The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Donald Trump is standing up for the Confederacy

The statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was pulled down off of its pedestal on Monument Avenue in Richmond on Wednesday. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

In the midst of a pandemic, an unprecedented economic crisis and a national reckoning with racist police practices, the president of the United States is planting his flag in the ground and proclaiming that he will not be moved.

Unfortunately, it’s the flag of the Confederacy.

President Trump always knows a good culture-war flash point when he sees one, and as the protests over police brutality have led to a new effort to remove racist symbols from public places and government installations, Trump has decided this is the fight he’s looking for. On this front, here’s a quick roundup of developments:

  • The GOP-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee approved a measure to rename U.S. military assets named for Confederate officers.
  • That came after former CIA director Gen. David Petraeus wrote an article in the Atlantic advocating that the names of the military bases currently named for Confederate officers, including Fort Bragg, Fort Benning and Fort Hood, be changed.
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for the removal of the 11 statues in the Capitol complex celebrating Confederate figures.
  • The Navy and Marine Corps announced that they will ban the display of the Confederate flag at their facilities and events.
  • Protesters have torn down statues celebrating Confederate leaders such as Jefferson Davis, while officeholders have begun efforts to remove others.
  • Legislators in Mississippi, the last state with the Confederate emblem on its state flag, are moving to remove it and adopt a new flag.
  • NASCAR announced that it will ban the Confederate flag from its events.

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By contrast, Trump tweeted of those military bases that “my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.”

This came as a complete surprise to the Pentagon leadership, which had recently expressed a willingness to consider renaming the bases.

Let’s pause to note that it is an outright obscenity that we have military bases named for Confederate officers, people who waged war on the United States of America in order to maintain slavery. There is no Fort Himmler or Fort Tojo in the United States, and with good reason.

And please, don’t bother claiming that this issue is just about “history.” When you put up a statue to someone or name a military base for him, you’re not making a value-free statement that "this was an important figure in American history.”

As President Trump threatens to unleash the military on American cities roiled in civil unrest, it's clear that he's embracing his inner Nixon. (Video: The Washington Post)

If that were true, you’d be sending your kids to Benedict Arnold Elementary School and playing Frisbee in Osama bin Laden Park. We put up statues of people and name things for them not to remind everyone that they existed, but so they can be venerated, celebrated and honored.

But Trump, proud son of Queens, believes firmly that stirring up division is essential to his success, and he’s always looking for ways to promote right-wing revanchism and resentment. He’s particularly drawn to symbolic fights where he can take an angry stand against cultural change.

It’s unclear exactly how many Americans care desperately what the name of a military base is, and if 1 or 2 percent could tell you who Bragg or Benning was, it would be a surprise. But there’s no question that there is at least some fertile ground on which to wage this battle.

When conservatives complain that they are surrounded by a liberal culture that is often opposed to their values, they aren’t wrong. While there are plenty of messages in popular culture that conservatives might support (such as: most wrongs can be properly righted with the enthusiastic use of firearms), that culture also presents a world in which liberal values on things such as sexuality and race predominate. While conservatives may largely control the business and political worlds, pop culture (and academia) are indeed run by liberals.

But there are a few conservative outposts in pop culture, including the NFL and NASCAR. So imagine how jarring it must be for some on the right to see NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell say the words “black lives matter” after his league cracked down on peaceful protest and exiled Colin Kaepernick, or even worse, to see NASCAR turn its back on the Confederate flag.

Those leagues won’t become bastions of progressivism, but the symbols still have an impact on people’s perceptions — either that the country is moving in the direction you want, or that all you believed in and took for granted is being stolen from you.

An important part of this equation is that the media outlets Trump relies on, particularly Fox News and conservative talk radio, love arguments about cultural symbols. They’re fueled by anger, their audiences are old and white, and "This country is going to hell because of the liberals, the young people and the minorities” is such a foundational theme that it might as well be cast in 20-foot-high bronze letters atop their headquarters.

Which means that Trump will tune in for his daily multi-hour sessions watching Fox and be told that he’s on exactly the right track, persuading him to keep it up even as smarter Republican politicians would prefer to talk about something else. They realize that while a core of their constituency might want to hold on to the Confederacy, it’s not where the GOP needs to go if it wants to be competitive in the future.

But Trump won’t listen to those saner voices. Much like the neo-Confederates themselves, he’s fighting a war that has already been lost.

Watch more Opinions videos:

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Read more:

Robert W. Lee IV: Robert E. Lee is my ancestor. Take down his statue, and let his cause be lost.

Norman Leahy: Virginia’s Confederate statues betray the commonwealth’s claimed gentility

Letters to the Editor: Taking down Confederate statues is a beginning, not an end

Lawrence A. Kuznar: I detest our Confederate monuments. But they should remain.

Nikki Haley: My position on the Confederate flag has been constant. Our country’s culture has changed.

Max Boot: The GOP is now the party of neo-Confederates