by Glenn Young
Often President Trump and his style of campaigning and rule are compared to “alien” demagogues and dictatorial rulers and regimes. While there is justification for pointing out these similarities, I think we don’t need to look overseas to understand the Trump approach and its popularity. We just need to look at our own history; especially the history of the American South after the Civil War. There we can clearly find an American model for Trump’s style of campaigning, governance and proposed agenda; this role model was something called the “Redeemers.” If we fail to see the similarities of Trump of now, and the Redeemers of then, we actually fail to see the severe risks his rule presents to the “progressive” America that has been developing, slowly and painfully over the past century.
The term Redeemers is applied to those in our history who wanted a wholesale “deconstruction” of what was called “Reconstruction” (of the Post- Civil War era): Trump and his followers actually seem to want a wholesale deconstruction of so much that has been gained in the area of social justice and equality (as well as science and learning, etc..) While the Redeemers were basically regional (the South) – through Trump, the “Redeemer mentality” threatens to dominate the whole nation.
We, as a nation, have deep divisions on how to understand the place of the Redeemers in American history. People’s feelings about the Redeemers (for those who do remember the term), or the historical era they dominated, are largely based on their social, racial and regional perspective. People tend to think of the Redeemers as either:
The people who “saved the South” after the Civil War, from “carpetbaggers and scallywags” and from rule by governments dominated, by the “ignorant ex-slave,” determined to ruin the honest whites Christians of the South; or
The people who destroyed all efforts to fully integrate the Freedmen (Blacks) of the South into American culture; established Jim Crow, and ruled as repressive racist governments, with the Klan as their terrorist arm. In addition, their policies also condemned generations of poor whites in the South to a lifestyle only slightly better than the newly freed slaves.
While these two options seem to be both extreme views, they really state the only really developed historic ways to views the outcome of the Redeemer era. Our split views on Redeemers fit well into our general national pattern of debate and politics of division.1 As part of our national contradictions, we are still a country who can’t fully agree on what to call the war that took place between 1861 and 65; and again the terms used for this conflict are also mainly based on people’s social, racial and regional perspective. 2
For the most part, for nearly one hundred years, throughout most of the nation, the pro-Redeemer “side” won the propaganda wars; so the first option offered, of them “saving the South” was for many years triumphant. As a result of that win, the efforts of Reconstruction were eventually seen by most (white) Americans as a failure and one filled with corruption; or exactly as the Redeemers wanted Americans to see the post-Civil War efforts around “the Freemen.”
The Redeemers not only won the propaganda wars, they actually achieved their main political goals as well; they wanted and got single-party rule by the white elites, for the benefits of the white elites only. It took nearly a second civil war, during the 1950’s and 60’s to break their monopoly on power. 3 Now the goal of Trump and his group seems similar - a single party rule for the benefit of the white elite.
The parallels between the Redeemers of then and now (Trump) should seem very obvious; including who made up the leadership of the post-Civil War movement, and who makes up the follower of Trump.
As defined on Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redeemers
Redeemers were the southern wing of the Bourbon Democrats, the conservative, pro-business faction in the Democratic Party, who pursued a policy of Redemption, seeking to oust the Radical Republicans, a coalition of freedmen, "carpetbaggers", and "scalawags" (poorer non-slaveholding whites). They generally were led by the rich landowners, businessmen and professionals, and dominated Southern politics in most areas from the 1870s to 1910. 4
Instead of the Radical Republicans being the target of the Redeemers; today it’s the policies of the “liberal (or radical) Democrats;”
We can also see that both Trump and the Redeemers were movements of the very rich. In addition, old and new Redeemers both gained their political power by using overt racism to appeal to the “poor” whites of their times. What is clear is that just as the Post-Civil War Redeemers gained power based in the fears of the poor whites of the possibilities and actualities of the incorporation of Blacks as citizens, Trump won over the descendants of those who “voted” the Redeemers into power, by appealing to the fears of poor whites that today’s immigrants of color may gain citizenship.
The Redeemers and Trump voters were also similar in that they felt they were losing both their “right” to good jobs, and perhaps even more so, their status in society. In both cases these voters saw themselves losing out to two groups of non-whites (ex-slaves of then and immigrants of today).
