To My Neighbors in North-East Ohio, Supporters of Yesterday’s Coup Attempt, and Cleveland’s News 5, which Profiled Them, Some Thoughts about 19th-Century History Colliding with the Present Election

On the evening Jan. 6, on News 5 Cleveland, I watched an interview with Tom Zawistowski, Executive Director of the Portage County Tea Party and President of the We The People Convention, the gist of which is reported in this story, although the video I watched in evening is not posted there. Myself also a resident of Portage County, it struck me as remarkably tone-deaf that News 5 would air his words with no context, as Mr. Zawistoski voiced his concerns about “whether we are a nation that can conduct a fair election or not,” and as Tom Hach, of neighboring Cuyahoga County, voiced his concerns that a ” large population believes they are being misrepresented.” I did not see Hach speak on the broadcast, but I noted Zawistowski’s name.

Why have these North East Ohio Tea Party Republicans gotten so concerned about vote counting far away, in other states? And why do they believe, apparently, that the local results were valid? During the election, Donald Trump performed well in this region, Ohio’s Electoral College votes went to him, and Republicans were elected on virtually the entire slate on my local ballot (save one or two), including the sheriff who ran as a Republican, his slogan “Make Portage Great Again.” The Ohio State Senate candidate Betsy Radar, whom I supported, was pummeled by online ads portraying her as a wild-eyed radical. But the streaming in of local election results were a disconcerting moment for me in my university-adjoined neighborhood, for about a third of homes in the 7-10 neighboring blocks around me had signs for Biden-Harris, outnumbering Trump-Pence signs around 10 to 1. It felt to me that I was the one “being misrepresented” by the election results in Portage County.

But the results were the results. Facing facts, but with no good local polling on which to rely, I suggest a few possible explanations. On the local state race, Radar candidacy, the difference of perception is that in surrounding neighborhood blocks most people likely are Democrats and a few miles away people are often Republicans. Maybe it’s because I’m next to a university, where I work, and they live in other parts of county, more rural, where people with similar political beliefs cluster. Also, Radar was endorsed by the Sierra Club, which likely did not go down well with business interests associated with the FirstEnergy scandal, the scandal that got Larry Householder, Ohio Speaker, removed from his position, the one who in exchange for bailing out FirstEnergy is charged with accepting massive bribes. Despite charges that have already led to guilty pleas, Householder was re-elected. I did not scour the campaign finance reports, but it would not surprise me if FirstEnergy-associated bribes political contributions helped Radar’s opponent drown her on the air waves. Jerry Cirino’s ads were all over my web pages. And perhaps she was pummeled even more heavily on Facebook, which I don’t follow much. Even if I don’t have all the campaign details correct by probing deeply into finance reports–not the main point of this post–I think it’s fair to believe that part of Betsy Radar’s defeat was because she was a down-ballot Democratic candidate, in a region enthusiastic for Trump. Same may explain why Householder, though charged with serious crimes connected to his time in office, was re-elected, in another Trump district. I accept the facts of the vote counts, even if it did not look to me that it would turn out that way beforehand, when I walked in my neighborhood, even if I assumed (in my own head) that someone as tainted as Householder by a bribery scandal surely had no shot at re-election.

In any case, when Portage County and Ohio voted overwhelmingly for Trump–Ohio is now more Republican than Texas, the state in which I was born and raised–it was disorienting for me, perhaps similarly disorienting for my neighbors also with Biden signs, disoriented because they discover that overwhelming majorities (of people around them) voted for Trump, for whom Fox News, AM talk radio, Trump email, and like-minded Facebook friend were major sources of information, if not InfoWars, and QAnon. And perhaps the good early performances by Ohio governor DeWine, Republican, in the pandemic, boosted the brand in this state. At some level I need to accept, intellectually, based on vote counts, that large numbers of persons in the wider Portage county (tends rural as you move eastward), did in fact vote for Trump, including at least a few who joined that 7-bus caravan to the coup attempt.

