“[T]he North has as much to apprehend from abolition as the South…and it is time for conservatives every where to unite in efforts to suppress and extinguish it.” — George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All! or, Slaves Without Masters, 1857
“Conservative” is a misnomer. The term obscures the fact that those identified as conservatives have varied more widely in views on national debt, religion, military excursions, the personal conduct of elected officials, political party affiliation and other putative conservative concerns than they have on the treatment of Black people. The through line of American conservatism has been the work towards the increased injury of Black people at each stage of U.S. history.
Whether it’s come to slavery, Jim Crow, convict leasing, incarceration, policing, voting rights or healthcare, the dominant conservative position has always been whichever was the most anti-Black of the legitimate options. And yet it remains difficult to have it admitted to public consciousness that American conservatism is organized anti-Black politics. American conservatism is, however, well-dressed white nationalism.
Racists have put conservatism on like a hat, then disappeared in front of the eyes of those for whom object permanence would preferably remain a mystery. Liberal citizens require a veil, no matter how thin, to believe or claim to believe that, in what they’ve known as their flawed but progressed society, in their imperfect but fundamentally post-racist country, the racists “are just a few idiots,” not a number tallied in the millions.
In “conservatism,” the intellectual legacy of the Confederacy has been normalized and an entire population of Negrophobes is absorbed into society and allowed space to push their anti-Black agenda everywhere from the Senate floor to bank cubicles. It’s been said that politics is the continuation of war by other means. After the surrender at Appomattox, acolytes of anti-Black torture culture—Southerners as well as Northerners—continued the war to keep their boots on Black necks on the beaches and landing grounds of law and policy.
White nationalists put on a hat reading conservative—or, in contemporary parlance, Make America Great Again—and disappear into the crowd. Liberals wipe their brow, thankful that the pro-enslavement troop has been consigned to a book titled “Unenlightened History.” They then proceed to teach the misinformed millions—materialized apparently out of thin air, weeping at the feet of felled Confederate monuments—about the “the legacy of racism in this country.”
Confederates fought and died for the right to keep Black people captive in a centuries-long sexual assault. They bled for the right to keep them tortured and exploited in an enslavement that halved their life expectancies. Conservatives memorialize that war. Not, they say, because it was theirs, nor because they hold in their lockets portraits of a perfected Black degradation, but because they’re history buffs.
The displayed battle flags, the defense of their racism porn and monuments and the panic over their removal aren’t evidence of nostalgia for enslavement but merely expressions of ‘conservative culture.’ The historical desire for the repression of Black people has been washed and re-presented as a political outlook. Like antebellum “Southern hospitality,” conservatism is gentrified anti-Blackness.
The Confederacy wasn’t dissolved, it was sublimated
The Compromise of 1877 brought white, anti-Black militia culture into the fold of the postbellum state. Confederate generals and other violent Southern Democrats agreed to accept Republican Rutherford B. Hayes’ victory in the 1876 election so long as the federal troops were removed from the South. After the federal withdrawal, conservatives quickly marshaled their racist street and electoral violence to end the possibility of Black political representation, heightening terrorism and formalizing apartheid in the southern regions of the colony despite promising to uphold newly-won civil rights for African Americans as part of the “Compromise.”
Thus the lie that “we aren’t racist” proved useful in the furtherance of the white nationalist cause and anti-Black violence as far back as 1877. Men, who only a decade earlier wore the uniform of the Confederacy to fight to preserve the traditional power relationship between white men’s boots and Black necks, removed their steel-grey chasseur caps, put on one that did not admit color and disappeared. The Confederacy was not dissolved, it was sublimated.
Those who believe conservatives are tragically “ignorant” and have merely failed to connect the dots between the history of American conservatism and anti-Black racism would buy any bridge. They would hear conservatives out when they claim that South Africa’s or Kenya’s richest farmland ended up in white hands because of the “white work ethic” or that Reconstruction’s Black farms found today in white pockets got there fair and square.
They will believe that the reason Harriett Tubman’s image will not appear on U.S. currency as planned is that the current administration has concerns about counterfeiting. Or that a president who bought an ad calling for the murder of exonerated Black youth and who, according to a family member, used the N-Word unsparingly, is saddened at the death of a “Civil Rights hero.”
They would believe that his disciples “hold their nose and vote” for such a man, or, alternatively, have been taken in unawares by his charm, rather than believe that they would follow him in their millions even unto the ends of the earth, looking past each flaw no matter how glaring, excusing each performance no matter how absurd, because their heartstrings have waited centuries to be undone by even the junkiest of exhumed Robert E. Lees.
White supremacist privilege, as opposed to white privilege, is the privilege—which is to say the power—to deny racist intent and always be taken at one’s word. To always be able to clutch one’s pearls and appeal in Scarlett O’Hara’s mint julep-inflected tone, Dearest me, we never intended to… and be believed. And remain a symbol of beauty in the world no matter how many scars are on Prissy’s back.