Besides jobs and status - from the view point of the poor whites of then, they saw these Reconstruction governments using extensive percentage of “their taxes” towards supporting the newly (non-white) freed. The modern supporters of the new Redeemers hate the concept of any of their tax dollars being used for “the “other:” the target used to be supporting “welfare queens” and such – now it is any form of support for “illegals.”
In both cases the people the whites did not want to support were classified as “underserving needy” (which is code for people of color.) 5
As far as social status - “the poor whites “of today, while complaining of their jobs losses, also see the major change in society as they witness the tremendous success of non-whites – including the descendants of their former slaves – as African Americans make major gains in “pop culture” (music, sports, movies, lifestyle). In the last fifty to seventy five years, there have been so many ways in which the poor whites have been losing options and social status to Blacks, and now also to immigrants. They witness this every day as more and more products advertised on television have Black “pitch” men and women – and all too often the white is presented as the “fool” in need of gaining advice from the Black person.
One seldom discussed underpinning white resentment is the loss of one means of success (and increased social statue) that used to be open to poor whites, but now has been mostly eliminated: this was gaining college education through sports scholarships. Before the Civil Rights Era of the 1950’s and 60’s all the major colleges of the South (and actually most of the country) were segregated and all the sports scholarships went to the children of mostly poor whites. Now, the vast majority of these “tickets out of poverty” go to poor Blacks. The resentment over this change, and so many other changes in our society that impacted poor whites should not be underestimated; and creates more reason for support for modern Redeemers.
Another obvious impact on poor whites is the increase in the number of Blacks and other minorities in policing and military. These also used to be the almost exclusive domains of whites for jobs, prestige and a means out of poverty.
In addition, these poor white of today feel threatened on the economic front as the massive wave of “un-white” immigrants gaining control of the “modern jobs” (mainly from India and China); as well as other “un-white” immigrants taking over the “menial jobs” that was one of the economic mainstays of both poor whites and Black.
With all these factors and so many more, this economic and social status crisis felt by poor whites now is similar to the Reconstruction days when the poor whites at first lost their right to vote (if they had served in the Confederate army) were losing their farm land based on new taxes, and looked at the possibility of a world turned completely upside down as their heard of some Reconstructionist’ promises of “40 acres and a mule” to all former slaves.
Clearly the election of a Black man as president was the “final straw” for many of these people. President Obama’s initial election success led to “local “risings” by these scared white voters through the “Tea Party movement” and then to the nationalization of the” fear campaign,” through the Trump candidacy. This again shouts (not just an echo, but a real shout) of the similar reaction of these types of voters back then, when in Reconstruction, Blacks were elected to all kinds of seats of power in the Reconstruction governments. These reactions included local uprisings (by the Klan and other terrorist like groups) and later electoral success leading to control of the Redeemers. Back then simply having a Black judge sentence a white man to prison or death was considered as almost a basis for revolution; having a Black man as Commander in Chief created the same resentment in the descendants of the Reconstruction era whites, if not even more so.
As far as employment goes, there is also a strange continuation between Trump and the Redeemers; the Redeemers of then offered whites jobs that were only of slightly higher status than former slaves (including jobs as the new “overseers” including police and jail staff); or offered them jobs that were often the same status as the former slaves (share cropping). The Redeemers made virtually no effort to increase the wealth of the local whites by use of education to prepare them for the new “modern age.”
In a similar approach, Trump promises to support the white population by “bringing jobs back to America” that are mainly no longer needed (due to technology or changed markets) or jobs in areas of work that would be in direct competition with the low wage countries of the world (steel and textiles). And of course, as the Redeemers actually did, Trump proposes massive increase in the numbers of police, prison jobs, and today, border guards.
Unlike the progressives of both eras, who wanted and still want extensive new education opportunities for all poorer populations, the Redeemers of both ages offered and are offering, dead end solutions that really would not help poor whites (or Blacks) make real economic progress, and limited access to needed education. But the white voters of both times found these Redeemer options “comfortable” because it sounded like a kind of “return to normalcy” (for both jobs and social status) of former times.
