When Donald Trump tells his supporters that if he doesn’t get the Republican nomination: “It’s a rigged system; it’s a corrupt system, it’s 100% crooked,” he is resurrecting a theme that created some of America’s darkest hours. Trump is trying to solidify his support by attacking the legitimacy of the political system. While Movement Conservatives since Newt Gingrich have attacked the legitimacy of Democrats in Washington, Trump is going further: delegitimizing the government itself. Americans have been in this place before. In the late nineteenth century, when the nation’s economic and political tensions looked much like today’s, unpopular politicians trying to overcome overwhelming odds did the same thing.
What they wanted was to be elected. But what they got was a wave of vigilante justice.
A century ago, attacks on the legitimacy of the nation’s political system grew from a set of conditions that sound familiar today. A volatile economy bred extremes of wealth and poverty. Industrialists built fabulous mansions on Fifth Avenue and in Newport while parents and their children worked punishing hours for pennies, worried always that the immigrants pouring in the country would take their jobs. What was the government’s role in this chaotic era? Should it protect those Americans suffering in the new economy or defend the businessmen whose industries were fueling unprecedented economic growth?
Americans struggled mightily over this question, but as early as 1871, a self-defined “middle class” began to draw some important ideological lines. Its spokesmen began to accuse the government of being in thrall to what it called “special interests.” They argued that African Americans, poor workers, and immigrants who wanted the government to level the economic playing field were “corrupting” the government. Those groups wanted laws that benefited them distinctly—such as, for example, an eight-hour workday-- rather than benefiting everyone, and they voted only for politicians who would deliver such special legislation. Middle-class Americans began to argue that these interest groups were corrupting the government for, if government were operating properly, it would treat everyone equally. They insisted that government should work for the hardworking man who asked for no favors rather than privileging any special interest group.
The idea that the government had been hijacked by a special interest was an easy rallying cry for politicians who opposed the party in power. Their opponents’ government, they insisted, was corrupt; it was catering to a special interest group in a cynical bargain to get enough votes to override the true will of the people. Politicians from all parties used the argument at different times. It became the central argument of both major parties in the presidential election of 1876, a crisis in which each party claimed victory based on the other’s corruption, and which almost led to a second civil war. By 1880, people had lost their faith in the political system.
In April 1884, a bloody riot in Cincinnati, Ohio, showed just how dangerous this breakdown of faith in the legitimacy of government could be. When a judge sentenced a man convicted of murdering his boss not to death by hanging but rather to twenty years in jail, 8,000 of the city’s residents gathered to protest. There was no longer justice in Cincinnati, they howled. Local government was coddling criminals because officials wanted the votes of the city’s lower-class voters. The protesters poured into the streets, killing 56 of their fellow citizens, injuring 200 more, and attacking symbols of government authority: the jail, police, and the few militiamen who dared to fire on them. During the three-day riot, they burned the $700,000 courthouse to the ground. What drove them, one newspaper explained, was that “intelligent citizens” had given control of the government to “venal politicians.”
Soon after, the desire to retake control of the government from corrupt politicians who let criminals walk inspired the actions of the aptly named “Judge Lynch” in the American West. In the early 1890s, when entrepreneurs moved cattle onto the federal lands that big cattlemen thought of as theirs, cattle growers insisted that the interlopers were rustlers and thieves. When local governments refused to convict the men without evidence, the large cattlemen formed private associations to clean them out. Novelist Owen Wister explained the logic in The Virginian, a novel he dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt, who had ridden with such an organization. “The law has been letting our cattle-thieves go for two years,” a judge in the book tells an observer horrified by a lynching. “The courts, or rather the juries, into whose hands we have put the law, are not dealing with the law…. And so when your ordinary citizen sees this… he must take justice back into his own hands.” He concluded, “Far from being a defiance of the law,” lynching “is an assertion of it.”
The drive to mete out justice when local governments apparently wouldn’t quickly became an argument for overriding popularly elected local leaders. On such grounds, organizers justified a violent coup against the government of Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898. A coalition of poor black and white voters had elected their candidates to office in 1896. Furious, men calling themselves “the reputable, taxpaying, substantial men of the city,” insisted that they must take back the fairly elected government from the “thriftless, improvident” black men who held office. They organized a citizens’ council, killed ten black neighbors, and forced all the coalition politicians to resign. They described this coup as the “reform” of government by Wilmington’s leading citizens.
From overturning governments elected by the wrong voters, it was a terrifyingly short step to purging those voters from society in the first place. The argument that black men raped white women grew directly out of the idea that black voting corrupted society. Black voting led to black men holding political office. In the late nineteenth century, local officials distributed political jobs based on an applicant’s ability to deliver votes to the political leader who hired him. But women could not vote. So, in order to secure a job as a schoolteacher or a clerical worker, a white girl would have to use a different inducement. The argument that white women would have to offer sexual favors to black officeholders in order to secure jobs fit easily into the traditional image of black man as bestial. After 1890, southern state constitutions excluded most black men from the polls. But cleaning up governments did not stop there. A new wave of lynching took off after 1890 as white people got rid of thousands of African Americans and others they insisted were corrupting society. Crucially, while lynching in previous eras had been done under cover in dead of night, after 1890 it was a public spectacle. The “better classes” were proud to be weeding “undesirables” from America.
Eventually, in the early twentieth century, popular distrust of the nation’s political system inspired reporters to investigate it. They exposed the system as corrupt, but proved that the corruption came not from those at the bottom of the system demanding favors. Rather, those at the top had repeatedly attacked the legitimacy of the political system in order to rig it in their own favor. That exposure helped to usher in the Progressive Era, which, in turn, restored popular faith in the American government. But the return of confidence in the American system was too late for those thousands of Americans who paid for the earlier political rhetoric with their lives.
The rules of the Republican National Convention are not part of America’s legal system. They are subject to change. Even after Trump’s victory in the Indiana primary, and the departures of Ted Cruz and John Kasich, party leaders could still search for a way to deny him the nomination. But Trump continually fudges this reality to insist that the Republican primaries are part of the national political system and that, as the clear popular winner in the primaries, he must win or the whole system is “rigged.” This is the same theme unpopular politicians in the past used to get their way: he is delegitimizing the political system itself. Now, as then, Trump’s strategy has the potential to be deadly. It encourages his supporters to believe that, if he doesn’t win first the nomination and then the presidency, the system is corrupt and they must take it back for real Americans.
Trump sees what’s coming. If he doesn’t get the nomination, he says, “I think you’d have riots. I think you’d have riots. I’m representing a tremendous, many, many millions of people…. I think you would have problems like you’ve never seen before.”
He’s wrong on one count. We have seen it before.