In 1898, the only successful coup d’etat in the history of the United States took place in Wilmington, North Carolina. Josephus Daniels, at the center of the rhetoric that activated the coup, was the editor and publisher of North Carolina’s influential paper, The Raleigh News and Observer. Daniels found Wilmington’s biracial government “intolerable,”and he used his position as editor and publisher to spread lies and hate, which brought the white men in Wilmington to such a frenzy that they murdered black men and women in the street, drove thousands of black residents out of town, and successfully overthrew the government. Daniel’s tactics included fear mongering, specifically about the dangers of black men voting and coming after white women. He drew cartoons of “The Vampire that Hovers Over North Carolina,” featuring “a giant winged Black man guarding the ballot box while his elongated arms stretched out and reached for White Southern women”:
“When the carnage ended, more than 100 Black government officials—city councilmen, the city clerk, the treasurer, the city attorney and others—had been forced from their elected roles. Somewhere between 60 and 250 Black citizens were murdered. After the coup, for which no one was ever prosecuted or punished, more than 100,000 registered Black voters fled the city. No Black citizen would again serve in public office for three-quarters of a century.”
President Trump’s racist and inflammatory rhetoric is reminiscent of Daniel’s, and has been the foundation for what is an appropriation of oppression and resistance. It is a self-appointed victim status that is, in part, attributed to white people being preyed upon by black and brown people. The immediate function of Trump’s rhetoric is to deny the legitimacy of the 2020 Presidential election and to maintain his presidential power. Additionally, this rhetoric serves to deny white privilege, to make the white supremacist cause appear righteous, to dilute the message of resistance of actual oppression, and to recruit supporters. To be clear, the narrative of oppression and resistance is not merely a narrative for people whose histories and lived experiences are genuinely fraught with systemic inequities. Actual oppression and resistance narratives are the stories of real people, real injustice, and real hard work. Trump supporters cannot appropriate that—but what they can do is convince themselves and others that they are a righteous, oppressed people, and incite them to criminal action in order to right those fabricated wrongs. And while the fabricated narratives are not real, the damage Trump’s supporters can do in the name of those fabrications is very much a reality.
For years, Trump has publicly played into base and derogatory stereotypes of people of color, which serves as a dog whistle for white supremacist action. As early as 1989, Trump was busy fanning the flames of violence against black and brown people when he took out an ad calling for the deaths of the young men arrested in the Central Park Jogger case (all of whom were eventually, years later, exonerated).Calling for the death of black and brown men in the name of white women and white justice is the racist rhetorical descendant of Josephus Daniels’ cartoons of black men as vampire bats, reaching out for white women, hovering over the ballot box. In more recent years, Trump led the birther movement, referred to people from Mexico as rapists, installed a travel ban from majority Muslim countries, tore kids from parents at the border and put them in horrendous conditions in the name of saving American (white) citizens from the violence of black and brown immigrants, and refused to denounce white supremacy and violence, over and over again. And these are just a few examples of the racist and harmful rhetoric that Trump employs. He frames white people as at the mercy of people of color rather than as the highly privileged group of people they are.
Most immediately, in his role as President of the United States, Trump has been using this language of oppression and resistance to gather support from white supremacist groups to overthrow the legitimate government of the United States. Trump is an opportunist, and he recognizes that racist language and narratives of oppression and fear will procure him the army he wants in order to maintain power. He directed his followers to fight, and they did—they showed up to the Capitol building with firearms, bombs, zip ties, mace, stun guns, and more. Some of his language of resistance included the following:
“Republicans are constantly fighting like a boxer with his hands tied behind his back.”
“When you catch somebody in a fraud, you are allowed to go by very different rules. “
“We will never give up.We will never concede. It doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore, and that is what this is all about. And to use a favorite term that all of you people really came up with, we will stop the steal.”
“You will have an illegitimate president. That is what you will have, and we can’t let that happen. These are the facts that you won’t hear from the fake news media. It’s all part of the suppression effort. They don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to talk about it.”
“We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
Trump’s claim that his supporters were denied a fair election and must fight in order to right an egregious wrong is not just a falsehood—it is a complete inversion of the way systemic voter suppression works in this country. Since the inception of this country as the United States, there has never been an election that fully represented people of color. It is easy to understand that the elections in the early days of the United States government were for white men only—patriarchal governments busy with the business of genocide and slavery are not concerned with fair elections for all, even if that doesn’t make it into the American mythology of a government by the people, for the people. But all elections in this country, including recent elections, have been fraught with voter suppression in black and brown communities. Over the years, there have been many tactics used to disenfranchise women and people of color from voting. Some of these tactics include, but are not limited to, property ownership regulations, intimidation and violence at the poles, grandfather clauses, literacy tests, felony disenfranchisement, incarceration disenfranchisement, closing polling stations, I.D. card regulations, and gerrymandering.
