A week after the murder of 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, I was sticking a stamp on an envelope. “Whose idea was that?” I asked the billowing flag. Whose idea to connect “Forever” with the Stars and Stripes? Was this person or persons sure about the Forever part? To quote André 3000: “Forever-ever?”
The Buffalo shooter had cited “the great replacement theory” as his rationale for randomly gunning down Black people—the paranoid fantasy that Democrats had hatched a diabolical plot to replace white Americans with people of color (imported or domestic).
A recent New York Times analysis of 400+ episodes of Tucker Carlson’s nightly ranting showed that the onetime reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was openly promoting this baseless, toxic “theory.” Carlson warned what he called “legacy Americans” that they were in danger of being replaced by voters from “the Third World.”
A lot of irony to unpack here. First, this Preppy Handbook anachronism using the phrase “legacy Americans” like he was shilling a Franklin Mint coin collection. (Legacy Americans, heritage tomatoes . . . you know, stuff you buy from a roadside stand outside Greenwich.) And the greater irony of this poster child for legacy admissions even daring the L-word.
But with “legacy Americans,” Carlson was corroborating the assumption of Fox viewers and eventually the Buffalo killer that white supremacy was meant to last forever—forever-ever.
It’s hard not to think of the great replacement rollout as the warmup act for the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade, with Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas and their backup trio weaponizing the technological limitations of the eighteenth century in the service of white nationalism.
At a Trump rally on June 25, U.S. Representative Mary E. Miller thanked the ex-president “for the historic victory for white life in the Supreme Court yesterday.” Yes—it will be raining white babies before you know it!
To the toxic fugue known as Republicans, the Founders fetish will never tarnish. Why? Because “originalism” conjures a time when slavery was allowed to flourish in half the states and only white men with property could vote, when an unwritten great replacement theory led to the killing of a continent full of original people.
The right loves to hold up token “great” Americans to claim that freedom creates virtue. That of course is a fallacy. But another fallacy is what Enlightenment thinking (per Fareed Zakaria) envisioned for America: “a system of checks and balances producing good government almost as a machine with wheels and pulleys could produce motion or transfer energy.”
While people like James Madison didn’t expect Americans “to be wise or virtuous” (again per Zakaria) for this democracy to work, Ben Franklin had no such delusions. In 1787, he predicted that the American republic would soon end in despotism, “when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.”
Franklin knew that a country that wants all rights and no responsibilities is no democracy, and today we have one whole party openly pushing that philosophy. It’s not that this country continues to break conservative because it doesn’t like change; it breaks conservative because it likes change only for some people. The something-for-nothing that Republicans and their ideological forebears want and expect comes at the cost of a permanent underclass.
As Clarence Thomas basks in his fifteen minutes of “originalist” bullshit, a lot of Americans are realizing that the influence exerted by pro-slavery interests in 1789 America has remained shockingly consistent through two centuries and counting. White nationalism survived the Civil War and flourished, albeit in coded language and laws. I’m surprised that no one has yet developed an algorithm that can determine the annual percentage of white Americans who’d suppress the freedoms of Black Americans if given the choice.
Even if Donald Trump wasn’t losing some of his chokehold on the party, it’s pretty clear that the Legacy Americans who constitute his base will demand an even more potent product. If Trump is a racist triggered by the election of a Black president, Ron DeSantis is a smart racist triggered by the election of a Black president.
The House January 6th Committee hearings are showing us that we can try to hold individuals accountable for subverting the Constitution, but we can’t force Americans to uphold majority-rule democracy. You expose something pretty terrible, and within 24 hours, the right’s amoral relativism creeps in to negate the impact. And Legacy Americans are OK with that.
When I look at a Forever stamp, I wonder how the Founders could think that following the Greek model of democracy-but-with-slaves would turn out well. In 2022, we have this convoluted history (the sun always beating down in the dessert) onto which has come the internet and social media (the magnifying glass held over the ant colony). Together, they have given us this crucible where civic virtue and democracy are losing all identifiable properties.
The internet did not create Legacy Americans, but it has brought them out of the shadows for good. While holding on to free and fair elections can mitigate the damage of their beliefs, it will not make them go away. §