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OPINION

‘Stop the Steal’ fueled white fears about their country being stolen

The anxieties that drove the Jan. 6 assault go back more than 150 years.

A man flies the Confederate flag, with the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the background, as President Donald Trump addresses the crowd in Washington on Jan. 6.
A man flies the Confederate flag, with the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the background, as President Donald Trump addresses the crowd in Washington on Jan. 6.Jason Andrew/NYT

After he was acquitted for murder, J.W. Milam explained why he killed Emmett Till.

“I like [n-words] in their place — I know how to work ‘em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, [n-words] are gonna stay in their place,” he told Look magazine in 1956. Five months earlier, Milam and Roy Bryant had kidnapped, tortured, and shot Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy who was visiting relatives in Mississippi. His mutilated body was found in the Tallahatchie River.

“[N-words] ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government,” Milam said. “Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights.”

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Milam would have found communion with the white mob that breached the Capitol.

“Stop the Steal,” the slogan of the deadly insurrection, wasn’t only a reference to a lawless president’s lie about an election he lost by more than seven million votes. It wasn’t just about who governs America but about the insidious fear of many white people that a nation they believe was built by and for them is being stolen away. For more than 150 years, they’ve tried to avert that “steal” by any means necessary.

In “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow,” Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls the post-Civil War era “a time of national renewal.” Yet he adds that this was “also a turbulent and brutally violent period, one marked by rapid economic change and new forms of white resistance that included everything from organized paramilitary assaults and political assassination to night rides and domestic terror.”

That period never ended. A recent survey by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, found that nearly 40 percent of Republicans support politically motivated violence. Daniel Cox, director of AEI’s Survey Center on American Life, told NPR, “I think any time you have a significant number of the public saying use of force can be justified in our political system, that’s pretty scary.”

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Like a genetic defect, violent resistance based on myths about white disenfranchisement has passed from one generation to another. That’s why it wasn’t surprising to see Confederate flags among the rioters; they’ve been common at Trump rallies for years. Yet Kevin Seefried of Delaware, according to authorities, managed what never happened during the Civil War — he paraded that traitorous rag around the Capitol, the sanctum of American government, as a symbol of insurrection.

Donald Trump incited this. He whipped up fears that immigration, civil rights, and democracy itself were undermining white America. His rambling speeches often included references that his followers should “take back” the country, implying to his overwhelmingly white base that they had been robbed of what rightfully belonged to them alone.

This is also why he told Representatives Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, congresswomen of color sharply critical of Trump, to “go back” to their countries. That Pressley, Ocasio-Cortez, and Tlaib are all American-born, or that Omar, born in Somalia, has been a citizen since 2000, didn’t matter. They don’t look like the white Christians Trump and many of his followers equate with American greatness.

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Before the assault on the Capitol, Trump gave final instructions to his cult: “You will never take back our country with weakness.” That speech, in which Trump used the words “fight” or “fighting” 20 times, was used as evidence in the former president’s second impeachment trial.

From Charlottesville, Va., where neo-Nazis chanted “Jews will not replace us” and a white supremacist killed a woman; to mass shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue and an El Paso Walmart; to New Zealand, where a gunman called Trump “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” the former president’s rhetoric of racial resentment has been an accelerant of violence.

Yet history proves this sentiment spans centuries. Believing this country and its rights belonged only to white people prompted Milam and Bryant to murder Till. In an interview, Milam said he told the teen, “I’m going to make an example of you — just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.”

When windows shattered at the Capitol and legislators ran for their lives, the insurrectionists on Trump’s orders made it clear where they stand — for violence and sedition, and against a democracy they want to steal from the rest of us.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.