Trump, the GOP, and a New Confederacy
Kai Wright: It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright. If you're like me, you probably still have a real emotional memory of those weird, unsettling months in which Joe Biden had won the 2020 election, and Donald Trump insisted he was not going to leave office. This was before the insurrection, but when it was clear there was something really bad coming.
There were administration officials, people like the Secretary of State, and the press secretary, publicly insisting that they were preparing for a second term.
You couldn't see a good end to this, or end at all. I had a conversation at the time, with historian David Blight, who's done so much to develop our modern understanding of the Confederacy and the years after the Civil War, and the way in which the losers, nonetheless, won the war of the story, of the history. I was asking him about the parallels between the Confederacy and the MAGA movement, and he said this--
David Blight: I really do believe the Trump presidency, with all of its horrors, all of its lying, and all of its misadventures with policy, has been essentially a TV show. It is still a TV show. When his press secretary gets up and says what she said, we can't help laughing at that. On the other hand, the test here is going to be, if there is a Trump Lost Cause-- There's already one being fashioned in narrative, in stories, in conspiracy theories, and on right-wing media sources.
If there is to be a Trump Lost Cause, it has to be sustained for what it already was, and that is, essentially, a television show, or maybe it'll be a radio show, or maybe it'll be a theme park, as an article in Political suggested the other day. That is possible. It certainly is possible, but we shall see.
Kai Wright: Meaning that it needs a vehicle for delivering the idea. He's got to have a medium for this performance.
David Blight: He has the audience. The question will be, how does he create a medium in which to keep that audience?
Kai Wright: Donald Trump is, once again, the lead contender for the Republican nomination for President. The TV show, well, it never really ended, but in recent weeks, it has certainly fired back up. By all reports, the former president sees great opportunity, in his likely pending indictment. Opportunity to, again, control the narrative of his defeat, and it's got me thinking about the whole conversation I had with David Blight. I want to share it again with you now. Take a listen.
You recently wrote in The New York Review of Books, you said that today's Republican party is best understood as a modern version of the Confederacy. You wrote this sentence, you said, "They are secessionist without taking the revolutionary step of seceding." What do you mean by that?
David Blight: Well, I basically mean that ever since Reaganism, the Republican Party has tried to convince this country to not believe in government, that government is essentially a conspiracy against your liberty, and not that which will sustain your liberty, sustain your life, or your pursuit of happiness. They have rendered as many institutions within the government weak, or as weak as possible.
This is, in effect, perhaps you could say, from a right-wing point of view, the great triumph of the Trump presidency. It has strangled the Environmental Protection Agency. It has all but destroyed our foreign alliances in the interest of this kind of isolationist vision of the world. They have rendered numerous other institutions moot or weak. That's what I mean by it, that in effect, the Republicans want to own the government that they do not want to actually function, for the vast body of the American politic.
They want it to function for their own interest. That, I think, at the end of the day, explains this perverse loyalty of Republicans to Donald Trump, because he did at least help them deliver what they most wanted, which was tax credits, and judges.
Kai Wright: That sort of perversity, how does that relate to then the Confederacy and that history? Is that how you understand the Confederacy as well?
David Blight: Well, the leaders of the Old South and then the leaders of the Southern Secession movement have been arguing for years and years and years that they had to sustain their primary interest, which was a slave society. Make no mistake, that's what they were working to defend. They had to sustain it within this American republic as it was designed and as it was functioning.
The secession movement of 1860 and 1861 was essentially their belief that they could no longer live within the structures of the federal government because they had become a minority interest, a decided minority interest. The Republican Party today also is aware that it is risking becoming, if it isn't already, a numerical minority interest in the United States. The more and more it identifies as the white people's party, it is becoming a minority political force.
How do you sustain a minority political force in our system? Well, we have institutions that allow you to do it, like the US Senate, and the Electoral College. This begins to help explain the vast array of methods of voter suppression that the Republicans have enacted over the past 20 years or so. That analogy to the Confederacy is simply trying to say that we have a political party today-- Lindsey Graham, what did he call it?
A movement, that is trying to strangle the function of federal power in their own interest. I don't know that the Republicans will ever try to succeed, although there are secessionist efforts, committees, and groups all over the country, especially in Texas. There's even one in California, for other reasons. They're not yet secessionists, but they're secessionists from within. They didn't let the impeachment power play out, as it was designed.
