quid pro quo (not to speak of his “Zelensky loves your ass” exchange with the president); and from the steely former Trump adviser on Russia, Fiona Hill, on how that country promulgated the fiction that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 American election.
That should have been enough to convince anyone paying attention that the president had indeed attempted to trade a Zelensky White House visit and U.S. military aid for an announcement that Ukraine was investigating its own (fictitious) interference in that election and the (equally fictitious) corruption of Joe Biden via his son Hunter. Clearly, however, the Republicans in Congress were anything but convinced.
Bharara reminded Bernstein that, when Richard Nixon was at risk of impeachment, key Republican congressional figures, including two senators (at a moment when, as now, Republicans had a majority in that body) encouraged the president to resign rather than be impeached and be convicted in a trial there. Why, Bharara asked, is today’s Republican Party more loyal to the president than the Constitution and the rule of law?
Bernstein replied that, in his view, the divisions in the U.S. today are no longer simply a matter of ideological differences — disagreements about what constitutes a good society and how to achieve it. The whole country, he suggested, is already embroiled in a “cold civil war” that’s vividly reflected in Congress. If so, then it’s a complex war indeed, involving at least four allied but also diverging forces in today’s Republican Party:
The roots of much of the turmoil in the current Republican Party are, however, centuries old. They go back, in fact, to the twin crimes that have helped shape this country from its very beginning: slavery and imperial expansion.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival in the British colonies that would become the United States of America of the first enslaved Africans. The New York Times has gathered some of the best recent scholarship on the nature and history of American slavery in an excellent series: “The 1619 Project.”
Many white people in this country think of slavery as a “problem” of the distant past. They are mistaken. African Americans live with its effects today (as do the rest of us in different ways) in legacies like mass incarceration and the existential threat of police violence. In 2015, the Guardian reported that “young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers.” In that year, police killed 1,134 people. The Washington Post now keeps a running annual tally of such police-caused deaths. As of November 25th, the number for this year was 829.
The line that can be drawn from slavery to convict leasing to lynching to torture in police stations to police shootings of African Americans is all too direct. It’s impossible, in fact, to overstate the importance of slavery to the economic, legal, and social development of this country. The 1789 Constitution was in many ways a document meant to appease southern slave states and keep them in the union. This included the “three-fifths” compromise, which counted any enslaved resident as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of apportioning members of the House of Representatives to each state. Similarly, the creation of an upper house, the Senate, where each state has two representatives, regardless of population, and the invention of the Electoral College were meant, in part, to enhance the power of southern states. And to this day, those two institutions continue to allow southern and, more generally, rural states to exercise an undemocratic power, disproportionate to their population size. In a very real sense, compromises made in 1789 helped elect Donald Trump in 2016.
The first income-generating crop in the southern colonies was tobacco, initially planted, tended, picked, and packed by semi-free indentured servants from England who worked for a fixed period (usually seven to 10 years) and then were free to start farming on their own. Enslaved Africans, however, soon offered a number of advantages over such contract workers. As a start, their “contracts” never ran out. Indeed, their children and children’s children would also be enslaved workers. They would prove crucial to the way those planters built their wealth (and significant parts of the wealth of the colonies and that of the United States as a whole), both as profit-generating laborers and as capital-building assets against whom money could be borrowed. This history is well-described in a number of books, including Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, and Andres Resendez’s The Other Slavery (about the little-studied enslavement of native peoples in what would become the American Southwest), as well as in the autobiographies and collected oral testimonies of hundreds of formerly enslaved people.
In Virginia and the Carolinas, however, those tobacco farmers faced a serious problem. Unlike indentured servants who could look forward to their eventual freedom, newly enslaved Africans had no incentive to work; none, that is, except physical pain. As a result, torture — real mind- and body-destroying torture — was part of the American experience from the first moments the slave system was established, with effects that have lasted to this day.
After the revolution and the invention in 1793 of Eli Whitney’s seed-stripping cotton gin, southern farmers turned to another, far more lucrative export crop: cotton. First in Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas, but soon in the lowlands that would become Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas, cheap raw cotton would feed England’s fast-industrializing textile industry and so, for the next two centuries, help make that country’s economy the world’s preeminent one. It also fed the nascent textile mills in the North after Samuel Slater, an early industrial spy, crossed the Atlantic to New England, carrying in his memory plans (embargoed by Great Britain) for a water-powered textile factory.
