The White House, June 2020. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Thanks to Donald Trump, white Americans are starting to see the United States through the eyes of black Americans, who experience, every day, police departments deploying an array of Gestapo tactics. Black Americans, in other words, understand fascism intimately. White Americans are finally seeing that the point of Black Lives Matter isn’t mere political correctness. It is a yearning for freedom.
Many white Americans are now aligning with black Americans not only to demand due process and equal justice for George Floyd, and not only to demand anti-racist policy to counteract institutional racism, but also to demand an end to a 40-year-old “conservative” political regime built precariously on the backs of black Americans.
Perhaps the best way to understand the millions marching in the streets is by comparing them to uprisings overseas, such as the Arab Spring, in which massive protests signaled that the old regime had finally descended into decadence, decay, and illegitimacy. We don’t usually talk about “regimes” when we talk about American politics. “Regime” is a word reserved typically for discussions of dictators and despots. “Regime change” is usually what the United States does to other countries.
But our history can be understood, perhaps best understood, as one regime changing into another every 40 years or so, beginning with a period of flowering, then mainstream acceptance, and then a period of decadence, decay, and illegitimacy, usually amid some kind of crisis that essentially proves that the old regime’s argument doesn’t matter anymore.
At the heart of each transition between established regimes was the question of whether white Americans took seriously the concerns and interests of black Americans. The Republicans broke faith with the republic after a black man became president. That’s probably when the old order began disintegrating. What’s next is anyone’s guess.
The grassroots energy that fueled the establishment of the current regime, which was cemented with the elections of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, was the mirror opposite of the grassroots energy fueling today’s protests. The “conservative” revolution was, among other things, a backlash against the political enfranchisement of black Americans. One could say that the current revolution if that’s not overstating it, is a backlash against the backlash’s disenfranchisement.
The protests are not the only sign of regime change: so is the old regime’s attempt to tighten its grip on political power. As it sinks deeper into illegitimacy, its champions increasingly turn to increasingly illegitimate means of maintaining the old order. The Republicans turned a blind eye to Russia’s sabotage of the 2016 election. The party then acquitted Donald Trump of treason. It is now silent as the president threatens to send military troops to crush public outrage. Those who are not silent, like U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, wade further into illegitimacy, calling, in the pages of the Times, for “an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.”
Another sign is division among respected representatives of the old order. Every major newspaper in the country, all but two, endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. That’s a huge indicator — newspaper publishers nearly always endorse GOP candidates.
The Republican Party itself has been split a dozen ways. Moderates like Charlie Dent and Jeff Flake are long gone. So-called “never-Trumpers” have relearned that conservatism without democracy is fascism. George W. Bush these days sounds like a liberal. Most importantly, nonpartisan voices in national security — Mike Mullen and Jim Mattis, among other former intelligence officials from both parties — are growing louder in their denunciation of Trump and the Republican Party, signaling a repudiation of the old order and an openness to future possibilities with new allies.
The Reagan regime’s argument was that government was best when it governed least. That appealed to white supremacists hoping to maintain customary sadism going back to slavery. That appealed to liberals who fought against the Vietnam War. That appealed to anyone remembering state-sponsored crimes against humanity in places like Germany, Japan, China, and the Soviet Union. Free markets, not the government, were trustworthy. Free individuals, not community or society, were most important. Demands for a government of, by, and for the people were met with deep suspicion.
Make no mistake: Nothing is certain. Progress doesn’t happen on its own. America’s future, quite literally, could be more democratic as well as more liberal, or it could be more authoritarian. But one thing, at least, seems certain. The current dust devil of disaster — pandemic, unemployment, and massive social unrest — is probably enough to persuade a majority of people to see that the old argument doesn’t matter anymore.
John Stoehr is a journalist and a fellow at the Yale University Journalism Initiative.