The Deep, Tangled Roots of American Illiberalism

The New York Times · by Steven Hahn · May 4, 2024

In a recent interview with Time, Donald Trump promised a second term of authoritarian power grabs, administrative cronyism, mass deportations of the undocumented, harassment of women over abortion, trade wars and vengeance brought upon his rivals and enemies, including President Biden. “If they said that a president doesn’t get immunity,” Mr. Trump told Time, “then Biden, I am sure, will be prosecuted for all of his crimes.”

Further evidence, it seems, of Mr. Trump’s efforts to construct a political world like no other in American history. But how unprecedented is it, really? That Mr. Trump continues to lead in polls should make plain that he and his MAGA movement are more than noxious weeds in otherwise liberal democratic soil.

Many of us have not wanted to see it that way. “This is not who we are as a nation,” one journalist exclaimed in what was a common response to the violence on Jan. 6, “and we must not let ourselves or others believe otherwise.” Mr. Biden has said much the same thing.

While it’s true that Mr. Trump was the first president to lose an election and attempt to stay in power, observers have come to recognize the need for a lengthier view of Trumpism. Even so, they are prone to imagining that there was a time not all that long ago when political “normalcy” prevailed. What they have failed to grasp is that American illiberalism is deeply rooted in our past and fed by practices, relationships and sensibilities that have been close to the surface, even when they haven’t exploded into view.

Illiberalism is generally seen as a backlash against modern liberal and progressive ideas and policies, especially those meant to protect the rights and advance the aspirations of groups long pushed to the margins of American political life. But in the United States, illiberalism is better understood as coherent sets of ideas that are related but also change over time.

This illiberalism celebrates hierarchies of gender, race and nationality; cultural homogeneity; Christian religious faith; the marking of internal as well as external enemies; patriarchal families; heterosexuality; the will of the community over the rule of law; and the use of political violence to achieve or maintain power. This illiberalism sank roots from the time of European settlement and spread out from villages and towns to the highest levels of government. In one form or another, it has shaped much of our history. Illiberalism has frequently been a stalking horse, if not in the winner’s circle. Hardly ever has it been roundly defeated.

A few examples may be illustrative. Although European colonization of North America has often been imagined as a sharp break from the ways of home countries, neo-feudal dreams inspired the making of Euro-American societies from the Carolinas up through the Hudson Valley, based as they were on landed estates and coerced labor, while the Puritan towns of New England, with their own hierarchies, demanded submission to the faith and harshly policed their members and potential intruders alike. The backcountry began to fill up with land-hungry settlers who generally formed ethnicity-based enclaves, eyed outsiders with suspicion and, with rare exceptions, hoped to rid their territory of Native peoples. Most of those who arrived in North America between the early 17th century and the time of the American Revolution were either enslaved or in servitude, and master-servant jurisprudence shaped labor relations well after slavery was abolished, a phenomenon that has been described as “belated feudalism.”

The anti-colonialism of the American Revolution was accompanied not only by warfare against Native peoples and rewards for enslavers, but also by a deeply ingrained anti-Catholicism, and hostility to Catholics remained a potent political force well into the 20th century. Monarchist solutions were bruited about during the writing of the Constitution and the first decade of the American Republic: John Adams thought that the country would move in such a direction and other leaders at the time, including Washington, Madison and Hamilton, wondered privately if a king would be necessary in the event a “republican remedy” failed.

The 1830s, commonly seen as the height of Jacksonian democracy, were racked by violent expulsions of Catholics, Mormons and abolitionists of both races, along with thousands of Native peoples dispossessed of their homelands and sent to “Indian Territory” west of the Mississippi.

The new democratic politics of the time was often marked by Election Day violence after campaigns suffused with military cadences, while elected officials usually required the support of elite patrons to guarantee the bonds they had to post. Even in state legislatures and Congress, weapons could be brandished and duels arranged; “bullies” enforced the wills of their allies.

When enslavers in the Southern states resorted to secession rather than risk their system under a Lincoln administration, they made clear that their Confederacy was built on the cornerstone of slavery and white supremacy. And although their crushing defeat brought abolition, the establishment of birthright citizenship (except for Native peoples), the political exclusion of Confederates, and the extension of voting rights to Black men — the results of one of the world’s great revolutions — it was not long before the revolution went into reverse.

The federal government soon allowed former Confederates and their white supporters to return to power, destroy Black political activism and, accompanied by lynchings (expressing the “will” of white communities), build the edifice of Jim Crow: segregation, political disfranchisement and a harsh labor regime. Already previewed in the pre-Civil War North, Jim Crow received the imprimatur of the Supreme Court and the administration of Woodrow Wilson.

