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Trump: The Next Lost Cause?


I‘m not really linking to this because I think it will happen. But it is an interesting argument from the Civil War and Reconstruction historian Caroline Janney.

The Lost Cause offered former Confederates and their descendants a salve for the past. According to this mythology about the Civil War, the South was the victim, even in defeat. Confederate armies were not vanquished on the battlefield but overwhelmed by insurmountable Union resources; Confederate soldiers were heroic martyrs, none more so than Robert E. Lee; defense of states’ rights, not slavery, caused the war; and African Americans were “faithful slaves,” loyal to their masters and the Confederate cause. Through distortions and omissions, White Southerners constructed a version of history that absolved them of blame. Although they were a defeated minority, they organized to spread their message through monuments, literature, film and textbooks across the country — where it dominated for more than a century, shaping partisan politics, American culture and, of course, race relations.

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.

She goes on to compare the Lost Cause to Trumpers. And then concludes:

The Lost Cause proved so enduring and powerful because, by the early 20th century, the White masses bought into it. In Trump’s case, it seems unlikely he’ll reach a wide audience with an analogous pitch. The “cancel culture” he frets about has doomed the legacies of far less prominent figures. Turn on the TV, look at recent Academy Award winners or glance at the bestseller lists to see that popular culture is not on Trump’s side.

Still, he and his defenders have appropriated the Lost Cause ethos: in a rigidity that allows for no dissenters, a dogmatic belief in the superiority of their position and a failure to comport with facts — even when there is a solid historical record to the contrary. There are even ideological parallels in the fear of changing demographics and norms. Some Republicans will challenge his movement’s grip on their party in the coming years, but it’s unclear how successful they will be at dislodging it. And even if mainstream Republicans recapture control, Trumpism could have a long life in third parties and far-right congressional primary challenges. It could offer a banner of grievance politics that anyone dissatisfied with a Biden administration can rally around.

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