I received my first visceral reminder about Trump supporters in my wider region somewhat earlier, when my two political signs, “Biden 2020” (got mine early, before Harris announced) and “Black Lives Matter,” were stolen from my yard about a week before Halloween. As I walked in my neighborhood again, shortly after the signs theft, it seems that something about the combination of “Biden 2020” and “Black Lives Matter” (adjacent to one another) rankled the thief, who was apparently unbothered by many “Biden-Harris 2020” signs. The loss of my signs was not a mass purge of signs in my neighborhood, apparently just one particularly provocative pairing, the one in my yard. But then again, nor was mine the only such pairing in the neighborhood. Many Black Lives Matter signs were visible in October. Maybe the loss of my signs was random. I still suspect nonetheless that my free speech, in my own damn yard, was apparently intolerable to passing Trump-supporting and Black Lives Matter-opposing vandals. Also, I cannot help, by the coincidence of the News 5 report, wondering whether my yard sign thief had similar political views as my neighbors who boarded the parade of buses with the intent to go try to overthrow an election. Their individualized consumption of public discourse likely informs them, one which does not cross over with mine, a diet heavy on The Atlantic, NPR, CNN, New York Times, Vox. I was misled about the political leanings of my neighbors because of what my local and digital media environments (yard signs, radio, web sites) told me, probably because I wanted to be; and my neighbors were guided by their media environment (yard signs, radio, airwaves, web sites), again probably because they wanted to be. Now in my eyes, after yesterday, at least some of my neighbors are supporters of sedition, an insurrectionary coup attempt, even if in their own minds they will never accept that definition for their actions. Already today Fox News is gradually backing away, ever more emphasizing what-the-media-is-reporting stories, which is a key tell on Fox News that true believers know that the truth is opposite of what Fox is reporting other media is saying. They did same in 19th-century party papers. If my neighbors would like to try to explain themselves to me–whether they see this careful dance as manipulative also, they can. I set out above why I believe what I believe.

Sometimes we fall into lazy habits, not being vigilant about attending to our surroundings, not thinking that a yard sign could get stolen, for example, or not thinking that a mob, called by and egged on by the president, might assault the Capital Building to threaten its members in session, while others of their associates plant bombs. My excuse for my degree of inattention to the everyday in general life is because I’m a professor at Kent State, one who is easily distracted by nineteenth century books, mostly Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I am in the process of editing. Also, I vividly recall my reading of American Slavery As It Is, the source for several of her novel’s episodes and among the most chilling books that I have ever read. I’d add that I’m reasonably familiar with the 19th century, my Zoom bookshelf populated by at least 40 scholarly books on history and literary or cultural criticism. Though Stowe wrote her famous book in Maine, she partly developed her activism out West in Cincinnati, partly in the aftermath of the city’s anti-Black riots. Because of my interests, I am reminded that North East Ohio was once known for anti-slavery activism, the John Brown House nearby. You can read several anti-slavery papers from this region in pre-Civil War Ohio, on Chronicling America. In Civil War mythology, Ohio is a free state, aligned with the North, but free is relative. For example, Black people could not vote or testify in juries before 1850. So then as now, Ohio’s minds were of their own times, various and divided, like the present minds with whose range I try to grapple in this post.

And now to history in the present day. Because I spend most of my scholarly effort on pre-Civil War period and despite having read Eric Foner’s Reconstruction two summers ago, I did not remember the details of the Compromise of 1877, nor did I remember that Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican candidate, was from Ohio. The details were recalled to my attention by the certification proceedings last night, when Congress returned to its two session. The first Hayes paragraph on Wikipedia notes that he was an antislavery activist before the war. The second paragraph explains how he to gain presidency benefitted from an Electoral College bargain, permitting electors, votes, rights, and lives of Black citizens in the south to be sacrificed for White Supremacy.

The Republican Party nominated Hayes for president in 1876, and he won through the Compromise of 1877 that officially ended Reconstruction by allowing the restoration of Jim Crow laws in the South. In office he withdrew military troops from the South, ending Army support for Democrat state governments and Freedmen’s rights as citizens in the South. (Jan 7, 2020)

The reminder about Hayes’s election in social media today is because it was the example cited in a plan to object to certifying 2020 electors, by Senators Cruz and Hawley, who argued that we need as they did a generation earlier to be vigilant to determine whether citizens in majority-black areas (as then: South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana; like now: urban districts in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania) had their votes counted accurately and legally. By contrast we simply assume without even mentioning the matter that the votes of my neighbors in Northeastern Ohio, an area predominantly white, were counted properly. Alexander Pope named this habitual mode of thinking well, the “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.” If you are free of guilt, have little historical knowledge, and do not try to reconcile present to past, you can easily imagine both that votes in majority-Black districts are immediately suspect and that votes in majority-white districts can be trusted without question. And you can acquire the spotless mind regardless of what you know intellectually, if you don’t feel the conflict, which announces both things are unlikely to be true at once, in your gut or heart, the seat of your conscience.

