It’s justice that Trump, who wanted to toss Black votes, gets charged under a KKK Act

They wanted to overturn the results of a free and fair election.

In the days immediately after the vote, there was a wave of violence. Some people were dragged from their homes by members of a white-hooded mob and killed for supporting the wrong party — but that was only the beginning. A Republican governor wrote to the White House to warn that insurrectionists were plotting to storm the seat of government and prevent certification of the winner.

Gov. Robert K. Scott told the president that loyalists to the party that got fewer voters “will not submit to any election which does not place them in power.” He further warned: “I am convinced that an outbreak will occur here [on] the day appointed by law for the counting of ballots.”

The year was 1870, and the state was South Carolina.

Those white-hooded nightriders who murdered their neighbors — all of them recently enslaved African Americans — for exercising their voting rights belonged to groups like the newly formed Ku Klux Klan, or KKK. The insurrectionists’ cause was white supremacy, and they were enlisting terror tactics to keep the Republican Party, with its Black voter base, out of local power at all costs.

President Ulysses S. Grant was a Civil War hero and mostly a strong backer of Reconstruction, the effort to bring full citizenship (including voting rights) to the formerly enslaved. Gov. Scott’s pleas to the president did not fall on deaf ears. The popular 18th president used his political clout to gain passage of three sweeping laws that today are often referred to as the Ku Klux Klan Acts — giving the federal government muscles it had never flexed before, including the power to send troops to ensure fair elections, and to criminally charge Klan leaders in a U.S. courtroom.

Confederate flag supporters climb Stone Mountain in 2015 to protest what they believe is an attack on their Southern heritage during a rally at Stone Mountain Park in Stone Mountain, Ga.. … Read moreJohn Amis / AP

More than 150 years later, Washington’s commitment to Black voting rights and curbing white supremacists has ebbed and flowed like a Nova Scotia tidal basin. But the three laws from the 1870s — also known as the Enforcement Acts — are still on the books. Federal prosecutors still invoke these Ku Klux Klan laws in charging certain cases, including episodes of alleged police brutality, or vote buying in Kentucky, or a modern Klan member who burned a cross on the lawn of a Latino couple.

This week, many folks were surprised when Donald Trump — the 45th president, and now the first to be indicted for his actions in the Oval Office — was charged with violating a section of one of the Enforcement Acts from 1870, as part of a four-count federal indictment concerning his efforts to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.


Special counsel Jack Smith’s team charged that Trump and six so-far unnamed confederates took part in a “conspiracy against the right to vote and to have one’s vote counted.” Citing Section 241 of Title 18 of the U.S. criminal code, under the first Enforcement Act passed in 1870, prosecutors said the ex-president and his conspirators, in seeking to destroy trust in the 2020 returns, “pursued unlawful means of discounting legitimate votes and subverting the election results.”

Critics on the right may point to the age and relative obscurity of the law Trump was charged under to suggest that prosecutor Smith is overreaching. But in reality, invoking the anti-KKK statute feels like a remarkable and long overdue collision with the arc of justice.

That’s because Trump’s entire career — especially his turn into politics — has been built on tapping into the same fears and warped sense of racial entitlement that motivated those South Carolinians to mask up in the dead of night a century and a half ago. And when Trump faced the crisis of losing the 2020 election to Biden, those legitimate votes that he and his cronies demanded not be counted were overwhelmingly Black votes, in big cities like Philadelphia and Detroit and Atlanta. When that failed, he urged the mob to descend on the capitol — just like the hooded terrorists of 1870.

This branch of the story actually starts way back in 1927, when the Klan underwent a large-scale renaissance in America — inspired by a movie, Birth of a Nation. In Queens, N.Y., about 1,000 KKK members paraded through the streets to stand up for “native-born Protestant Americans,” erupting in a riot. One of the Klan supporters arrested that day was a young man named Fred Trump — who’d become Donald’s father.

By the time Fred Trump brought Donald into his real-estate business in the early 1970s, the senior Trump had become a multimillionaire renting to New York’s white middle class — and spurning the city’s growing Black population. Donald Trump’s first mention in the media came in 1973, when the federal government sued the Trumps and their company for turning away African Americans for vacant units. (The case was later settled.)

» READ MORE: At Texas rally, Trump all but promised a racially charged civil war if he’s indicted | Will Bunch

Over the next three decades, Trump built his career as a glamorous huckster pitching Middle America — with an innate sense of playing to the aspirations and insecurities of his world-be marks with projects ranging from gaudy casinos to Trump University. Along the way, The Donald surely internalized the racial aspects. He looked to raise his political profile in 1989 with a full-page newspaper ad seeking the death penalty for five Black teens who’d later be exonerated in a Central Park rape case — then took things to a new level in 2011 with easily debunked “birther” claims that the first Black president, Barack Obama, could not have been born on U.S. soil.