They stymied any attempt at further aid to the American people in this pandemic crisis. Mitch McConnell has locked down the United States Senate, except for the few things that Republicans actually wanted to do. That's a secessionist from within.
Kai Wright: They are prepared to just lock up the federal government and throw away the parts that they don't need, in the same way as if they had pulled out. If that's the modern Republican party and its relationship to the Confederacy in your mind, I do want to talk about the Lost Cause, this idea, how it came about, just a real how-to on how this ideology became such a deep part of our culture.
First off, for those who haven't heard the term, or who haven't really taken in what it means, can you just summarize, when we say the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, what is that?
David Blight: Well, it took root in the physical destruction of the South. It took root in the terrible psychological trauma of defeat for white Southerners, big-time defeat, let's remember that. It took root in the revival of the Democratic Party, the Southern Democratic Party's resistance to reconstruction. It took root in a tremendous sense of loss of people, but also of a society. It became a kind of religious cult, as well.
Then it became, perhaps above all, a version of history. It became what I like to call a set of beliefs, searching for a history. Those beliefs were, essentially, that-- They believed that southerners had never really fought for slavery, that they were only defeated by overwhelming industrial might, and never really on the battlefield. They came to believe in this idea that the most noble or righteous of causes can lose, and nevertheless, never loses its nobility.
They had a martyr's cult, which was, of course, the hundreds of thousands of Confederate dead, and they had this leader, Robert E. Lee, that they fashioned, one could say invented, into this perfect Christian soldier who also said never fought for slavery.
Kai Wright: Let me linger on that part of it. First off, what you're describing is, there's this set of beliefs, that are facially untrue to everybody before their eyes at the time, and yet, were being stated again in public, and somehow it got rooted and passed on. As you were about to say, as I gather, a big part of that is about creating heroic characters out of failed leaders, Robert E. Lee being the key one. Can you take us to Memorial Day 1890, in Richmond, Virginia?
I understand this is the end of the story for the Lost Cause in some ways, but let's start there. Can you describe the scene on that day, what was happening, and why that was important to this story?
David Blight: Well, it's an ending, but then it's a new beginning. It becomes a new stage of the Lost Cause. I think you're referring to the unveiling of the Robert E. Lee equestrian statue in Richmond in 1890, which was the first of the eventual five major monuments put up on what is called Monument Avenue in Richmond. They would all go up over a period of about 15 years. Lee, Jackson, Jeb Stewart, Maury, the head of the Confederate Navy, and last, but not least, Jefferson Davis.
That Lee Statue is now, of course, still there, but it has become an object of artistic and aesthetic counter-memory, in the wake of the George Floyd rebellions, or resistance, and protests, but that monument of Lee, with hundreds of thousands of people who had turned out for its unveiling, covered by the national press. By then, 1890, the Confederate Veterans' organizations had fully organized, fully come into their own, and were out in huge, huge numbers, to honor their great captain.
That monument is only one, of course, as everyone knows now, of hundreds and hundreds of confederate monuments that soon would dot every town, village, and city, all across the south, and even some in the north. I should say here, these monuments had already started earlier. The first major monument in Richmond had been put up in 1874, of Stonewall Jackson, on the grounds of the state Capitol of Virginia, but what now these monuments became is part of a whole set of rituals.
Every Lost Cause, every great cultural or ideological movement like that, and there've been many other lost causes around the world, can only be sustained, eventually, by intergenerational rituals. The story has to be carried on, and it now is going to be carried on deep into American culture, including among northerners, by parades, by the use of cemeteries, the use of monuments, by the United Confederate Veterans Organization, and especially by women, in what was known as the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Kai Wright: Why especially by women? Why is that important?
David Blight: Well, they took over, in some ways. Southern white women took over the memorial cultural process, much more than the male veterans did. They raised money for these monuments. They organized parades. They created youth groups, to which the story was passed on, and the United Daughter of the Confederacy also became a quite powerful lobbying group. They had numerous southern congressmen and senators wrapped around their fingers to get the money to build all these monuments.
Their heyday comes about in the 1890s, and especially in the first decade or two of the 20th century. In all those towns where a Confederate monument, whether large or small would be unveiled, women were the organizers. There was always a women's memorial committee, a women's memorial organization. This also was one of those beliefs, one of those deep, deep myths, at the heart of the Lost Cause, and that is that Confederate men, the Confederate soldier, had fought for southern womanhood.
