The spectacle of five Louisiana Republicans refusing to accept legitimately cast ballots in a presidential election on Jan. 6, after a violent Trump mob trashed the U.S. Capitol, is a stark reminder of history. It’s instructive that Trump’s Republican defenders invoked the election of 1876 as a precedent for their efforts to overturn the election of 2020. Electoral violence and accusations of fraud in 1876 succeeded in muddying the waters enough to necessitate a “corrupt bargain,” the Compromise of 1877. The bargain hinged on leaving black southerners at the mercy of state leaders who proceeded to cut them completely out of the citizen’s community of the United States, in clear violation of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which extended citizenship and voting rights to formerly enslaved African-Americans.
The outcome of the latest attack on democracy from white supremacist conservatives is nowhere near as decisive, but the symbolism resonates. It’s a reminder that the key historical lesson of Trumpism is that the project of Reconstruction was never completed. Just as majority black counties and parishes needed to disenfranchise voters to ensure the continuity of minority rule in the 19th Century South, the Republicans of our time hung their hopes on throwing out ballots to continue the minority rule of the past four years.
We’ve always known that Donald J. Trump never won the majority of votes, not even in 2016, and that the Republican Senate majority of the Trump years represented a smaller number of Americans than the opposition party did. Yet the refusal of Trump conservatives to accept his electoral college loss — in addition to an even larger loss of the popular vote than in 2016 — shows that today’s brand of conservatism cannot survive if everyone’s vote is allowed to count.
I wish I could say that my home state contributed to a rebirth of democracy in 2020, but the opposite is true. It fell to another former Confederate and Jim Crow state — Georgia — to topple the Trump occupation of the people’s government. Republican leaders in Louisiana, including Attorney General Jeff Landry, Sen. John Kennedy, and Congressman Steve Scalise, were on the opposite side, committed to overturning a free and fair presidential election by throwing out millions of votes from at least four states, including Georgia.
New Orleans overwhelmingly supported the legal winner of the presidential contest and voted with the majority of Americans. But Louisiana Republican leaders went beyond the usual disenfranchisement of millions of voters enabled by the electoral college. Like their Confederate and Jim Crow ideological ancestors, they proved willing to ditch the constitution and democracy itself to achieve the aims of their arrogant, entitled minority. We need to shout from the levee tops that we deplore the attack on democracy perpetrated by every Louisiana Republican in Washington, except Senator Bill Cassidy.
Article I, section 5 of the U.S. Constitution stipulates that “Each House (of Congress) … may punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two thirds, expel a member.” Congress should expel these seditious embarrassments to our state, just as it expelled 17 members in 1861-62 for supporting the Confederate rebellion. Censure, in lieu of expulsion, would be a compromise. But a free citizenry cannot allow its government officials to refuse the legitimacy of a democratic election process and face no sanction at all. Other leaders of the Republican effort to sabotage the election result are facing blowback, including calls for censure. The Louisiana Republicans who joined in this attack on democracy need to be held accountable, too.
New Orleanians are already finding ways to express their disapproval at the efforts of Louisiana conservatives to invalidate a democratic election. Many are boycotting a supermarket chain beloved by most of us for bringing quality affordable groceries back on a large scale in the years after Hurricane Katrina. Donald Rouse, Sr., the patriarch of the Rouse’s supermarket family, proudly posted photos of his participation in the demonstration that quickly devolved into a violent attack on one of the three co-equal branches of the U.S. government. When news broke of the elder Rouse’s presence at that shameful event, New Orleanians reacted with the appropriate degree of outrage and called for a boycott. It hurts me to heed my conscience and not shop at Rouses. I love that store! But the attack on fundamental principles of democracy posed by the Trump movement requires at least that modicum of sacrifice on my part.
One of the first to sever business ties with Rouses was Feed the Second Line, the Krewe of Red Beans’ operation to put food on the tables of unemployed hospitality workers. The Krewe of Red Beans captain, Devin DeWulf, put the matter succinctly in a January 7, 2021 interview with WWL, “I would not spend a penny with any business that supported an insurrection against the United States government or any business that supports racism or division.”
His wording could also describe what the Confederates did in the 1860s, or what the Crescent City White League did when it briefly overthrew the legally elected government of Louisiana in 1874 — a prelude to the electoral violence that would drive African-Americans from the polls in the bloodbath that ended Reconstruction.
Rouses loves to advertise itself as an authentically “local” option, but their dedication to Louisiana conservatism shows the difference between local New Orleans and the broader “local” of the region. The problem is that these are two irreconcilable versions of “local.”
More than ever, New Orleans is not at home in the state surrounding it. The city distinguished itself in 1868, when, as then capital of Louisiana, it hosted the most racially progressive state constitutional convention of the Reconstruction era. The Compromise of 1877 put an end to the hope of that time and New Orleans remained under white supremacist rule for almost a century. Sadly, the state of Louisiana is still home to many who resent the achievements of the 20th Civil Rights Movement. The good news is that, for decades now, New Orleans has been marching in the opposite direction of an increasingly conservative Louisiana. But this is not a comfortable situation for those of us, like me, who have extensive family ties throughout the region.
