The pledge at a rally for the Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin in Virginia on Wednesday night was different. At the beginning of the event, which Steve Bannon hosted and Donald Trump phoned into, an emcee called an attendee up onstage and announced, “She’s carrying an American flag that was carried at the peaceful rally with Donald J. Trump on January 6.” Attendees then said the pledge while facing the flag. (Youngkin didn’t attend, and later tepidly criticized the moment.)
This is a bizarre subversion. The pledge affirms allegiance to the republic, indivisible and offering justice to all. This flag was carried at a rally that became an attack on the Constitution itself: an attempt to overthrow the government, divide the country, and effect extrajudicial punishment. Elevating this banner to a revered relic captures the troubling transformation of the events of January 6 into a myth—a New Lost Cause. This mythology has many of the trappings of its neo-Confederate predecessor, which Trump also employed for political gain: a martyr cult, claims of anti-liberty political persecution, and veneration of artifacts.
Most of all, the New Lost Cause, like the old one, seeks to convert a shameful catastrophe into a celebration of the valor and honor of the culprits and portray those who attacked the country as the true patriots. But lost causes have a pernicious tendency to be less lost than we might hope. Just as neo-Confederate revisionism shaped racial violence and oppression after the war, Trump’s New Lost Cause poses a continuing peril to the hope of “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
After Congress decided in 1905 to send back flags captured during the Civil War to their home states, Virginia placed the ones it received in a Richmond museum that, as Atlas Obscura describes, “began as a shrine to the Confederate cause, filled with memorabilia sourced from Confederate sympathizers.” To Lost Cause adherents, these flags were hallowed because they had been carried by the boys in gray as they bravely fought against Yankee aggression.
The paradigmatic moment for the Lost Cause myth is Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, a bloody, hour-long Confederate onslaught later called “the high water mark of the rebellion.” As my colleague Yoni Appelbaum wrote in 2012, the label was unearned. The charge was a disaster, as was immediately clear to Lee, who told the survivors it was his fault. Its fate did not change the outcome of the war or even necessarily the Battle of Gettysburg. Though the assault was initially apotheosized by a pro-Union artwork, it was soon adopted by Lost Cause proponents as a moment of valor. “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863,” William Faulkner wrote in 1948.
Like Pickett’s Charge, the January 6 insurrection was a disastrous error. It did nothing to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s election, and, in fact, several Republican members who had planned to object to the results decided against doing so after the riot. It got Trump impeached, a second time, and further tarnished his reputation, which hardly seemed possible.