The Redeemers of then and now also both demonized the governments which they were fighting against. Then the rhetoric was “a coalition of freedmen, "carpetbaggers", and "scalawags." Today, the language included defining the government as “liberals, media elites, corrupt thieves; the worst people” and a host of code words to attack Blacks, Women, Gays and anyone who is perceived as liberal. Most notably, Trump gained some of his initial political popularity by attacking the very legitimacy of the first Black president by questioning his “Americanness.” The Redeemers overtly claimed that the Reconstruction governments were illegitimate – mainly based on Black participation; Trump only implied it.
We can see additional parallels in how the Redeemers and Trump attacked what appear to be positive elements of society and again attempted to demonize them. An example of the “obvious good,” attacked then was how the Redeemers sharply criticized the Quaker systems of schools developed for former slaves and their children; these efforts at Freeman education were chastised as “outsiders interfering with the Southern way of life.” Now, modern Redeemers attack an “obvious good” such as Planned Parenthood, by saying they are “baby killers” and, of all things, attempting to commit “genocide on the African American race” (through providing them birth control!)
From the “progressive” view of history, the Redeemers wanted to make the South almost the same as it was before the “Civil War,” with virtual slavery for Blacks (freedom in name only) and keeping poor white in economic peonage. To maintain their concept of what a “redeemed” South should be, they limiting access to education, health care, transportation, social and political justice, and on and on for both poor Blacks and whites alike. In addition, over their time in power, the Redeemers were violently anti-Unionism, anti- women’s rights, anti- civil rights, anti-immigrant, anti-Jewish, and even anti-Catholic. They ran a model “Apartheid” society for nearly 100 years, supported and allowed by Federal courts and a seemingly disinterested national government. 6
It is clear that Trump and his modern Redeemers have much of the same general goals and persona of this American political tradition. Their first major legislative action was designed to eliminate health care coverage for nearly 24 million Americans and to provide the very rich with massive tax cuts. Ironically, the proposal would have hurt poor whites, especially older poor whites, or the foundation of Trumps support, the most. But then again, the Redeemers of the Post Reconstruction era did very little to help the poor whites, so again this approach to health care fits well into the Redeemer concepts of rule.
Also fitting into the Redeemer model, these modern Redeemers show many of the same overt prejudices (violently anti-Unionism etc. - the same as listed above). They support state and national level “right to work” laws that will destroy the power of unions, they seek to defund Planned Parenthood, restrict voting, turn back the clock on the status of Gays in American, and of course, limit the increase in the non-White population of the United States. 7
Even the new and old Redeemers’ “global rhetoric” is similar. The modern GOP (or at least the Trump wing), wants to “Make America Great” again. This slogan can be interpreted in many ways; one of the dominant ones is the concept of trying to return America to “the 1950’s – when whites were dominant and segregation the law of the land in the South – and in many other places in the country. Trump mythology is this time or repression and overt racism is when “America was great.”
In part, the concept of “greatness” of the new and old Redeemers was and is based in the “dream” of recreating an American economy that was, or is, virtually without world competition. Of course, that was something that couldn’t happen past 1865; and will not happen again, no matter what the Redeemers hoped or Trump attempts to sell.8 The effort of the Redeemers to keep the Southern economy based in cotton produced nothing but economic stagnation; time will tell if the Trump “dream” is enacted, if it will also result in national (rather than just a regional) stagnation.
One more similarity can be seen in the Redeemers’ and Trump’s “use of fear – against the “other.” Once in power, they used that fear to create a legal permanent underclass in their area of rule - which meant for Blacks, limited access to advanced education, economic opportunity or even the vote for those placed in this sub-citizen world (or the Jim Crow South). Today, thanks to the Civil Rights movement and so much more, at least in this area the propaganda war has a different outcome. Now in retrospect, this regime of rule of the Redeemers is considered by most Americans, as something of great shame in American history.
However, these “modern Redeemers” want to set up a similar situation for mainly non-white immigrant populations, by refusing to allow for a path to citizenship for these “illegal” people; thus keeping them as a permanent, powerless underclass; without political power through the vote or other legal powers such as unionization or simple being part of a jury. Jim Crow created the permanent underclass; the GOP/modern Redeemers agenda on immigration does the very same thing. Both creations – no matter how Redeemers want to spin the issues – are based in overt racism.
