Which Side Are You On?

Photograph Source: torbakhopper – CC BY 2.0

In November, we will not be offered a choice between a greater evil and a lesser evil, nor a choice between capitalism and socialism, and certainly not a choice between living in an empire and living in a republic. We will be offered a choice between a common-variety American politician and a dictator. Wake up, folks, we are living in a 21st-century American version of 1933 Germany.

If you don’t believe that Donald Trump’s goal is becoming an autocratic ruler, stop reading. If you do believe that Joe Biden’s goal is becoming an autocratic ruler, stop reading. The question then becomes: If Trump wins, will he have the means to destroy what’s left of our constitutional democracy and rule like the autocrats he so much envies?

The answer to that question lies in the Supreme Court, which has unlimited power to decide the legal meaning of the Constitution and thus the meaning and legality of all laws, presidential powers, previous Supreme Court decisions, in short, all language that the state uses to control our lives. This power governs not just public life but also private lives, including domestic relations, marriage, abortion, and sexual relations. This court is truly Supreme. It is like an omnipotent Humpty Dumpty, who tells Alice, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Let’s remember some history. As Eric Foner explains in his essential book, The Second Founding, when Congress passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments between 1865 and 1870, they believed they were abolishing slavery and guaranteeing full citizenship to the free slaves with all the same rights as white citizens. But then came the post-Reconstruction Supreme Court, which legalized both the re-enslavement and the disenfranchisement of most of the Black population. How could it do that?

The 15th Amendment is very short, very clear, and unambiguous: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Yet the late 19th-century Supreme Court found no contradiction in forcing every 21-year old Black man (who could pay his poll tax) to prove his literacy to a white examiner. The southern states foresaw that some future Supreme Court might find the poll tax and literacy test violated the 15th Amendment. No problem.

Sure, the 13th Amendment began “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude” and concluded “shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” But in between there’s this clause: “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This clause was inserted merely to recognize the common practice of forcing convicts into unpaid labor. The lawmakers certainly did not foresee that this clause could be used to criminalize ordinary behavior in order to force people into slavery. But that is precisely how it was used re-enslave the Black population of the South. As soon as federal troops were withdrawn from the South, a reign of terror destroyed all the freely elected progressive southern states’ legislatures and replaced them with legislatures that effectively turned every freed slave, and as well as most Black freedmen, into criminals. Prison slavery turned out to be even worse than that old form of private plantation slavery. For example, the Black convicts who built railroads in much of the South had a life expectancy of two years. (This history and these laws are laid out fully in my Prison Literature in America: The Victim as Criminal and Artist and are summarized in my anthology, Prison Writing in 20th Century America.)

The Supreme Court turned the Amendments into a double-headed monstrosity that totally reversed the intentions and original meanings. How? By validating the felon disenfranchisement laws passed by the southern states. The “Black codes” magically turned ordinary Black people into felons, thus making them slaves. And then even those who survived prison slavery automatically lost their right to vote.

Think this is all ancient history? Most of you know that the Supreme Court in 2000 overruled the Florida Supreme Court by the 5-4 vote and ordered Florida to stop recounting ballots, thus handing the White House to George W. Bush by a margin of 537 out of almost six million cast votes. Many of you know that hundreds of thousands of Black citizens of Florida had been stripped of their voting rights by the state’s felon disenfranchisement law. But do you know that without the Supreme Court support of felon disenfranchisement the U.S. Senate could be consistently governed by Democrats? (See Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen’s Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy and Elizabeth Hull’s The Disenfranchisement of Ex-Felons.)

So what difference would that make, perhaps you are thinking, since the two parties are indistinguishable? Really? If you can’t see glaring differences between the Supreme Court justices chosen by the two parties and their votes crucial to our lives, your name might be Magoo. Compare the Democrats: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer (Clinton appointees); Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan (Obama appointees) to the Republicans: Clarence Thomas (appointed by George H. W. Bush to take the place of the greatThurgood Marshall, appointed by LBJ); Samuel Alito and John Roberts (appointed by George W. Bush); and Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh (appointed by Trump). I agree with Mitch McConnell that there is no more important outcome of presidential elections than the composition of the Supreme Court, an outcome that will probably be crucial for decades after the four- or eight-year term of Donald Trump. For starters, who will get to appoint the successor to the heroic Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg? The same president who will get to appoint the successor to the 82-year old Justice Stephen Breyer. If it’s Trump, those two will be replaced by two more Kavanaughs, or worse if possible. Whatever Trump wants to be the law of the land will be validated by that truly supreme court. What then would be the difference between Trump’s powers and Hitler’s?

