The great myth of the founding of the United States is that everybody wanted to be “free” and to have a democratic republic because they were sick and tired of being taxed by King George. In actuality, there was a lot of disagreement about what an American government might look like, and “states’ rights” became the mechanism for allowing some states to be freer and more democratic than others.
The Deep South owes much to the slave-owning planter culture of Barbados, which was governed and run entirely by rich English oligarchs for rich English oligarchs. Early on, as these men were discovering the cash cows of sugar cane and tobacco, their primary source of labor was white indentured servants and people they essentially kidnapped from Ireland, Scotland, and England. But even stolen white people were expensive, and Africans that you don’t have to pay or even worry about in human terms was so much more attractive. Now, managing a large group of people who really don’t want to be there working for a white guy’s personal enrichment is harder than it looks, so this clever society instituted the Barbados Slave Code of 1661.
The slave codes were nominally there to ensure that slaves were treated all right, and it called for owners to provide one set of clothing per year. On the other hand, the codes also said that Negro slaves — race is specifically called out — did not have the right to life or humane treatment. Since the codes designated them purely as chattel, as property that the slave owner could do with as he liked, it was perfectly okay for slaves to be punished with mutilation, burning, or death by any means the asshole white owner saw fit. The result was a society run by a handful of money-hungry sociopaths who abused practically everyone else who didn’t own land. Naturally, there were slave revolts and uprisings over the years, but the white guys learned how to manage their majority black population with utter cruelty and extreme violence.
The thing about rich white oligarchs is that they give birth to more rich white oligarchs. These sons needed land of their own. So, Barbados culture spread to Jamaica and into the South Carolina region of the U.S. The sons of Barbadian rulers replicated the plantation system and the slave codes on American soil, and it did spread. In places like South Carolina in particular, where whites were hugely outnumbered by blacks, the system for preventing revolt was equally as vicious as it was in Barbados.
The white rulers of these areas were very happy with this arrangement. They made lots of money and lived better than some aristocrats in Europe. They ran the local government and the judicial system. The poorer white farmers in the area bought into their rule and did their job really well, which was to buy into the racial story being sold to them by their rulers. As long as they were better off than the black guy, well, then, they were fine. Democracy, in this sense, wasn’t too threatening to the oligarchs because the only people who could vote were white landowners, and then eventually all white men. As long as their point of view melded with the oligarchs’ point of view, there was nothing to worry about. And if anyone did complain about the state of things, he would get taken out. (See above: rich guys owning the judicial system.)
Losing the Civil War, which really and truly was about slavery, put a dent in things. It was, shall we say, highly inconvenient for the white oligarchs. But authoritarians never stop being authoritarians; they just change tactics. The oligarchs still owned everything of value, down to every last sheriff’s deputy in the land, so they exerted their control through policing and good old-fashioned terror, cheerfully provided by new organizations such as the KKK. Same slave codes, new robes. So to speak.
The power structure continued to be maintained among the white population, who, if they started to wise up, might see that they were shut out of power and wealth just like the black folks were. Chris Ladd’s terrific article, which was removed from Forbes as fast as it was published, describes in great detail how Christian theology was forced to change in this society to support the white nationalist (and oligarchical) vision. In short, if you were a preacher and you wanted to breathe, you would preach their way, and forget all about the stuff Jesus said about helping the poor and meek. No social justice talk in your church, hint, hint. And this has given us the mean-spirited, white nationalist Christian Evangelicalism that we all know and don’t love.
And let’s not forget the Jim Crow laws, which were and are designed to disenfranchise black people and maintain the status quo. (At this point, all people of color are included, of course.) These authoritarian sons of sons of sons of rich white people who stole land, then stole people to work on it so they could get richer were very good at suppression by this point. It was their oeuvre. In fact, they were so darned good at it that the Nazis admired them and their laws. Like attracts like.
The interesting thing about this southern American authoritarian tradition is that is has so completely brainwashed the white population there. How else do you explain giving Trump a pass for, well, everything? Or the firm resolve to vote for a pedophile who thinks an authoritarian Christian state is the right idea? Or that maybe killing a few gays would be justified? For several centuries now, the message has been, “This is your ruling class. This is how it is, how it must be. We will brook no argument.”
So now that we have a fairly new son of an authoritarian (who came late into the game of American tyranny) installed in the highest office, it shouldn’t really surprise anyone. When you plant a lot of seeds, some of them are going to sprout. It’s not like it’s the first time, either. Andrew Jackson, admired by Trump, was one of these slave-owning southern oligarchs, and Andrew Jackson never saw a Native American he wouldn’t like to kill.
Many Americans are rightfully worried about the state of things, but this just another chapter in the same old story. Will white people figure out that their shared interests lie with all oppressed people? Will Evangelicals ever read the red text in their Bibles and start to apply it to the world around them? Will half of mankind ever get over its desire to tell the other half how to live? Will people figure out that corporations are the modern embodiment of the authoritarian oligarchs? Will greed ever die? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I hope. I hope. What I do know is that if it dawns on Americans that we have tolerated far too much authoritarianism in our country already, we might stand a chance.