This is a very gendered story. At every unveiling of a Confederate monument, by and large, there had to be this knot to the Southern women. They were always honored as the women who had defended the home front, who had stood by their men, and who had revived the spirits of the surviving soldiers.
Kai Wright: I wonder, as I heard you describe the parades, the monuments, and the gatherings, I'm thinking about what you said at the beginning of our conversation, about Donald Trump and his Lost Cause, that he requires a vehicle. Am I doing too much to compare those to this would-be TV, radio, or our theme park that Donald Trump will have to go looking for?
David Blight: Well, it's a leap. We've got to be careful about these analogies. On the other hand, if it's to become a true Lost Cause ideology, it's going to need vehicles. Now, the possible media vehicles are many, aren't they? Let's remember too here, the potency of the Lost Cause ideology was in race, was in white supremacy. Eventually, especially by the 1890s, the Lost Cause was no longer about loss at all. 1890s, into the early 20th century, it became a victory narrative.
The Lost Cause ideology now was the story, also, of the revival of the South, and of the resistance to, and defeat of reconstruction, and that, they portrayed as a victory for the entire country. A victory over the radical attempt to equalize the races, a victory over the worst idea of all, which they believed was Black suffrage, the right to vote being given to Black men. I should say here, and I'm so grateful to have the time to say as much about the Lost Cause ideology. Usually, I don't get this much time.
Eventually, a core element of Lost Cause ideology became the image of the faithful slave. The contented, faithful slave, who were often trotted out. Old Black men, or old Black women, were trotted out at Confederate reunions, to be the sample loyal ex-slave. In fact, if anyone ever bothers to go look in a library, or even online, at the Confederate Veteran magazine, which was published for about 45 years, from about 1890, way into the 1930s.
In almost every issue of that, monthly, after the turn of the century, in particular, they would have an article by an old Confederate veteran remembering his favorite loyal slave.
Kai Wright: Wow.
David Blight: It became a part and parcel of Lost Cause remembrance and Lost Cause ideology. They even held so-called reunions, or picnic events, for "mammies." These were old Black women who had served white families, had been their cooks, had been their nurses, and so on and so forth. They would honor them. They were essentially saying a great and benevolent, noble civilization, had been defeated in that war, but its essential ingredients have carried on.
It goes without saying here, but it can't be said loudly enough, that the Lost Cause ideology was essentially a racial ideology, and eventually, it was about the victory they had won over reconstruction.
Kai Wright: Coming up, what's all this myth-making mean for the rest of us?
David, before we went into the break, you were talking about the victory narrative that had been established by 1890. I'm thinking about who all that victory narrative is for, and thinking about, again, I'm wrestling with the parallels between now and then. I want to play you something that someone on our midday show, All Of It, with Alison Stewart, the week right after the election-- I've lost track of time.
So much has happened since election day, but this was right after the election, and before Joe Biden's victory had been declared. Alison and I were taking calls about how people felt, and someone called in, that stuck with me as this example of a defeated emotion I keep hearing from people, who want to see racial justice in this country right now. I want to play that for you and ask you about it.
Speaker: I live in a blue area. I work in a very red area. I live in Hudson Valley. I'm a Latina. I spoke to my family this morning, early in the morning, and we're feeling like this was really a racial vote, and that we don't feel welcome. Trump was basically-- He ran on, basically, what, for a lot of us, seems a white supremacist agenda. To know that, even if Biden wins, which I hope he does, but that half of this country is willing to accept that and is willing to go with that, is very disturbing.
I prayed that my country would live up to the ideals that they've always been shouting, and that I teach my students, but it doesn't seem that way.
Kai Wright: David, that's interesting to me, because-- Certainly, the numbers are the numbers. 72 million people voted for Donald Trump. That's not quite half the electorate, but it was a big turnout. I keep hearing this sense of disappointment that arrives in, exactly as the caller said, this idea that the country hasn't lived up to its ideals, even though Joe Biden won, overwhelmingly, actually. I guess I've just put that to you in terms of--
Is there any lessons from our history with this Lost Cause, in terms of what the narrative of victory in spite of the facts of defeat does to the rest of us?