Which brings up the question of war and peace. On colonialism, imperialism, and genocide, American history cannot be divided along party lines. Indeed, Democratic presidents have been, at least since the end of World War II, just as terrible as Republican presidents. As some of you are aware, for six decades my life and writings have been at war against US imperialism. We progressives live in the belly of the world’s greatest imperialist beast, and this election will not change that dreadful fact.

But as an American, and as a father and grandfather, I care about the future of life inside this nation. As a human being and a sentient part of the natural world, I also care about the future of our species and natural life on planet Earth. Here I see enormous differences between the two possible outcomes of our upcoming election.

On health care, public education, voting rights, civil rights, the environment, abortion rights, immigration, minimum wages, union rights, and taxation of the wealthy, every vote in the House and Senate splits right along party lines. And these party lines are drawn along the lines of the voting bases of the two parties. The Republican Party today is the party of white supremacy. This was not true for several decades after World War II, when the South, governed openly by white supremacists, was the most dependable Democratic bedrock in national elections. The rise of the Republican “Southern strategy,” which locked up the South and border states (Clinton’s Arkansas and Gore’s Tennessee), dramatically changed the identities of the two parties, and led to Republican ascendancy in national elections from 1968 through 2004. The only Democrats elected to be president between 1964 and 2004 were all from the south: Lyndon Johnson from Texas; Georgia governor Carter; Arkansas governor Clinton with his vice-president Gore, from a long-entrenched Democratic Tennessee family. And Clinton’s road to the White House was enabled by the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot, who used the POW/MIA issue to build a key white male component for what is now called the Trump base (see my book: M.I.A., or Mythmaking in America ).

The 2008 election is revealing. Millions of Americans were fed up with the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as the lies that had enabled them, and were also terrified by the financial collapse unleashed by big banks. If the Republican party of 2008 had in fact been a kind of Tweedledee to a Democratic Tweedledum, it would have followed tradition and allowed his nominee, John McCain, to choose his vice-presidential running mate, and they would have an excellent chance of winning. McCain had chosen super-hawk and popular former Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, who would have appealed to independents and the increasingly disaffected “centrist” sector of the party. But by this date, the Republican Party had changed its base. So the populist, nativist, and fundamentalist delegates forced McCain at the last moment to select the thinly-vetted Sarah Palin, one of their own.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party had also changed, more and more reflecting the multi-ethnic composition of the electorate. The 2008 election helped change the evolving quantitative differences into blatantly qualitative differences. When an African-American–with the stunningly non-Anglo name of Barack Hussein Obama–rolled up the southern states of Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida on his march to the White House, the Republican Party was left in a desperate predicament. Media pundits consigned the Grand Old Party to that overflowing dustbin of history. After all, how could an openly white supremacist party compete in an increasingly multi-ethnic nation? Now we know the answer.

Our President has now made it all but official. The 2020 elections are to determine whether America is to be a white nation or a multi-racial nation. Of course, from the beginning the United States has been a nation with a multi-racial population under white rule. If Donald Trump is reelected and the Republicans maintain control of the Senate, white supremacy will be in a position to lock down control of our government. There will be no path to citizenship for the Dreamers or Hispanic immigrants. Non-white immigration, except for temporary cheap labor, will be severely restricted. Felony disenfranchisement will continue to deny the vote to millions of Black and Hispanic citizens swept up in mass incarceration. Gerrymandering and the outdated Electoral College will continue to be used to grant superpower voting to rural white people. The Supreme Court, with new Trump appointees, will do its utmost to make de facto white rule the permanent law of the land. The fascist stormtroopers of Homeland Security, backed up by armed fascist militias, will reveal, even to the progressives who fail to see the difference between an ordinary American politician and an American version of Hitler, the true nature of American fascism.

But forcing America to live under fascist rule will not be the worst outcome of the election. Why? Because in its very brief history on this planet, Homo sapiens has not proven that it is a viable species. In fact, our species has already created an existential environment crisis for itself, and Donald Trump is the agent of the forces that are destroying the environment suitable for human beings.

Even in these dark days, light is visible. In my 86 years as an American, I have never witnessed a progressive movement as broad and deep as the one sweeping across the nation today. If Biden and the Democrats win in November, this movement will have room to thrive. If not, it will be crushed.