One need only examine the ways Indigenous people are currently resisting disenfranchisement in North Dakota to understand the current state of voter suppression of people of color for political gain. Targeted voter purging on reservations alone has led to tens of thousands of disenfranchised Indigenous voters, which ultimately favors conservative candidates. Democrat Heidi Heitkamp lost her reelection in 2018 due, in part, to this targeted voter purge. Another example of recent voter suppression is democrat Stacey Abrams’ lost gubernatorial election in Georgia in 2018 due, in part, to massive voter disenfranchisement in black communities.These are merely two examples in a sea of lost elections because of racial voter suppression. In contrast, Trump’s claim that Biden stole the election has been investigated and adjudicated by both Democrats and Republicans–ad nauseam. There have been no less than sixty lawsuits, as well as investigations by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, all which unanimously concluded that there was no voter suppression of Republican voters and that the election was fair and secure.But for Trump supporters, these investigations and findings are not enough–nothing would ever be enough because they are wed to the narrative of victimhood. They claim they aren’t heard, even as republican legislators like Ted Cruz were standing in front of Congress, asking for yet more investigation to halt the transfer of power. This is not democracy in action—this is what a very dangerous white supremacisttantrum looks like.
Part of the strategy of appropriation of oppression is to claim that one’s voice is suppressed, and part of the rationale for the siege of the Capitol building on January 6thwas the claim that the media silences conservative voices. “Fake news” is a common battle cry of Trump and his supporters. However, research shows that conservative views are more widely reported on all types of social media outlets than liberal ones. Conservative claims that they are unheard and disenfranchised is a red herring with the intent to fabricate reason for dissent and even violence. Even FOX news, which has been the mouthpiece for Donald Trump for four years, fell out of favor with the President when they called the state of Arizona for Biden, a sore loss for Trump. Trump insisted that FOX make calls that favored him, and he cried foul when they did not. Within this narrative of media silencing, Trumpers can reach what seems to them to be a rational conclusion that they have no other choice but to storm the Capitol because they have exhausted any other means of having their voices listened to. And in spite of the very real disenfranchisement that people of color face in this country, they have never done what these Trump supporters did at the Capitol on January 6th, 2020. For example, when Al Gore and Hillary Clinton lost their Presidential races, with standard voter disenfranchisement in play, and having won the popular vote, there was still a peaceful transfer of power. The legacy of civil rights action in this country teaches us what meaningful dissent looks like—and it is not manufactured claims that news outlets are fixing an election, and it is very much not shitting and pissing all over the floor of the Capitol building.
It is important to note that black and brown communities consistently and methodically resist voter suppression. These communities are the heartbeat of democracy in their constant fight for social justice. The Voting Rights Act, as one example, is a hard won piece of legislation, a fight led predominantly by black Americans. They put the hard work in, day after day, year after year, passing the baton to new generations of civil rights workers. But white supremacists, having adopted the language and the outrage of oppression and resistance, still know nothing of the work and legacy of civil rights. They are failures at even a verisimilitude; they can merely purloin the narrative. Trump supporters covet righteousness, and they play at it like petulant children who are used to never being told “no.”
While the rhetoric of the unheard by Trump supporters is an appropriation of the oppression and resistance of people of color, all of their fantastical imaginings of oppression will not qualify them as a protected class—because they do not suffer systemic inequities. Nevertheless, while they do not actually experience voter suppression, the mere thought that they do, planted in their minds by a fascist President, sends them into a frenzy of anarchy. It is telling that these self-proclaimed stewards of democracy have never before stormed the gates of the Capitol on behalf of people of color or the LGBTQ community. These people are entitled, grossly misinformed, willfully ignorant, drunk on false narratives of oppression, and emboldened by their white supremacy and their white supremacist President.
Because white supremacy is not actually targeted by political oppression, white supremacists do not know what it means to resist, for generations, with a just cause, which is why they also do not understand that their actions are unrecognizable as methods of resistance used by people who truly fight for social justice. To suggest that they have been so unheard and have nothing left at their disposal but to storm the Capitol, break windows, abuse Capitol police, fly the Confederate flag, urinate and defecate in the halls, and plan violence against members of Congress, displays their monumental lack of understanding of legitimate narratives of oppression and resistance.