David Blight: Oh, I think that was a fascinating call, and may speak for many, many, many people. I think we got to remember here, that all the talk about grievance being among the Trumpists, there's a lot of grievance on the other side too, if you think about it. That woman was speaking her own sense of grievance, of how can there be 72 million people who will follow this man? Think of the grievances, shall we say, on the left, or among liberals, grievance over--
Just take your pick of any one of the outrages of the Trump presidency. Think back to Helsinki, when he embarrassed his country in front of Putin. Think of the Atlantic article, about what he has said about soldiers. Think of Bob Woodward's book, which just showed he knew what the pandemic was from the beginning, and on, and on, and on we could go. Yet, none of that mattered to this massive outpouring of people, who are still so tied to him.
I think what this means, at least, and it's very hard to take, but that is the liberalism, let's just say people like where I work, liberal elites, whether in universities, in business, or in the media, are going to have to keep trying to understand those 72 million, as hard as it is, because one of the things that may have happened here, because of the power conspiracy theory, the power of right-wing media, the power of Fox News, and the power of this individual political figure who has, as we've learned, no shame.
He will say anything, he will do anything. That is his amorality, this is just an idea to try, but his amorality may have all but ruined our own moral imagination, if we're not careful. We can become so disgruntled, so disappointed, so sad, if you like, that we might even get immobilized by continuing to try to imagine what we want this country to be. We got to start with the fact that our belief in the beautiful pluralism of America, and the beautiful ideas that are at the core of its creeds, is sometimes just not as potent as hatred.
Trump has taught us that, again, and we've been taught this before, but our set of beliefs, if you want to put it that way, which we hold dear, are up against a set of beliefs that other people hold dear as well. I just found that woman's comment amazing. She is telling us, "Look, there may be six or seven reasons people voted for this man, but a whole lot of them voted for him because he is a white racist." That is hard to go to sleep with at night.
Kai Wright: When we first aired this conversation, we did not end on the waking nightmares of racism. We had asked you to use the kind of big moral imagination that David Blight is talking about, and just send us your dreams for the future of the country, and of your communities. Here's some of what you said back then. Let's keep imagining.
Michael: Hey, this is Michael, from Raleigh, North Carolina.
Ida: This is Ida, in Austin, Texas.
Dorian: Hi, Kai. My name is Dorian, from Queens, New York.
Speaker 2: My wildest dreams and imaginations, it's going to be hard for me to get through this note to you guys without getting emotional.
Speaker 3: It's been so nice to imagine a future, rather than seeing only black, when I think of the future.
Speaker 4: In the world I imagine, it's spring, nature, and hope, and in each other. In our neighbors, countrymen and women of all walks, have all grown so tired of loss from COVID, and everything else. We've become focused on healing and growing the community in the world we share together.
Speaker 2: I hope that we can once again open our borders to refugees and, once again, open our arms to immigrants. I hope that we can be that shining beacon of light and hope for people around the world.
Speaker 5: That people can read each other's minds and animals' minds, and animals can read people's minds.
Speaker 3: What do I imagine for our country in a year? I'm going to choose a year. I'm imagining healing. I'm imagining safe conversations happening all over the country, in different communities.
Speaker 6: I would like to imagine a future where we don't replace one form of prejudice or hatred for another. I would love to see us tackle the need for reconciliation between the races as we have defined them.
Speaker 7: I see my community living in a world where being an artist doesn't cause parents to fret and worry, and we are truly appreciated and compensated for our work. When I was receiving pandemic assistance on top of employment, it was literally the most money I've ever made consistently, and I am a middle-aged woman who's worked for large companies.
Speaker 3: I'm also imagining, for myself, a whole string of days in a row where I don't have anxiety.
Speaker 8: I imagine a female or non-binary person, a first-generation American, an LGBTQ individual as our president, because it's about time
Speaker 4: Where there were signs dividing us, for who we're voting for, now there's barbecues. COVID behind us. Where wildfires and hurricanes exist, that are now rebuilt homes, businesses, and dreams of what we can recover, achieve, and improve together.
Speaker 2: We can come together at a concert and dance to a band we all love. We can go to the theater and see a play. We can go to the movies, and we can all laugh and cry together.
Speaker 6: Thanks for giving us the opportunity to share.
Kai Wright: You can still always send us your dreams, or really anything else on your mind, by visiting notesfromamerica.org. Just look for the little green record button and leave us a voice memo right there. You can also follow us on Instagram, @noteswithkai, that's notes with K-A-I, and give us a shout there. Otherwise, I'll talk to you on Sunday, at 6:00 PM Eastern, or the live show. Thanks for listening.
[00:28:47] [END OF AUDIO]
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