That racist conspiracy theory must have echoed with the Republicans who made Trump the White House frontrunner when he descended that escalator in June 2015. The race-based totems of that 2016 campaign — the Mexican “rapists,” the Muslim ban, the long list of Black urban stereotypes preceding his “What do you have to lose?” sales pitch — propelled him forward. Even when he won the Electoral College, Trump made the absurd false claim that Hillary Clinton only won the popular vote with “millions” of fraudulent votes from undocumented immigrants.

That was a preview of the coming attraction: a horror show.


“Bad things happen in Philadelphia,” Trump famously told a 2020 debate — priming the pump for his foundational and utterly phony belief that voter fraud was coming from Democratic-run cities with large Black populations. When Trump started to fall behind in the vote tally about 24 hours after the polls closed on Nov. 3, 2020, his focus — and that of his henchmen — immediately turned to the swing-state cities where African Americans had voted in large numbers, especially Detroit, Atlanta, and Milwaukee, in addition to Philly.

Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, a former Georgia election worker, is comforted by her mother Ruby Freeman, right, as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol continues to reveal its findings of a year-long investigation, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, June 21, 2022.. … Read moreJacquelyn Martin / AP

Just two days after the election, Trump was already falsely claiming fraud in predominantly Black Detroit, stating that “batches [of votes] came in, and nobody knew where they came from.” Trump eventually attached a number to this alleged dump — 149,772 ballots — and used this fabricated allegation to press then-Attorney General William Barr to investigate and ask Michigan GOP lawmakers to undo Biden’s legitimate victory in the state.

Here in Philadelphia, this week’s federal indictment notes that Trump publicly berated a city commissioner — Republican Al Schmidt, now Pennsylvania’s secretary of state — over Schmidt’s accurate comments that voting in the city had run smoothly. The president’s allegations caused Schmidt to receive death threats.


In Arizona, where Latinos are the largest nonwhite voting bloc, Trump charged that more than 30,000 noncitizens had voted and tipped the closely contested state to Biden — an outlandish claim that even his own campaign manager told him was false. In Georgia — where Trump’s unexpected defeat drew the most focus from the White House — the president and his allies focused on Atlanta and the role of Black election workers there. Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani even falsely claimed that an African American mother and daughter who worked the vote tally were “surreptitiously passing around USB ports, as if they’re vials of heroin or cocaine” — thus sprinkling the worst racist trope on top for good measure.

A supporter of President Donald Trump holds a Confederate flag outside the Senate Chamber during a rampage in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.. … Read moreSAUL LOEB/AFP / MCT

The pattern is clear and obvious. Trump and his 21st-century nightriders’ scheme for overturning 2020′s free and fair election didn’t just center on asking judges, lawmakers, the Justice Department, and anyone else who’d listen to toss out legally cast ballots. No, they wanted to specifically throw away the votes cast by Black and brown Americans. And when that failed, the last refuge of these scoundrels was exactly the same as for South Carolina’s KKK class of 1870: They unleashed a mob to try and stop the votes from being counted.

The Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection on Capitol Hill brought 400 years of simmering white supremacy to a full boil before the eyes of a shocked nation. The rioters marched into the Capitol rotunda waving a Confederate battle flag and raised the noose of the lynch mob on a wooden gallows — lest there was any doubt that this frenzy was to prevent the candidate who’d won 90% of the Black vote from taking office. The crowd surged with members of the nation’s most vile hate groups and white supremacists, including the one wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt.

It’s taken 30 long (arguably, a tad too long) months for federal prosecutors to come to grips with what the entire world saw that day — that the leader of a political movement larded with white supremacy would call on any means necessary to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. In using the 1870 anti-Klan law to prosecute Trump, Jack Smith and his team are making a powerful statement: There is a straight line of inhumane racial hierarchy from the hooded killers of 1870 to a 1927 KKK march through Queens right up to the twisted presidency of Donald Trump that ended in deadly violence in 2021.

White supremacy is the virus that has sapped democracy on this continent since 1619. The Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Ku Klux Klan Acts of 1870-71 were a bold attempt at finding our better angels and imposing a cure — but it fell way short. Consider the case of the United States of America vs. Donald Trump a booster shot. The trial of our former president may decide once and for all whether we were actually serious when we proclaimed that all people are created equal.

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