The Next Lost Cause?Roundup
tags: racism, Confederacy, Donald Trump, 2020 Election, reactionary politics
Caroline E. Janney (@CarrieJanney), the John L. Nau III professor in the history of American Civil War at the University of Virginia, is the author of Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation.
Even as Confederate monuments tumble this summer, we may be witnessing an attempt to form a new lost cause. Today, President Trump describes his opponents as “unfair,” the pandemic sapping his popularity as a “hoax,” the polls that show him losing to Joe Biden as “fake,” and the election in which he’ll face ultimate judgment in November as “rigged” or potentially “stolen.” His defenders are already laboring to cast him as a righteous, noble warrior martyred by traitors and insurmountable forces. They rely on the same tools that were used to promulgate Confederate myths: manipulating facts, claiming persecution, demonizing enemies and rewriting history. In other words, Trump is laying the groundwork to claim moral victory in political defeat — and to deny the legitimacy of the Democratic administration that would displace him.
The original Lost Cause will never be replicated. It articulated a fully developed set of beliefs about slavery, honor and region, grounded in the experiences of a slaveholding republic. Trump and his followers do not have such a coherent ideology, nor do they enjoy the kind of geographical monopoly that the Confederates possessed. But their arguments are animated by some of the same tactics that allowed the Lost Cause to thrive for more than 150 years, which may help Trumpism, too, live on past its political moment. If it succeeds in attracting adherents, they will be a minority. Nevertheless, a small but vocal set of defenders can still shape our politics and our society. We’ve seen it before.
he Lost Cause was not born in defeat. Although most Confederates believed that their quest to create an independent slaveholding nation would triumph, they also laid the foundation for a new mythology long before Appomattox. In 1863, Walter Taylor, Lee’s adjutant, marveled at Confederate success given “our numerical weakness, our limited resources and the great strength & equipments of the enemy.” Taylor did not believe that such odds were decisive, but when Lee’s army surrendered at Appomattox in 1865, the general managed to twist defeat into a moral victory. “After four years of arduous service,” his farewell address began, “marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.”
Trump is already arguing that the odds are stacked against him: The man who claims to have worked tirelessly to put America back on track is being overwhelmed by left-wing extremism and political correctness. The “Fake News Media” prevents him from getting his message out. Millions of fraudulent votes were cast in 2016, and November’s election will be bogus, too, thanks to mail-in ballots.
After the Civil War, distortions of the past evolved and gained followers over the course of generations, allowing White Southerners to shape the present. As African Americans challenged the strictures of segregation, disenfranchisement and the extralegal violence of lynching, the Lost Cause sought a nostalgic elevation of the antebellum South that minimized the agency of African Americans. Heritage organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy commemorated the traditional privileges of whiteness by casting it as a “natural” part of the region’s history.
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