As slavery expanded, so did the systematic use of torture. Enslavers on the new plantations organized “gangs” of laborers, their long lines easily visible to overseers who followed them with cowhide whips. From dawn to dark, through the endless workday, that whip flew at supersonic speed (the source of its “crack”), tearing flesh till the blood ran. It waited for workers in camp at night, as each day’s output was weighed, and those who failed to make their quotas were punished.
A new form of torture-enforced labor began after the Civil War and the brief interim period of Reconstruction when black people in the South found themselves, through the legal conceit of convict leasing, essentially enslaved all over again. Arrested on minor charges or none at all, prisoners — almost all of them African-American men — found themselves leased out by county and state authorities to private cotton growers and to the developing coal and steel industries of Tennessee and Alabama. Once again, the whip came along for the ride. Convict leasing lasted into the 1920s when Southern states chose to employ their convicts directly in chain gangs to build the region’s railroads and highways. Legal segregation, also begun at the end of Reconstruction, did not end until the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Nor did state-sanctioned torture of African Americans end with emancipation or the eventual diminution of those convict-leasing programs. Lynching (a label Donald Trump recently had the nerve to apply to the impeachment proceedings) continued from the end of the Civil War well into the twentieth century, peaking between 1880 and 1920. In addition to its culminating murder by hanging or burning, lynching often involved whipping and the castration of male victims prior to death. In the context of Jim Crow segregation, these institutionalized rituals of torture and murder served to secure the power of white authorities over black populations. In many places, lynchings were also treated as popular entertainment, encouraged by local officials who often participated themselves. The practice even produced a form of popular art: photographs of lynchings decorated many postcards in the early part of the twentieth century.
Every society that adopts institutionalized torture as a method of social control identifies certain groups of people as legitimate targets for it. From the very beginning of this country, one group was so identified: enslaved Africans (and their emancipated descendants). Even today, in police stations, prisons, and public schools, black Americans are at risk of socially sanctioned physical abuse, even torture.
President Trump’s open embrace of a white supremacy born of slavery and nurtured by convict-leasing, segregation, and lynching has powerfully emboldened its modern proponents, encouraging economically and socially anxious whites to focus their resentment on blacks and, of course, immigrants from anywhere but northern Europe.
As much as American history is a story of slavery and its legacy, it’s also a tale of steady geographical expansion and imperial domination, often enabled by military force. That history, too, has a twenty-first-century legacy: America’s forever wars across a significant part of the planet.
It’s a tale that began early. The newly independent United States quickly acquired a lot more of itself, starting with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase from France. That deal effectively doubled the country’s territory, annexing lands that would eventually become parts or all of 10 new states. Of course, France didn’t actually control most of that land, apart from the port city of New Orleans and its immediate environs. What the U.S. government really bought was the “right” to take the rest of that vast area from the native peoples who lived there, using treaties, population transfers, and wars of conquest and extermination.
Such acquisitions continued with Florida in 1819 (from Spain) and the annexation of Texas (by war) from Mexico in 1845. All of this new territory contained land that was, as Sven Beckert says in Empire of Cotton, “superbly suited to cotton agriculture.”
So, conquest, slavery, and (when it came to native peoples) displacement and genocide combined as cotton growers expanded their holdings. A frequent first step in securing new territory for cotton planting was to remove the people already occupying it. That process began in Georgia in the early 1800s, as the Creek nation was driven west. Soon, as Beckert writes, “the Creeks suffered further defeats and were forced to sign the Treaty of Fort Jackson, ceding 23 million acres of land in what is today Alabama and Georgia.” In a process that today would likely be called ethnic cleansing, cotton’s empire continued to expand at the expense of indigenous peoples:
“In the years after 1814, the federal government signed further treaties with the Creeks, Chickasaw, and Choctaws, gaining control over millions of acres of land in the South, including Andrew Jackson’s 1818 treaty with the Chickasaw nation that opened western Tennessee to cotton cultivation and the 1819 treaty with the Choctaw nation that gave 5 million acres of land in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta to the United States in exchange for vastly inferior lands in Oklahoma and Arkansas.”
In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, designed to do exactly what its name implied by requiring Indian nations in the southeastern United States to “exchange” prime cotton-growing acreage for vastly inferior land in present-day Oklahoma. As the National Park Service’s website on the subject recounts, after the Choctaws, Muscogee Creeks, Seminoles, and Chickasaws had for some time “fiercely resisted” such relocation, they finally “agreed” to be moved to the newly designated Indian Territories.
