In America we tend to have a view of our politics as exceptional — and specifically, impervious to authoritarian takeover. We think of ourselves as the democratic shining city on a hill (even Reaganites!) that will act as a beacon to other nations, steadily rolling back despotism and dictatorship around the world.
It hasn’t quite happened that way — and indeed, we’ve proven quite volatile here at home over the question of small “d” democratic vs. authoritarian rule. We have had authoritarian presidents in our history: Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, John Adams, George W. Bush, Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, Donald Trump, etc. We’ve had authoritarian social movements like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), neo-Nazis, Christian Identity, Army of God, “Patriot” movement, white power, militia movements and others who did not subscribe to the idea of refraining from the use of political violence to “solve” problems.
In reality, we’ve long had a dance between democratic ideals and reactionary authoritarianism in the United States since our founding, and even before. We don’t seem to collectively know this history quite well enough though, it seems — because it still always feels surprising. There was collective shock at the advent of Trump, even though in many ways he was simply the apotheosis of a right-wing sprint to the Dark Side that began as a backlash to the peace, love, and dope of the 1960s. The events of the January 6 coup attempt certainly caught a lot of people by surprise.
Here’s a lookback at the interplay of these two major thematic arcs in America history. This timeline is a work in progress that will grow over time.
|1776||Declaration of Independence||Named as the founding philosophy of America the notions that 1) "All men are created equal" and 2) A government's authority comes from the consent of the people.|
|1778||VA ends slavery||Governor Thomas Jefferson ends the slave trade in Virginia, the first state to do so.|
|1794||Slave Trade Act||Congressional bill prohibiting the building or outfitting of slave ships in the US|
|1850||Fugitive Slave Act|
|1856||The caning of Charles Sumner||House Representative Preston Brooks attacked Senator Sumner on the floor of the Senate after he gave a fiery speech against slavery, beating him almost to death while Congress looked on.|
|1858||The Lincoln-Douglas Debates||Also known as The Great Debates of 1858, the Senatorial matchup pitted Abraham Lincoln against incumbent Stephen Douglas and prominently concerned the topic of slavery.|
|1859||Harper's Ferry Massacre||Abolitionist John Brown leads a raid on Harper's Ferry to get weapons to arm slaves and resist slavery.|
|1860||Abraham Lincoln elected|
|1861||Civil War begins|
|1865||Abraham Lincoln assassinated|
|1865||VP Andrew Johnson becomes president||Lincoln's Democratic Party VP assumes the presidency after his assassination, and proceeds to undo many of the gains made by the northern Republicans to establish a free labor economy in the south and across America.|
|1865||Civil War ends|
|1873||The Colfax Massacre||Republicans had just narrowly won the state of Louisiana in the 1872 election, but the Democrats contested the results and killed African-Americans to reinforce antebellum ideas of white supremacy.|
|1882||Chinese Exclusion Act|
|1885||Rock Springs Massacre, WY|
|1887||Tacoma, WA burning of Chinatown||The town's mayor led the charge in the burning of Chinatown, during the height of anti-Chinese laborer hysteria|
|1919||The Palmer Raids|
|1921||Tulsa Race Massacre||A white mob started attacking the African-American community in Tulsa known as Black Wall Street, destroying more than 35 blocks of the district, leaving 10,000 people homeless and 300 dead in the nation's wealthiest black neighborhood.|
|1924||Immigration Act||Congressional bill sponsored by Representative Albert Johnson intending to exclude non-whites from immigration to the US|
|1933||The New Deal|
|1939-1945||World War II|
|1950||Joe McCarthy begins hunting Communists||Senator Joseph McCarthy presented his first list of supposed Communist sympathisizers and spies working within the US government|
|1958||John Birch Society founded||Ultraconservative anti-communist group considered so extreme it was excommunicated from the Republican Party by William F. Buckley.|
|1964||Barry Goldwater wins the Republican nomination||Goldwater's 1964 candidacy is widely credited for reigniting the conservative movement|
|1971||The Powell Memo|
|1974||Richard Nixon resigns|
|1980||Election of Ronald Reagan|
|1994-1998||Newt Gingrich is Speaker of the House|
|2000||The hotly contested Al Gore vs. George W. Bush presidential contest ends the hanging chad debates with SCOTUS unceremoniously ordering Florida to "Stop the Count," effectively handing the presidency to Bush.|
|2001||September 11 attacks kick off the War on Terror|
|2008-2016||Barack Obama presidency|
|2009||Tea Party movement|
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