Indeed, any protest has the potential to lead to rioting and looting, but the storming of the Capitol was not the culmination of generations of frustration because sit-ins, boycotts, freedom rides, taking a knee, and peaceful protests were consistently met with police brutality and lack of protective legislation. The actions at the Capitol were chaotic, petulant, and impulsive–driven by violence and destruction without the grounding of historical oppression and a social justice philosophy and agenda. In comparison, Black Lives Matter activists targeted the Robert E. Lee Statue in Richmond, Virginia because it stood, specifically, for slavery and racial inequality. It is a monument to slave patrols, the ancestor of modern day police brutality. Defacing the statue was a nonviolent way to express the hurt and frustration of government monuments that continue to uphold racist legacies, for generations–legacies that continue to literally put white supremacy on a pedestal. And let us remind ourselves that no BLM protester has ever brought a noose to a protest. It is horrifying to think what these terrorists would have done had they gotten their hands on Nancy Pelosi. And if history and recent current events are any measure, BLM activists ransacking of the Capitol with weapons would have ended in dozens of dead black people and hundreds of arrests.
That white supremacists were not met with the kind of resistance that peaceful BLM protestors or peaceful Standing Rock water protectors have been met with clearly underscores that they are not living a narrative of resistance—who exactly is resisting them in their narrative of heroic dissent? Narratives of resistance require a foe, and notwithstanding the valiant Capitol police who stood their ground and risked their lives to keep the insurgents out, these terrorists were practically handed the keys to the kingdom.One of the most confounding issues regarding the lack of proper security during the onslaught at the Capitol is that white supremacist groups publicly planned the insurrection online. These groups are closely monitored and considered by the Department of Homeland Security to be “the biggest threat to National Security.”Nevertheless, the Pentagon refused to send out the National Guard, even though Mayor Muriel Bowser of the District of Columbia requested them in advance of the siege. Had BLM activists publicly prepared and boasted about laying siege to the Capitol building the city would have been under a blanket of police and military presence—as it was when peaceful BLM protesters filled this city and were horrifically and without justification abused by police and National Guard. Further, black Capitol police officers were particularly endangered during the siege on the Capitol building; one police officer “described a harrowing day in which they were forced to endure racist abuse — including repeatedly being called the n-word — as they tried to do their job of protecting the Capitol building, and by extension the very functioning of American democracy.”  He also explained that his Deputy Chief was not on sight and that the Chief was not on the radio. They were left alone to deal with the mob. And as if that weren’t enough, one officer “described coming face-to-face with police officers from across the country in the mob. He said some of them flashed their badges, telling him to let them through, and trying to explain that this was all part of a movement that was supposed to help.” That police officers would join this insurrection and put in danger the lives of other officers is disturbing evidence that Trump’s rhetoric has successfully infiltrated and recruited law enforcement so completely that some would commit horrific criminal acts in his name.
Much has already been said and written about the stunning differences between how BLM protesters and Trump supporters have been treated in this city, and rightly so. In one infamous action, Trump directed the National Guard to beat, gas and shoot peaceful protestors in Lafayette Square so that he could walk through the park and hold up a Bible for a photo op in front of a church. The world looked on, horrified. The contrast of watching domestic terrorists storm the Capitol building with Congress inside with no National Guard in sight is sickening and instructive as to the privilege that white people have in this country. Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan reported that he had been informed that Congressional leaders were pleading with him to send the Guard and that he requested permission from the Secretary of Defense to send National Guard to the Capitol. Because D.C. is not a state, Mayor Bowser does not have the authority to deploy National Guard troops and must rely on the President and Secretary of Defense, or other states to send help. Governor Hogan reports that he was repeatedly denied his request to send reinforcements, but after ninety minutes, he finally received authorization to send troops, and he did so. This shocking inaction of the federal government to protect members of Congress and the Capitol building did not just allow these terrorists to lay siege to the building, but also, it protected them. This inaction protected the majority of them from arrest, from being gassed, from being beaten back, or from being shot all while they were committing domestic terrorism that could potentially wipe out an entire branch of government. The word “privilege” to describe the allowances for these terrorists does not accurately convey how meaningful and disturbing this inaction was. Certainly, “oppressed” would not be an appropriate adjective. In this instance, failure to act clearly amounts to collusion—premeditated or not. Perhaps “Terrorist Docent” will be a new job at the Capitol in the near future—and they can hang a sign up sheet: “Whites Only.”