This takes us to one more of similarities between then and now - the use of “power” to “keep them in their place.” Back then, if under the Redeemer rule, any member of the “colored underclass” - the former slave, or their descendant - who tried to achieve their rights or even acquire too much wealth, would be attacked by the Klan and alike (These groups acted without any fear of punishment for the action, since in fact they were part of the Redeemer movement). This “weapon of the Redeemers” resulted in Blacks being intimidated, beaten and many thousands lynched; as well as extensive amount of property damage of Black individuals and communities (Church burnings, etc.) It is clear, from a modern perspective, that the Klan and such where the simply the “terrorist arm of the Redeemers.”
Today, the new “colored underclass” has to fear the immigration police – or as they are known the “ICE man (who does cometh!) – Trump’s new policy designed to increase deportations, including splitting up established families, etc.) is sending much fear into the immigrant communities, with the direct aim of restricting their campaigning for their fuller participation in our society. While the Klan was the unofficial terror wing of the Redeemers, ICE is serving as an official terror wing of the new Redeemers.
Under Trump, these raids are conducted (at least in part) with similar intent, as the early Black codes were used against former slaves (before Jim Crow could be fully engaged) – The message to the immigrants is the same as to the former slaves - “stay in your place” - don’t fight for rights, or you will be attacked.9
Trump has also called for mass deportation and other steps to never allow this population to become incorporated as citizens, and to maintain a constant sense of fear in their communities of being outside of being “American.” The old cry of the white Racist of “Go back to Africa” is again being copied today; Increasingly the immigrants of today are being yelled at - Go back to … (based on the perceived origin of the person - which in many cases the white racist is wrong in their proposed destination)
Of course, the process of the Redeemers in the Post-Civil War era was not always quick and the Redeemers had some limitations in how they could institute their “reactionary reforms.” Having Federal troops in the South for a decade slowed the process (but by no means stopped the progress) of the Redeemers towards power. The momentum picked up greatly after the troops were finally withdrawn – as part of the settlement of the disputed 1876 presidential election), but even then, it still took some fifteen to twenty years before all the pieces of Jim Crow was completely developed and legalized (from about 1870 to 1890), and all but made the 13, 14, and 15 Amendments (as well as many others) mute in the states they ruled.
Trumps effort to strip so many of health care, putting the Department of Education in change of someone opposed to traditional public education, and attacking “voter fraud” and so many other steps, needs to be seen as part of this slow process of “Redeemer” governance, on a national scale. The “progressives” still have some means of slowing down the process – but if voting restrictions grow and gerrymandering continues, slowing of the process may be all that can be done.
These modern redeemers know the process can be slow – but they have a long term outlook; these efforts can really be traced by to when Newt Gingrich started his “revolution” some 25 years ago, and with none other than Steve Bannon laying out a “fifty year” timetable for the completion of this deconstruction process. Therefore, Trump’s agenda is seen by these people as just a part of the process – with some victories and some defeats but moving forward with the goal of the de-construction of “progressive America.” Just as the old Redeemers wanted to purge the South of all elements of Reconstruction; there is a process in place by which these new Redeemers want to purge the whole nation of things that remain from the “War on Poverty and legislation created in response to the Civil Rights Era.”10 This would make America “great again” for those who want a return to a racist and sexist society where opportunities are limited and women, Blacks and even poor whites “now their place, and stay there.”
What we must remember – no matter how much our history has been sanitized over time, or glorified by the “winners” – the rule of the Redeemers was America at its worst. They created a virtual reign of terror in the states they controlled. In addition they stopped any efforts to change their world (even such obvious things as an anti-lynching law was killed in a Congress dominated by Redeemer senators and congressmen.) The result was that for almost 100 years the Redeemer South was left alone by a feckless central government too afraid to start a “second Civil War” and a general population who bought into the Redeemers propaganda on Blacks.
As a result, we had one hundred years of The Black Codes, white only primaries, the Grandfather Clause, Literacy Tests, “separate but equal” and so much more of the Redeemers political and philosophical creations. Plus of course we had perhaps the most successful state sponsored terrorist groups in the world (the Klan, et. al.); other than those found in an overt totalitarian state.
Unfortunately, in the frightened reaction of the descendants of the poor whites who put the Redeemers into power to the first Black president, many have chosen to forget the name Redeemers, and this mentality of racism and lack of freedom that was the hallmark of their rule. This current political atmosphere has led to deconstruction the memory of the Redeemers as being tyrannical rules. With Trump, the propaganda war is swinging again; as the poor white are once again either “glorified” or “manipulated” as a means for the superrich to gain political power.
