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The New Lost Cause

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Daniel Desrocher has an excellent multi-part series in the Herald Leader about living legacies of the Civil War in Kentucky, framed against contemporary politics.

Politics are about power — how to win it, how to use it and how to keep it. And as the Republican Party keeps a steady eye on how to win back power in Washington D.C., the majority of their elected officials have adopted an unwritten rule of not speaking about the largest breach of the U.S. Capitol since it was burned by the British in 1814. A breach that briefly disrupted the democratic process of certifying an election, where a rioter walked through the halls of the building carrying a Confederate flag, something southern soldiers failed to accomplish more than 150 years earlier…

And, if parallels are to be drawn from the past to the present, where similarities to the war and its aftermath occur today. Similarities between modern day and the period of the Civil War laid out. Baxter finds them in former President Donald Trump, particularly in his false claims that the election was stolen, and the stricter election laws that have followed. “They just constantly are lying to you,” Baxter said. “And that’s what Jefferson Davis and the whole group of them, through their writings and through their publishing and their passing of the Jim Crow laws. It’s all analogous. We’re doing it in a more sophisticated way today probably, but it’s getting done. And it’s just the idea that they’re slowly trying to take back that power that they know that they’re losing.” In other words, “the Big Lie,” as Democrats like to call it, could become the new “Lost Cause.”

The legacy of the Civil War is complex in Kentucky for some values of the word “complex.” In other ways it’s quite simple. The statues of Confederates across the state, and that were until very recently prominently featured in both Louisville and Lexington, are monuments to white supremacy erected by white supremacists for the express purpose of celebrating white supremacy. The associations and assemblies and councils that erected the statues saw no reason to hide or obscure their purposes. When I got here fifteen years ago I would find myself in arguments with local liberals who insisted that the statues needed to remain because of the history and the heritage and anyway John C. Breckinridge wasn’t really *that* bad of a guy and so forth and what not.

A lot has changed in the last fifteen years, and a lot hasn’t. Desrochers is correct, I think, to connect the mythology of the Lost Cause to the mythology of the Big Steal; for a certain demographic they both represent pleasing constructs that sand down the most embarrassing elements of two of the most egregious attempts to destroy American democracy.

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