Perhaps the best-known population transfer of this period was the one that took place along the Trail of Tears. Beginning in May 1838, the U.S. Army, together with various state militias, began the forcible removal of more than 16,000 Cherokee people from North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee to Oklahoma. The job was completed by the following year. The journey proved a tragic one (more than 1,000 people died along the way) and the destination unsatisfactory, but the Park Service wants to assure visitors that the story has a happy ending:
“The Cherokee, in the years that followed, struggled to reassert themselves in the new, unfamiliar land. Today, they are a proud, independent tribe, and its members recognize that despite the adversity they have endured, they are resilient and invest in their future.”
U.S. expansion continued across the rest of the continent, decimating Indian nations and consigning survivors to reservations. In 1893, it reached Hawaii where U.S. Marines supported a coup against Queen Lili’uokalani. In 1898, the treaty ending the Spanish-American War, the country’s first full-scale imperial conflict abroad, gave the United States Cuba, Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. After World War II, the United Nations awarded the U.S. what would become the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, including the island of Saipan, which remains in U.S. “trusteeship” to this day.
The U.S. shadow also fell across Latin America, as it occupied Nicaragua from 1909 to 1933, installing the autocrats of the Somoza dynasty in power there in 1936. In 1954, the CIA orchestrated a coup against the government of Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz to prevent him from instituting a land reform program. Support for coups continued into the 1960s and 1970s in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Rather than make these Latin American countries actual colonies, a policy of global neocolonialism (backed by the unprecedented military garrisoning of the planet) allowed the United States to fuel a postwar economic boom with cheap raw materials from around the world.
Today, the United States maintains about 800 military bases in more than 80 countries and has forces stationed on every continent except Antarctica. We remain by far the world’s preeminent military force and continue to fight (unsuccessful wars) across the Greater Middle East and Africa.
The Trump Republican Party has inherited, and continues to make use of, the legacies of this nation’s twin evils: slavery and imperial expansion. We see in its white supremacist strand a commitment to maintaining systems of white superiority that have persisted from slavery through Jim Crow segregation to ever-present threats of violence today. Many white evangelical Christians maintain an enthusiasm for racial separation (as the histories of their flagship universities reveal). They see in Trump a leader who will advocate for white supremacy so they don’t have to.
The power of the Republican militarist wing may appear to have diminished in the face of Trump’s vocal isolationism and threats to bring U.S. troops home from this country’s various twenty-first-century wars, but in truth, the military and intelligence sectors of the government have managed to do almost everything they’ve wanted to, even while seeming to agree with the president. (No surprise, then, that there are now more U.S. troops stationed in the Middle East than there were when Donald Trump took office.) In addition, he has certainly made sure that the Pentagon has all the money it could possibly want, even if he sometimes decries excessive military budgets.
The history of U.S. territorial and military expansion has long been accompanied by a commitment to American exceptionalism, a belief that this country is different from and better than the rest of the world’s nations. That sense of superiority is usually described as an embodiment of national values like democracy and equality, but bubbling beneath the surface there has always been the belief that the U.S. succeeded in all but eliminating the native peoples on this continent and in defeating others around the world because of a natural superiority born of a European heritage. This confidence remains strong today, despite the fact that (apart from invading the tiny nations of Grenada and Panama) the U.S. hasn’t won a war since World World II, including the never-ending conflicts it has launched over large stretches of the planet after 9/11.
And what of the economic elites, the top tenth of the top one percent? Their commitment, however they may choose to wrap it in libertarian anti-tax rhetoric, remains only to themselves and to maintaining and expanding their own vast wealth. To the extent that any of the party’s other three strands contribute to that goal, they are happy to contribute to the party.
Today’s Republicans are very different from those of the Nixon era. His was a party with an ideological commitment to anticommunism, law and order, and opposition to organized labor. In Trump, the party seems to be committed not to principles, but to a man who defies the rule of law and is disorder personified. However, like their president who shamelessly turns on his friends when it suits him, his party will likely turn on him the moment he appears to threaten, rather than enhance, their election prospects. In the meantime, they are in every sense a historic crime in the making.
Rebecca Gordon teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author most recently of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.
Copyright 2019 Rebecca Gordon. First published in TomDispatch. Included in Vox Populi with permission.