As a result of this appeal to white fears, we now have what can be called an overt “Redeemer” president, who has mainly a “redeemer” leaning Congress, who will be appointing judges on all levels for years. Maybe, we are really seeing not “America Great Again,” but the South (or all the worse elements of the Redeemer South) fully risen again, and this time on a national scale. Therefore, as stated in the opening, what Trump represents, is not foreign Fascism or extreme nationalism, but the nationalization of the worst of American traditions; the Reconstruction Era Redeemer mentality and agenda.
This essay is meant as a means of screaming a warning similar to that of so many of the past have said, in many different ways - those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It is so unfortunate to me that few Americans even remember the term Redeemer, nor the horrible impact of their rule. This unawareness of our past prevents so many from seeing the similarities between Trump’s rise and his current rule, to this horrible Redeemer movement in US history. This work is written in hope that more will see Trump for what he is; not a poor imitation of a foreign dictator of a sort; but the revival and therefore continuation of the worst parts of American history – a part we should never return to; and must actively be resisted.
1 It is quite understandable that there is such a wide difference in perspectives about the Redeemers: We are a nation with great contradictions in our history and often look at the political events (as they occur) in binary fashion In the land of “freedom” we allowed slavery; in the land of diversity; we discriminated against each wave of immigrants that came, and “ethnically cleansed much of the Eastern part of the nation of the Native peoples (and so on and so on). Each of these (and so many more) events had people argue the benefits of one view or the other of the debates; and of course demonized the “other side.”
2 Generally, the consensus name that evolved as the “least controversial option” is the “Civil War.” However, in the areas that eventually came to be dominated by the Redeemers, or the states that left the Union, this war continues to be referred to with multiple names, including (but not limited to);
"War Between the States"
The Great Rebellion"
The "War for Southern Independence" or
the "War of Northern Aggression"
3 In fact, with the change in parties alignment and the use of gerrymandering of the whole South – the real break of the monopoly of power only lasted a very short time.
4 I think this definition tends to give a neutral or possible positive interpretation of the Redeemers, when a more “progressive” view of history would see them as a force of repression and terror. In addition, we know, that through both the LBJ signing of the Voting Rights Bill of 1965 (and many other pieces of legislation that were “pro-Black” – and with the Nixon appeal to racism in the 1968 elections, called the “Southern Strategy” – white Southerners “ switched amass to the GOP. Therefore, if we look at Trump and his governing group – we can replace the term “Democrat” from this definition above with “Republican” - we can see the modern GOP led by Trump.
5 We see the first modern wave of this focus on tax issues and race in the resentment of the “tax revolt” in the TEA party movement – with TEA meaning “taxed enough already.”
6 Redeemer rule was the role model used by white South Africans the late 1940’s when they created their Apartheid system of racial division of society.
7 Just as the later Redeemers of the 1920’s – through the efforts of the Klan, successfully created the 1924 immigration bill that basically kept out of America people of color and people of “different religions;” so too does Trump attempt to keep out Muslims through his attempt to ban travel from some Muslim countries (and by implication people of color) as well as a virtual ban on sanctuary for refugees who are mainly non-whites.
8 The Pre-Civil War near monopoly of the South for the world demand for cotton ended with the British Empire creating industrial cotton farming in India and Egypt; and American economic dominance of Post-World War II world was only possible because most of the rest of the world had destroyed itself during the War – hopefully a mistake never to be undertaken again.
9 Where there used to be an “underground railroad” to transport runaway slaves to Canada, today there is a new “underground railroad” working to enable “illegals” at risk of deportation in the United States to get into Canada who has a far more liberal policy concerning “refugee status.”
10 One could argue the aim is also to eliminate what remains of “the “New Deal;” and in environmental issues it seems they want to go back even before the “Square Deal.” The new Redeemers clearly are trying to reverse or legislatively eliminate “Roe,” and even perhaps “Brown,” as they have already all but destroyed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Glenn Young, MPA
Currently Director of Limited Means Productions
Author of No Sense of History, Odd Times in Turkey, and the Ba’al Theory of Christianity