On the floor of the Senate, Lindsey Graham, who can walk through a slinky untouched, noted during the late-night certification session that two slates of electors were sent to the Electoral College in 1877, and he suggested that if Cruz and Hawley “are looking for historical guidance…this is not the one to pick,” implying that a bargain in which the votes of black people were invalidated is a bad historical example on which to base a precedent.

I’ll put it another way:

If you in certification process want to throw out the votes of Black people in Georgia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania today, turning the state votes over to president who did not win those electoral college votes, you should not pick the example of the 1877–if you think the votes of Black people should be counted as readily as votes of white people.

To leave the last part unstated–and it’s important to leave it unstated when you are Cruz and Hawley–is to ensure that your message can be taken whichever way best soothes the conscience. The precedent is very exact, it’s the one that Cruz and Hawley chose on purpose, because it was the one that they meant: they chose the historical precedent to make their present meaning unmistakably clear, without having to spell it out. To assume that Cruz and Hawley (or whoever was doing their symbolic and historical thinking for them) picked it inadvertently is being naive, for it’s Stephen Miller-level thinking. Cruz and Hawley may not want the present and future to be exactly like the late 19th century, but they endorse a part of it: to not recognize a slate of electors chosen with the support of Black citizen and thereby to disenfranchise those citizens, and to elect a White Supremacist president. Or, another way of thinking about it: Cruz and Hawley still imagined that by stringing the process along a little more, their more subtle and drawn-out coup, they could stay on the right side of the tiger. But Trump and and his less subtle White Supremacist supporters, presumably among them my Portage county neighbors–though I know nothing about any one of them’s particular role at the protest–interrupted the smoothly worded effort just as Cruz was speaking. A person of courage and moral conviction who holds public office, not “my colleague from Texas,” as so many delicately put it, when so exposed before the world, by a slinky like Graham, should have the resignation letter drafted within a day. Resigning in disgrace is the act of moral courage by a person who has lost all claim to virtue, to public respect, but by the act reclaims one hint of decency, and a generous pension.

But when it comes to admitting anti-Black racism, no one in public office ever gets to that point. And in fact I think I know why, because Harriet Beecher Stowe taught me. If you want to try to understand how white people convince themselves that the lives of Black people can be discarded or destroyed with no greater consequence than a furrowed brow, the novel that I have studied, Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, explains how the process of self-deception about dehumanizing other people is managed psychologically, in detail and repeatedly. I don’t think my Portage county neighbors will take the time to read a long novel, nor do I think they will get the same message out of it that I do, for the United States in the 19th and 20th century remade the novel into popular culture theater, which evacuated from it its moral complexity, its evangelical fervor, and Stowe’s fear of God’s vengeance on a nation of persons so easily self-deceived into doing evil. And be it noted, I add, that she lacked the ability to imagine Black people on equal footing with white people in a single nation, even were they not enslaved. But for those who do identify as Christians, there’s a song by Johnny Cash, one which perhaps many of you, including my neighbors, who are of my age or older, probably know well. It has essentially the same message as Stowe’s novel, and I embed the video below.

PS: My local neighbors who took the bus, what I’m telling you that you endorsed, participated in or–how to put this most nicely–got caught up in an insurrection. That is far too nice. This post is addressed to you. Get off the fucking bus. The reason you can reconcile your “patriotism” with your Trump support is because you are racist, because you can scarcely imagine the police rising up to enforce the law against you. And you are right about that, because the police are typically the front-line defenders of White Supremacy, who enforce society’s contract that Black lives do not matter.

I call on News 5, broadcasting from the city that Tamir Rice once lived in, to pay some god-damned attention to what you are doing. You were still trying to portray the local coup supporters sympathetically, on the evening after they and their cohort assaulted the Capitol Building. What the hell is wrong with you?

I apologize to Black people for my effort to explain white people to themselves, as if the world does not have enough of that. And for anyone who just has to ask, Why do you capitalize Black but not white–It’s because whether you are Black in America is a decision often that society makes first, and it thereby makes the life of the person so designated worse than uneasy, raises the risk of death. To be white, without claiming it but merely to notice the choice that society has made for you, is almost unavoidable, but is seldom anything except the easiest choice to live with. To capitalize White is to join White Supremacists, which I have capitalized accordingly when I think it is most apt. Perhaps I have not made every part of my meaning clear. My thinking is crabbed now, clotted with anger, burdened by history colliding with the present, and this a first draft, which I post now because as a scholar I feel compelled to speak to this historical moment, as it concerns a topic that about which I know a bit about its history, at least more than is usually taught in school.

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