In 2016 we witnessed the cleverest seduction of an American socio-economic group since 1861. That’s when the southern plantation owners convinced the southern small farmers and wage earners to march off to defend slavery, an institution in which they had very little personal stake.
Today some unreconstructed rebels still insist the South was defending states’ rights, a far more respectable cause than chattel slavery. But none of the secession declaration documents of the eleven Confederate states mentioned state’s rights as a reason for leaving the Union. They cited the North’s refusal to recognize the South’s constitutional right to own slaves, their refusal to return runaway slaves and their refusal to allow slaves to be transported across free states into the Federal territories. But they made no mention of states’ rights. One Alabama politician even claimed Lincoln’s election was an open declaration of war against the South. But why did the southern subsistence farmers, wage earners and small business owners march off to defend a hastily-created nation pledged to preserve a type of property few of them possessed?
What most all southerners resented was Lincoln’s opposition to the spread of slavery into the territories. As free territories attained statehood the South saw their long-held control of Congress and the federal courts eroding. We must also remember that of our first seven presidents, five were slave-owners and the Supreme Court had a seemingly perpetual southern bias.
Rank-and-file southerners were also warned by the plantation aristocracy that the emancipation of slaves could threaten their very livelihoods and the preservation and integrity of their way of life. One South Carolina Presbyterian minister warned his congregation the northern seminaries were already ordaining ministers to come south and marry their daughters to newly-freed black men.
“The battle lines are clearly drawn,” he told them. “The Christians against the atheists.” A stable southern culture that offered security and certainty, albeit based on human bondage, feared being uprooted by radical change. And 158 years later that’s also how Donald Trump seduced the American blue-collar working class, a constituency that has normally voted Democratic, into cutting their own economic throats and voting Republican in 2016. He shrewdly played the race/fear card.
Knowing he already had the southern white evangelical vote locked up, Trump convinced the blue-collar working people in the Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin that their jobs were threatened by illegal immigrants the Democrats were supposedly allowing to freely cross our southern borders. Not only were they taking jobs, they were also increasing the violent crime rates for armed robbery, assault, rape and murder. But Trump made no effort to support these accusations with factual data of any kind although it was readily available. According to current FBI statistics Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal, commit crimes at only about half the rate of our home-grown perpetrators. And the harsh truth is that most low-skill jobs are lost to automation, not to immigrants.
Politicians’ extravagant claims can be easily checked by anyone having a computer or access to one. It’s not that hard. But the Trump supporters rejoin “Don’t confuse me with the facts. Can’t you see my mind is already made up?”