The Capitol building, under siege by white supremacist terrorists, ironically, is not a building that represents the oppression of white supremacists, or the oppression of white people at all for that matter. In fact, a statue of Robert E. Lee, a symbol of slavery and treason, stood on a podium in the Capitol until December of this past year. The Capitol building is full of paintings and statues of people who participated in slavery, genocide, and oppression of women and people of color. Sure, there are a few others in there like Rosa Parks and Chief Standing Bear, but they are exceptions, not the rule. Of course, our government is changing; we have a more diverse Congress than ever before, and we have more diverse political appointments coming with the Biden Presidency. But we should make no mistake—the Capitol building is, in it’s own right, a monument to white supremacy. The irony of white supremacists ransacking a building that has historically upheld white privilege is clearly lost on them. Of course, that legacy of white privilege is chipped away at year after year as people like Shirley Chisholm, John Lewis, Deb Haaland, Tammy Baldwin, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cotez, and so many change makers walk those halls, make good trouble, and forge a new path for this country. We can recognize that Congress is an organic, evolving thing, and we can also acknowledge that for generations it was a legislative body that passed legislation such as the Fugitive Slave Law. These things can be true at the same time. The terrorists who descended upon the Capitol building this past week to defaced it, to defecate and urinate in the halls, did so not because they have a deep understanding of the legacy of the Capitol building or of systemic oppression and resistance, but rather, simply, because enough people in Congress would not let their leader maintain power, and they do not like being told “no.”
White supremacists look at other groups gaining the same freedoms they enjoy, and they feel it as a loss. Of course, no one is taking away the freedoms of white people. For every person of color who votes, a ballot is not taken away from a white person. But that is the lens through which Trump supporters view the 2020 Presidential election. They are deeply invested in the narrative that they have been victims of voter suppression because they feel so desperately entitled to power, and they need a way to formulate an argument for holding onto their privilege. And so they appropriate the narrative of oppression not because it is true, but because it is a means to an end that also undermines truthful narratives of oppression.
One of the other ironies here is that President-elect Joe Biden is not even a liberal—he is a moderate, even conservative in many ways. And he is a white man. But he is dethroning the white supremacist King, and Biden comes with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, a woman who is Indian, Jamaican, and African American. It should also be noted that when Senator John McCain ran against Barack Obama in 2008, McCain acknowledged his loss, and there was a peaceful transfer of power from George Bush to Barack Obama, the first African American President. What was missing at that time was the level of heightened rhetoric of oppression and resistance that Trump wields. Some of this rhetoric was certainly in play, particularly racist rhetoric and bizarre fear mongering about imagined death panels, but the frenzy that Trump has recently whipped up in his rhetoric about illegitimate elections and republican voter suppression was then absent. The power of appropriating a narrative of oppression and resistance is massive—it has confused and galvanized millions of people who, because of these erroneous beliefs, now mistakenly understand themselves to be oppressed and have even less of an ability to understand actual oppression and resistance than they did before.
Of course, appropriating a narrative of oppression and resistance was not invented by Trump. One need only study the rhetoric of “The War of Northern Aggression,” the argument that the Confederate flag doesn’t actually stand for slavery, or Josephus Daniels’ inflammatory rhetoric to understand how these arguments obfuscate history. And although Trump did not invent these rhetorical strategies, he has successfully weaponized them in order to convince millions of people that a Presidential election was illegitimate.
Currently, the District of Columbia is on high alert, leaving many residents wondering what will happen to their home in the days to come with hundreds of terrorists who stormed the Capitol allowed to roam the city, free from arrest. Federal agencies and police departments will be, for some time, making their way through evidence, claims, interviews, video footage, and speculation. But more violence may be to come. Some of the insurgents walked away from the Capitol building with threats that they would be back, and some planning on social media has already taken place for the weekend of the Presidential inauguration. Mayor Bowser has written a letter to the Department of Homeland Security asking them to change and elevate their protocol for the days leading up to the upcoming Inauguration and for some days following. And while many social media sites are finally silencing Trump’s insurrectionist rhetoric, the genie has most certainly been let out of the bottle.
*If you have family members and/or friends who are misinformed, guided by racism and hate, or willfully ignorant, please take the time to talk to them, share information with them, and challenge their perspectives. On behalf of the residents of the District of Columbia, Congress, and the President-elect and Vice President-elect, please do what you can to help keep our city and our elected officials safe.
Thank you for reading.
Gessner, David. “Trump’s rhetoric about the election channels a dark episode from our past.” Washington Post, 22 October 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/10/22/trumps-rhetoric-about-election-channels-dark-episode-our-past/Accessed 9 January 2020.
Randle, Aaron. “America’s Only Successful Coup d’Etat Overthrew a Biracial Government in 1898.” History. https://www.history.com/news/wilmington-massacre-1898-coup. Accessed 9 January 2020.
Lopez, German. “Donald Trump’s long history of racism, from the 1970s to 2020.” Vox.https://www.vox.com/2016/7/25/12270880/donald-trump-racist-racism-history. Accessed 9 January 2020.
