The House Select Committee investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol has produced several bombshell revelations in the last two weeks.
First came the news that Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, had texted Trump administration Chief of Staff Mark Meadows exhorting him to fight to overturn the 2020 election results. Then, on Monday, a federal judge, in deciding to grant the committee access to emails from conservative lawyer John Eastman, ruled that former president Donald Trump “more likely than not” committed federal crimes.
The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob claims it has evidence that Eastman, a former law clerk to Justice Thomas, believed he would support his legal maneuver to block a Joe Biden victory.
Finally came the news that a seven-hour-and-37-minute gap exists in Trump’s phone records turned over to the committee.
These revelations remind us of how critical it will be for the public to get a full sense of what investigators find, as well as for the legal system to hold the perpetrators accountable, lest another coup attempt take place.
But there is another hard historical reality we must also face. Selecting our governmental leaders through free and fair elections and a peaceful transfer of power is a concept not embraced by all Americans. Indeed, the Capitol insurrection was not the first of its kind on U.S. soil. And after past coup attempts, the U.S. government failed to prosecute the conspirators, allowing them to go free or even permitting them to remain in power when they succeeded. As the public learns more about the Jan. 6 insurrection and the politicians, organizations and funders behind the attempted coup, calls for indictments will take place within a historical context of past coups and coup attempts that evaded accountability.
Violent overthrows of democratically elected state and local governments happened multiple times in the aftermath of the Civil War.
For example, in 1874, a Democratic Party-aligned militia of Confederate veterans known as the White League took over the Louisiana Capitol and New Orleans City Hall for three days, in what was known as the Battle of Liberty Place. The paramilitary organization was dedicated to upholding white supremacy and intimidating Black voters, expelling Republicans from power and defending a “hereditary civilization and Christianity menaced by a stupid Africanization.” Louisiana’s Republican governor had been elected two years earlier because of the Black vote, and the elected lieutenant governor was Black.
In response, President Ulysses S. Grant ordered the army to suppress the insurrectionists, who had killed at least 13 officers in the city’s integrated police force, cut New Orleans’ telegraph lines, and demanded the resignation of the governor and the installation of his losing Democratic opponent. Yet none of the insurrectionists were charged and that was it.
Three years later, Reconstruction was over. In 1877, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes became president, and he removed federal troops from the South. The Confederates regained control of Louisiana and suppressed the Black vote. In 1891, a monument praising the coup attempt — depicted as the “overthrow of carpetbag government ousting the usurpers” — was erected.
In the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, a white supremacist mob known as the Red Shirts forcibly removed the progressive biracial coalition of White and Black elected leaders of Wilmington, N.C., a majority Black city and the largest city in the state. The thought of Black people governing and competing with White people was unthinkable for those who saw their way of life threatened and who sought to “protect” White women from Black men.
Over 100 Black government officials were removed from power at gunpoint, and replaced with unelected Whites under a White Declaration of Independence. The offices of the Daily Record, a Black-owned newspaper, were burned to the ground, and as many as 250 Black people were murdered and thousands fled the city. The coup was a deemed a success for the city’s White business elite. In 1900, the state legislature enacted voting restrictions to disenfranchise Black voters, including a poll tax and literacy test. Black power would not return for the greater part of a century.
Even those who targeted the presidency evaded consequences. In 1933, a group of the wealthiest men in America — Wall Street bankers and leaders of business and industry — hatched a plan to remove President Franklin D. Roosevelt from office and replace him with a fascist dictator. Wall Street financiers opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal — a program of public works projects, economic regulations, and income and wealth redistributive measures designed to end the Great Depression and attack economic inequality. Critics viewed Roosevelt as part of a socialist, communist or Jewish conspiracy to end capitalism. With capitalism not working for the masses, these men viewed fascism as a solution.
Here was their plan: as part of what has become known as the Business Plot or Wall Street Putsch, a paramilitary force of 500,000 veterans was to march to the Capitol. Wall Street would supply $30 million with Remington Arms supplying the guns. Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, a highly decorated Marine veteran and a Quaker who had participated in every U.S. war since the Spanish-American War, was recruited to lead the coup. Butler had participated in regime change in Latin American countries and the installation of dictators on behalf of corporate America, who would exploit these countries and their resources for profit.
But Butler refused to participate and he revealed the plot to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who said he had no authority to investigate, and had no evidence a federal crime had been committed. Hoover then told Roosevelt, who reportedly laughed and said: “Fantastic!”
The McCormack-Dickstein Committee, later known as the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities held hearings on the conspiracy. And yet, legally, nobody was held accountable, leaving historians and journalists to debate who was even involved (Many have speculated that coup planners included General Motors’ Alfred P. Sloan, the DuPont family, former New York governor and presidential nominee Al Smith, and Prescott Bush — father of George H.W. Bush and grandfather of George W. Bush — who would later become a U.S. senator — despite the fact that none were ever concretely linked to the plot.)
Although the Business Plot was not carried out to completion — Roosevelt presumably struck a deal with the executives to not pursue treason charges in exchange for dropping their opposition to the New Deal — none of those who plotted the coup was prosecuted or even subpoenaed to testify. Further, the committee withheld the names of the plotters in Butler’s testimony in its final report to Congress.
The history of coup attempts shows a disturbing trend: people whose ideas were too unpopular and repulsive to prevail at the ballot box have resorted to violent, extralegal and antidemocratic means to get their way.
A nation unable or unwilling to deal with its legacy of insurrection is consigned to a future of insurrections. At a time of heightened government corruption, extensive efforts to suppress and disenfranchise voters and a lack of faith in social institutions to solve our problems, some people believe elections are rigged or make little difference.
Conspiracy theories abound, and growing public distrust in free and fair elections only provides a breeding ground for domestic insurgencies. Remedies for restoring public trust include greater transparency and accountability from government and media companies that spread disinformation, reforming or replacing broken institutions, and increasing civic education and participation.
Crossposted from Black Commentator