Oligarchs Con White Bois

Republicans and "white nationalists" are playing with fire in their efforts to end democracy

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It’s no coincidence that Trump supporters, including those who attacked our republic on January 6 at the US capital, love to wave and display the Confederate flag. Somehow, they think, their whiteness will protect them from the consequences of ending democracy in America.

They’re wrong. The Confederacy was an ethno-nationalist police state, run by a small number of plantation-owning oligarch families like Robert E. Lee’s, and being white was no protection from the Confederacy’s brutality. 

This sort of an iron-fisted oligarchy is exactly what people promoting white supremacy and “European” ethno-nationalism, want to impose on all of America. The Trump mainstream of the GOP is no longer a normal political party; it’s become an open advocate of the oligarchic values and systems that ran the South before 1865.

As Sally Hadden documents in her book Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas, each Confederate state’s “militia“ was also its slave patrol, and every white man who wasn’t part of the plantation-owning aristocracy had to show up for unpaid slave patrol duty at least once a week, traveling the back roads, inspecting plantations, and generally terrorizing Black people.

Cue the modern white militia movement.  And the cops who threatened to kill a Black Army officer for having the temerity to drive a brand new car down the road. And George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Eric Garner, Treyvon Martin, Tamir Rice...

But the Southern oligarchy wasn’t just about slavery and racism. It was an oligarchy that practiced absolute economic and political domination everywhere it had power.

Although they weren’t enslaved, poor whites had it rough in the Confederate states. They had no real access to due process, and in most cases were prevented from voting if they didn’t own land. Even when they did vote, ballot boxes were stuffed or ballots were burned when elections didn’t turn out the way the oligarchs wanted.

Through the period from the 1830s to the 1860s, as I document in my new book The Hidden History of American Oligarchy, southern plantation owners’ wealth radically increased because of the invention of the Cotton Gin that started spreading across the south in the 1820s. 

This new machine could clean as much cotton as 50 hardscrabble white farmers or enslaved people; thus, those few massive plantations that could afford a Gin soon economically and politically dominated the South in the era leading up to the Civil War. 

By manipulating cotton prices, giant plantations ran small white-owned farms out of business. The plantation oligarchs would then buy up the distressed farms and use the poor white farmers’ own indebtedness to force them to work what had previously been their own land. 

When poor whites protested or tried to fight back, they were often imprisoned on trumped-up charges or just killed and buried in unmarked graves. As Keri Leigh Merritt documents in Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South:

"[P]oor whites made particularly inviting targets for a southern legal system dominated by slaveholders... On the eve of secession, slaveholders were still jailing poor whites for small amounts of debt, publicly whipping thieves, and auctioning off debtors and criminals (for their labor) to the highest bidder. In addition to the region’s sophisticated legal system, the Old South also had an extremely effective extralegal system to keep the lower-class whites in their places. From vigilance committees to minutemen groups, these organizations helped maintain both slavery and the southern social hierarchy, and ultimately forced a divided region to wage an unwanted war.

Matthew McConaughey made a movie about Newton Knight, a poor southern white man who led a resistance movement against the Confederate oligarchs. Ten of his white compatriots were lynched by the plantation owners and left hanging as a warning to others, but he survived and escorted Sherman in his famous march through Georgia in 1864. Over 100,000 poor whites fled the South to fight in the Union Army.

And enslaved Africans who fought back usually encountered a fate even worse than death: unspeakable torture, followed by more years of enslavement. The brutality of the Confederacy was legendary, and they wanted it that way. Those Southern slave-holding generals whose statues Trump wants to preserve were among the most evil, vicious men ever to hold power in the US.

By the time of the Civil War, the Southern part of America was no longer a democratic republic (if you could argue that it had ever been one). It was a pure police-state oligarchy run by a few thousand families who controlled the wealth of the South. Nobody, of any race, who wasn’t related to one of the oligarch families was truly free.

This is the nation oligarch Donald Trump and his followers want to create. It’s what oligarch-owned Fox News is pushing us towards.

Like multimillionaire Senator Tom Cotton pointed out in a recent tweet, “We have a major under-incarceration problem in America.” More people need to go to jail, according to fascists like Cotton, in the country with 4% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners.

Eliminate the voting, economic and political power of poor and working-class people across the country, particularly those who are not white. Put more people in prison, especially minorities. Recruit poor whites to the cause by giving them people of color to sneer at and demonize. Toss them the bone of a “White Lives Matter” rally.

As Lyndon Johnson pointed out back in the day, “If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you.”

And he’ll help make sure that the people in charge are billionaires like Donald Trump. The new plantation owners. The aristocrats. The oligarchs.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Fox News is promoting this kind of ethno-nationalism with talking heads like multimillionaire Tucker Carlson.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who would know, published an op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald calling billionaire oligarch Rupert Murdoch the “Cancer eating the heart of Australian democracy.”

“Murdoch is not just a news organization,” Rudd wrote. “Murdoch operates as a political party, acting in pursuit of clearly defined commercial interests, in addition to his far right ideological worldview. ... Murdoch is also a political bully and a thug who for many years has hired bullies as his editors.”

Trump, Tucker, and their fellow travelers have raised a small army of white people across this land. They strut around with their “open carry,” and freak out about the whatever the most recent conspiracy theory may be. They call themselves “patriots,” just like the Confederate soldiers and slave patrollers did.

They think that putting people of color “back in their place” will somehow lift their chances to experience the American Dream. As if it’s all some bizarre sort of zero-sum game.

LBJ was right. They’re suckers and they’re wrong. 

Destroying our democracy, as billionaire Trump tried to do last year and rightwing media continue to promote, will only flip us into a fascistic oligarchy resembling the Old South.

Everybody but the oligarchs will suffer.

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