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Donald Trump, Confederates and the GOP — brethren in the new Lost Cause

Don’t dismiss the folly of president seeing himself as the election winner

Trump supporters demonstrate outside the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Nov. 28. The new Lost Cause of Trump could do great harm to the country, just like the earlier post-Civil War narrative, Curtis writes.
Trump supporters demonstrate outside the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Nov. 28. The new Lost Cause of Trump could do great harm to the country, just like the earlier post-Civil War narrative, Curtis writes. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire)

You can tell a lot about people by studying their priorities.

President Donald Trump is not spending too much time worrying about coronavirus surges and more than 270,000 Americans dead, as Dr. Anthony Fauci offers warnings about being vigilant while waiting for vaccine distribution. You did not hear the president express sympathy for those waiting in long lines for food over the holidays.

Instead, he has played a lot of golf and wailed on Twitter and television, refusing to accept his loss last month to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. Oh, yes, and the Justice Department found time to amend protocols to allow firing squads and electrocutions as a means to execute as many federal prisoners as possible before a new administration takes over.

Trump is also forging ahead with his campaign promise to veto the annual National Defense Authorization Act if changes are not made. There are several items in both House and Senate versions, including on troop movement and, most recently, liability protection for social media companies, over which legislators themselves and the president are still haggling. However, a bipartisan provision that has set Trump off for quite awhile is one that would rename bases and remove symbols from military installations that honor Confederate generals and leaders. This is despite consensus not only from both parties but also from members of the military that it’s time to move on and stop fighting this last battle of the Confederacy.

On the one hand, Trump’s stubbornness doesn’t seem logical. As someone who likes to avoid the loser label — reportedly even hesitating about naming his son after him for fear of how the boy would turn out — why would Trump want to stand up for the losing side in the Civil War?

But then, as the president racks up loss after loss in his futile attempts to overturn the results of a fair election process — in Georgia, in Arizona, in Wisconsin, where a recount he shelled out $3 million for only increased Biden’s lead — he has nowhere to go except to his faithful followers, many of whom are still fighting that long-ago war.

Remember how the president defended those marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, protesting plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from the public square? He showed more emotion toward the tiki torch-carrying mob than he ever did for Americans who dared vote for a candidate not named Trump.

It was not about erasing history, then or now, despite the halfhearted arguments to make that reasoning make sense. The war that divided the country and defended an institution that enslaved men, women and children is well-documented; and there are certainly many who fought for the Union and in wars since who deserve the honor of having their names and sacrifice immortalized.

With Trump, it’s more about grudges and spite than the history lessons I doubt he ever paid much attention to. It’s to please the Proud Boys he instructed to stand by, and the supporters who made a detour during a recent Washington march supporting the president to tear down signs and posters bearing the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Trump’s actions now would seem to confirm reports of him calling those who sign up to serve, fight and sometimes die for their country “losers” and “suckers.” Does he care less for veterans and military members of today, of every race and gender, than for the traitors of yesterday? It certainly looks that way. The only question is whether Republicans in the Senate will acquiesce once again and try to compromise on something about which there is no shade of gray.

Repeating history

What does it matter, though, especially since Biden has said his administration would surely favor bringing the bases into the 21st century?

Well, history tells us it matters a lot. The South may have lost the Civil War, but it won the post-war narrative, painting its Lost Cause as just and its plantation life —built on torture, rape and cruel exploitation — as the height of genteel living. After an all-too-brief period of Reconstruction that attempted to provide a semblance of equality to the country’s citizens, Jim Crow crushed all-American freedoms for African Americans for the greater part of the last century.

In just one example, in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, an elected, integrated city government was overturned in a planned, murderous coup, an event, as described by David Zucchino in “Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy,” that was shocking for its brutality and for how long it remained distorted and justified in the retelling.

Preserving the myth is far from harmless.

Yet Trump is among many who prefer the lie, naming “Gone with the Wind,” with its rosy depictions of plantation life and enslaved humans, one of his favorite films. That he disliked the thought of the South Korean film “Parasite,” with its critique of class inequality, winning top Oscar honors this year is almost too on brand for The Donald.

Long-term harm

But it would be wrong to laugh at the folly of Trump trying to turn back the clock to an alternate vision of reality, which this time ends with the South, and his own presidential run, emerging as winners.

As the post-Civil War myth of the South as victim rather than aggressor stunted the country’s progress, and prevented it from developing the potential of all its citizens, so too does the Lost Cause of Trump hobble a country whose strength comes from embracing an inclusive reality. He and other GOP officials, though blessedly not the ones certifying vote totals in most states doing the counting, have convinced millions that voter fraud, concentrated in cities with substantial Black populations such as Atlanta, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Atlanta robbed Trump of his rightful presidential perch.

Sure enough, far too many Republicans who know better are following Trump’s toxic lead, and trying to cynically use his delusions to further limit the franchise. Florida Sen. Rick Scott says the 2020 election, with “fraud” that lives only in Trump’s head, is cause for new legislation. “We need standards nationwide to ensure voters decide the outcomes of elections — not the courts,” Scott said of his VOTER Act.

We’ve been down this road before, after President Barack Obama’s election and after a Supreme Court ruling that invalidated key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. States rushed to enact laws restricting the vote — and we know whose. A federal court ruled North Carolina’s bill targeted African American voters with “almost surgical precision.”

Trump won’t be turned into a winner as his single-minded quest sputters, no more than officers Lee or Bragg or Benning triumphed in their disastrous, damaging and ill-fated war. But the legacy of this new Lost Cause — a country where a substantial minority doubts duly elected leaders as legitimate and blames Black and brown voters for the imaginary injustice — means that democracy is in danger of losing as well.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

CQ Roll Call’s newest podcast, “Equal Time with Mary C Curtis,” examines policy and politics through the lens of social justice. Please subscribe on AppleSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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