Preventing that ‘eureka moment’
Republican officials’ voter registration purges and restricting the possibility of voting for Black people is the pursuit of Klan business by other means. They will say, however, that they aim to protect voting rights. It’s never enough to beat Black people down. We must be mocked. Even if every one of a conservative’s errors is one that furthers the cause of fascism they will be given the benefit of the doubt. No matter their priors, they will be presumed innocent, they will not be subject to a ‘three strikes’ rule, they will be shown a grace that passeth all understanding and let loose again onto Black society.
Conservatism is not an innocent bystander that just happens to be found at the scene of nearly every anti-Black political act. Conservatism is a hat that Negrophobes with good jobs put on to move undetected in a society that refuses to overturn the racist order but considers the N-word to be taboo. Those who’ve shown historical hostility to Black life are invited to the table to determine our fates as long as they name their Negrophobia “the conservative perspective”—as long as they keep on their hats. Of course, such a threadbare disguise fools no one who hasn’t a vested interest in being fooled.
Anti-Blackness is laundered until it appears as conservatism. There’s no immediately apparent relationship between “fiscal conservatism” and a mourning over the felled monuments of Confederate generals erected to threaten aspiring Black people. It’s not natural to assume that advocates for liberty and small government would be championing the expansion of police power and be the chief defenders of Terry stops (aka ‘stop and frisk’) and lengthy sentences. The precepts of evangelicalism (if seen as a religious and not a racist movement) don’t immediately suggest Donald Trump as a natural figurehead. Indeed, most of the stated values of conservatism would not seem to correspond to conservative practice.
Confronted with these contradictions, liberal pundits waddle mindlessly between performing astonishment and accusations of hypocrisy. They say they cannot figure out why Donald Trump has not yet “pivoted” away from the racism of the campaign or why he keeps “missing opportunities” to heal the country and lead on race. The work of pundits and anchors is the work to stave off the eureka moment. To refuse the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle; the piece that would explain so many of the contradictions.
A world of Muslim bans, dissidents taken away in unmarked vehicles, castigation and public denouncement of the Lügenpresse, a senior policy advisor dedicated to stamping out a secret plan for white demographic replacement, and a threatened American Nuremberg rally held on Juneteenth is, according to them, unprecedented. It’s too terrible to admit that millions of their compatriots can not only stomach the stench of concentration camps and strange fruit but can also inhale it deeply and be exhilarated by it.
A more reasonable interpretation exists
Tom Cotton, a Republican Senator from Arkansas, defended slave masters saying they thought it to be a “necessary evil.” Jeff Sessions, the former US Attorney General “joked” about thinking the Ku Klux Klan was OK. Former Iowa Representative Steve King wondered aloud about how white nationalism and white supremacy became offensive. These and the other racist remarks made hourly by conservative administrators and lawmakers are never allowed to contaminate the consensus that conservatism is race-neutral. They are an eccentricity of conservatives, perhaps, but never seen as exactly the discourse one would expect from careful white supremacists.
Racist speech from conservative Congresspeople, when criticized, is taken to be an oddity of ignorant, bumbling, pathetic old white folks and nothing more. They, it’s believed, have long renounced the apartheid, pro-slavery and ethno-state dreams of earlier generations, but see no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. The fact that anti-Black white nationalist organizing during Reconstruction “was necessarily secret since open opposition of any kind would be considered rebellion,” however, should mean that no declaration of a ‘coming to Jesus’ moment on race by today’s conservatives should be taken at face value. The political survival of the pro-enslavement camp back then required duplicity, i.e, paying lip service to non-racialism and the enfranchisement of Black people while plotting their harm and repression just as the political survival of today’s conservatives requires plausible deniability regarding their racist remarks and policies.
The Knights of the White Camelia, a Louisiana-based white supremacist secretive society made up of judges, teachers and white professionals, for example, required the oath that included the declaration:
“I swear to maintain and defend the social and political superiority of the White Race on this Continent; always and in all places to observe a marked distinction between the White and African races; to vote for none but white men for any office of honor, profit or trust; to devote my intelligence, energy and influence to instil these principles in the minds and hearts of others; and to protect and defend persons of the White Race, in their lives, rights and property, against the encroachments and aggressions of an inferior race.”
It should not be assumed that the governors representing counties that once held lynching bees to have never made similar pacts. If duplicity has been the conservative tradition under liberal hegemony, it is negligent to not take a second, investigative glance at people who praise Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but seem to blow on the embers of George Wallace and Bull Connor’s program at every opportunity.
American conservatism has always been white nationalist. It has always been organized anti-Blackness. If racism were a deformation of conservatism the arrival of an openly racist administration would have meant an exodus from the Republican Party similar to the white exodus from the mid-twentieth century Democratic Party after it moved towards rights for Black people.
There has been no exodus.
Instead, liberals attempt to put a hat back onto the head of a reality they increasingly have difficulty denying. As a last resort they assist with another vanishing act: the invention of “Trump’s base.” His base is understood to be the underbelly of American conservatives and not, as the “base” itself cheers: the silent majority. Trump is forever “appealing to the worst instincts of his base” as if they have any other. As if he is some mastermind manipulating a crowd terrified of social change. A more reasonable interpretation exists: Trump is no evil genius. He’s simply one of the millions of conservatives who’ve decided they like the feel of their hair blowing in the wind.