Few Progressives of the early 20th century had much trouble with this. Segregation seemed a modern way to choreograph “race relations,” and disfranchisement resonated with their disenchantment with popular politics, whether it was powered by Black voters in the South or European immigrants in the North. Many Progressives were devotees of eugenics and other forms of social engineering, and they generally favored overseas imperialism; some began to envision the scaffolding of a corporate state — all anticipating the dark turns in Europe over the next decades.

The 1920s, in fact, saw fascist pulses coming from a number of directions in the United States and, as in Europe, targeting political radicals. Benito Mussolini won accolades in many American quarters. The lab where Josef Mengele worked received support from the Rockefeller Foundation. White Protestant fundamentalism reigned in towns and the countryside. And the Immigration Act of 1924 set limits on the number of newcomers, especially those from Southern and Eastern Europe, who were thought to be politically and culturally unassimilable.

Most worrisome, the Ku Klux Klan, energized by anti-Catholicism and antisemitism as well as anti-Black racism, marched brazenly in cities great and small. The Klan became a mass movement and wielded significant political power; it was crucial, for example, to the enforcement of Prohibition. Once the organization unraveled in the late 1920s, many Klansmen and women found their way to new fascist groups and the radical right more generally.

Sidelined by the Great Depression and New Deal, the illiberal right regained traction in the late 1930s, and during the 1950s won grass-roots support through vehement anti-Communism and opposition to the civil rights movement. As early as 1964, in a run for the Democratic presidential nomination, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama began to hone a rhetoric of white grievance and racial hostility that had appeal in the Midwest and Middle Atlantic, and Barry Goldwater’s campaign that year, despite its failure, put winds in the sails of the John Birch Society and Young Americans for Freedom.

Four years later, Wallace mobilized enough support as a third-party candidate to win five states. And in 1972, once again as a Democrat, Wallace racked up primary wins in both the North and the South before an assassination attempt forced him out of the race. Growing backlashes against school desegregation and feminism added further fuel to the fire on the right, paving the way for the conservative ascendancy of the 1980s.

By the early 1990s, the neo-Nazi and Klansman David Duke had won a seat in the Louisiana Legislature and nearly three-fifths of the white vote in campaigns for governor and senator. Pat Buchanan, seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 1992, called for “America First,” the fortification of the border (a “Buchanan fence”), and a culture war for the “soul” of America, while the National Rifle Association became a powerful force on the right and in the Republican Party.

When Mr. Trump questioned Barack Obama’s legitimacy to serve as president, a project that quickly became known as “birtherism,” he made use of a Reconstruction-era racist trope that rejected the legitimacy of Black political rights and power. In so doing, Mr. Trump began to cement a coalition of aggrieved white voters. They were ready to push back against the nation’s growing cultural diversity — embodied by Mr. Obama — and the challenges they saw to traditional hierarchies of family, gender and race. They had much on which to build.

Back in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, in “Democracy in America,” glimpsed the illiberal currents that already entangled the country’s politics. While he marveled at the “equality of conditions,” the fluidity of social life and the strength of republican institutions, he also worried about the “omnipotence of the majority.”

“What I find most repulsive in America is not the extreme freedom reigning there,” Tocqueville wrote, “but the shortage of guarantees against tyranny.” He pointed to communities “taking justice into their own hands,” and warned that “associations of plain citizens can compose very rich, influential, and powerful bodies, in other words, aristocratic bodies.” Lamenting their intellectual conformity, Tocqueville believed that if Americans ever gave up republican government, “they will pass rapidly on to despotism,” restricting “the sphere of political rights, taking some of them away in order to entrust them to a single man.”

The slide toward despotism that Tocqueville feared may be well underway, whatever the election’s outcome. Even if they try to fool themselves into thinking that Mr. Trump won’t follow through, millions of voters seem ready to entrust their rights to “a single man” who has announced his intent to use autocratic powers for retribution, repression, expulsion and misogyny.

Only by recognizing what we’re up against can we mount an effective campaign to protect our democracy, leaning on the important political struggles — abolitionism, antimonopoly, social democracy, human rights, civil rights, feminism — that have challenged illiberalism in the past and offer the vision and political pathways to guide us in the future.

Our biggest mistake would be to believe that we’re watching an exceptional departure in the country’s history. Because from the first, Mr. Trump has tapped into deep and ever-expanding illiberal roots. Illiberalism’s history is America’s history.


Steven Hahn is a Pulitizer Prize-winning historian at New York University and the author, most recently, of “Illiberal America: a History.”