Graham, David, Adrienne Green, Cullen Murphy, and Parker Richards. “An Oral History of Trump’s Bigotry.” The Atlantic. June 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/06/trump-racism-comments/588067/. Accessed 9 January 2020.
Ranson, Jan. “Trump Will Not Apologize for Calling for Death Penalty Over Central Park Five.” The New York Times. 18 June 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/18/nyregion/central-park-five-trump.html. Accessed 9 January 2020.
“Drug dealers, criminals, rapists’: what Trump thinks of Mexicans.” BBC. 31 August 2016. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-37230916. Accessed 9 January 2020.
Savage, Charlie. “Incitement to Riot? What Trump Told Supporters Before Mob Stormed Capitol.” The New York Times. 10 January 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/10/us/trump-speech-riot.html. Accessed 9 January 2020.
This essay is referencing elections and governments after the establishment of the United States government. However, it should be noted that Indigenous Nations had their own forms of government well before the United States was formed. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, as one example, was formed in 1142 and is still in existence today. The Confederacy’s “Great Law of Peace” also greatly influenced the formation of the U.S. Government and Constitution. For the purposes of this essay, I am focusing on the interpretations of U.S. elections, specifically, but it should be understood that the formation of the U.S. system of government was a usurpation of other Nations’ sovereignty.
Mukpo, Ashoka. “Supreme Court Enables Mass Dienfranshcisement of North Dakotas Native Americans.” ACLU. 12 October 2018. https://www.aclu.org/blog/voting-rights/supreme-court-enables-mass-disenfranchisement-north-dakotas-native-americans. Accessed 9 January 2020.
“It’s Official, The Election Was Secure.” Brennan Center for Justice. 11 December 2020. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/its-official-election-was-secure. Accessed 9 January 2020.
The large crowd at the Capitol was comprised of many different groups of people, many who identified with white supremacist groups. There are too many groups to continuously name them, so I will refer to the group at large as white supremacists. A list of the different groups at the Capitol on January 6th, 2020, see here: Somos, Christy. “These are some of the extremist groups responsible for the violence on Capitol Hill. CTV News. 8 January 2021. https://www.ctvnews.ca/world/these-are-some-of-the-extremist-groups-responsible-for-the-violence-on-capitol-hill-1.5259142. Accessed 9 January 2020.
Scott, Mark. “Despite Cries of Censorship, Conservatives Dominate Social Media.” Politico. 26 October 2021. https://www.politico.com/news/2020/10/26/censorship-conservatives-social-media-432643. Accessed 9 January 2020.
Voting Rights Act 1965. https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=100. Accessed 9 January 2020.
There have been allegations that some Capitol Police were working with and/or allowing the insurgents to invade the Capitol building. These claims are still being investigated and evidence is unclear as to what exactly was happening with supposed collaborating police. We do know that even if there were some Capitol Police who allowed or helped the insurgents, that there were many who did not, and they risked their lives, without proper reinforcements, to protect the building and Congressional members. It is important to note that Capitol Police also include people of color.
Jaffe, Logan, Lydia DePillis, Isaac Aarnsdorf, and David McSwane. “Capitol Rioters Planned for Weeks in Plain Sight. The Police Weren’t Ready.” Propublica. 7 January 2021. https://www.propublica.org/article/capitol-rioters-planned-for-weeks-in-plain-sight-the-police-werent-readyAccessed 9 January 2020.
Sonne, Paul, Peter Hermann, and Missy Ryan. “Pentagon placed limits on D.C. Guard ahead of pro-Trump protests due to narrow mission.” The Washington Post. 7 January 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/trump-protests-washington-guard-military/2021/01/07/c5299b56-510e-11eb-b2e8-3339e73d9da2_story.html. Accessed 9 January 2020.
Felton, Emmanuel. “These Black Capitol Police Officers Describe Fighting off “Racist-Ass Terrorists. BuzzFeed News. 10 January 2021. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emmanuelfelton/black-capitol-police-racism-mob?fbclid=IwAR07cXfR4QO7azAx_gqS61vWYXdC9kmdwrTgs81fxuTjFx1bFuZp0srWbUE. Accessed 9 January 2020.
Wainman, Laura. “Gov. Hogan: Leaders of Congress ‘pleaded’ with Maryland to send aid to the Capitol. WKYC Studios. 7 January 2021. https://www.wkyc.com/article/news/local/maryland/national-guard-assistance-requests-denied-capitol-riots/65-e3ad38e5-f574-49d2-bfee-d3f504d7e53f. Accessed 9 January 2020.