I am deeply pained by the rift that has opened up in my own extended family. When my parents joined the ranks of Civil Rights activists in the 1960s, the result was many years of enmity between them and other members of our family. (20th Century Civil Rights activists were branded as communists.) Progressive Southerners — from the scalawags of the Reconstruction era to the Civil Rights activists of my parents’ generation — are well aware that right-wing extremism tears apart families as surely as it takes its toll in blood. That wound has been re-opened by Trump along with the media and political machines aligned with him.
Republican media elites are utterly blind to the toll inflicted by their cynically divisive rhetoric on personal relationships. I don’t like having to view my fellow Louisianians and many conservative family members as the enemy, but Trump has pushed conservatism so far into fascism that the moment calls for principled resistance — however uncomfortable — just as much as it did in the 1860s and 1960s.
It’s becoming clear that the Trump poison will outlive his time in office. Over half of the Republican Party is now openly dedicated to overthrowing democracy, and they’re not socialists, anarchists, or jihadists. Hitler’s pitch was about protecting Germany from communism. Similarly, Congressman Scalise can’t go five minutes without dire warnings of the coming socialist apocalypse. I can’t help but note the great affinity between American anti-socialist rhetoric and the conservative harangues against “Negro rule” during Reconstruction. I guess McCarthyism is one of those things that will Make America Great Again.
I hope the riot of the “deplorables” on January 6 will also put to rest the disingenuous claim of Republican elites that Democrats, or “the media,” are disrespectful of Trump supporters, now that one Capitol police officer was bludgeoned to death and another committed suicide. We have a duty to be as disrespectful of Trump’s violent attempt to overthrow democracy as we are of assaults on democracy in other countries and right here in our own past in the form of Confederate and Jim Crow authoritarianism.
Fake populists like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz refuse to recognize the emotional anguish their hateful rhetoric against “libs” wreaks on the ground in ideologically mixed communities. Hardly any Trump supporters actually reside in New Orleans, but they work here and own property here, so they’re impossible to ignore. The so-called populists promote a false vision of hermetically sealed liberal “bubbles,” an illusion no one who lives in the South could possibly buy into.
It should be obvious, after January 6, that the Trump flag is the latest iteration of the Confederate flag and Nazi swastika, a symbol advocating the overthrow of democracy in the name of racist authoritarianism. This is why it’s so hard for people of conscience to simply forgive and forget the Trump movement’s revival of the most repulsive aspects of the American political tradition.
The only way white Southerners can seek to atone for the crimes of their ancestors is by emulating the post-World War II Federal Republic of Germany: we need to be the most vigilant of all Americans in calling out the authoritarian impulses of the American right. This is why it is incumbent upon New Orleanians to make our disdain for the Louisiana GOP’s aiding and abetting of the Trump coup attempt heard loudly and clearly. The loud, moneyed, entitled minority lost their bid to overthrow the legally elected government of the people in 2021, but the coup plotters — the state attorney general and five members of Congress — need to be held accountable.
Georgia is 2020’s Southern hero, because New Orleans just isn’t big enough to leverage its influence into a statewide victory, as Atlanta was able to do. Until we begin to contribute, like Georgia, to helping instead of harming the rest of the country, we’re going to have to rely on what Southern political minorities have relied on since the Civil War: the hope that the rest of the country will save us from the repressive political forces that dominate our state.
Southerners weren’t much help after 1876, but the U.S. of A. came through big time almost a hundred years later, during Texas Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. That Southerner signed the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing Act, and a host of other remedies intended to mitigate the damage the South had done to the rest of the country over the previous century. But the Louisiana delegation was not on board, and LBJ had to wrangle votes from other parts of the country.
At least today, we can look to a couple of Georgians to help protect us and the rest of the country from the Louisiana GOP’s assault on democracy. Donald J. Trump is finally slinking away in disgrace, leaving President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to salvage the smoldering wreck left by the most corrupt, authoritarian, incompetent, and unpopular chief executive in American history. But his enablers in the fight to overturn democratic rule need to be reckoned with, too. The neo-Confederate Louisiana conservatives in Congress should be held accountable through the constitutional remedy of expulsion — or, at the very least, censure. New Orleans emerged as a symbolic leader against racist conservatism when we removed our Confederate Monuments a few years ago. We must remain vigilant toward the living political legacies of racist authoritarianism, too.
C.W. Cannon is the author of four novels, all set in his native New Orleans. His next book, ‘I Want Magic: Essays on New Orleans, the South, and Race,’ is forthcoming later this year, and includes several essays that originally appeared in The Lens.
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