The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The right has lost the debate over the Confederacy

The long-standing statue of Robert E. Lee is disassembled and removed along Monument Avenue in Richmond on Sept. 8. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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Robert E. Lee, the general who committed treason against the United States in an effort to maintain the ability of White Southerners to own other human beings, no longer looms over Richmond. After a controversy that went on for years, Lee’s statue was removed Wednesday from Monument Avenue in the Virginia capital.

It was a vivid illustration of an important fact: Liberals, and particularly Black Americans, have pretty much won the debate over the Confederacy. Will there be a backlash? Probably. But in this one corner of our never-ending culture war, the fight is all but over.

A century and a half since White Southern conservatives began building and propagating the Lost Cause myth, defeat came fairly quickly. Why? Because people began organizing in significant numbers against honoring the Confederacy, which meant that its advocates had to defend the flag and the statues and the names affixed to highways and schools, as well as all the other ways the Confederacy has been given such a place of honor.

Those defenses were so weak that they simply fell apart. First, it became impossible to argue that the Confederacy itself stood for something important to glorify when, above all, it stood for the enslavement of human beings. That then left the lamest argument of all, that to remove a statue is to destroy “history,” which we will supposedly be unable to remember unless it is cast in bronze.

But as even a child can understand, statues don’t just say “Here’s an important figure from history you should know about.” If that were the case there might be statues of Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Laden in your town square.

The Lee statue in Richmond dates to 1890, after the end of Reconstruction brought the first wave of Confederate statues being erected throughout the South. That was the front end of a period that saw a vicious and bloody reinstallation of white supremacy throughout the region, in which Jim Crow was solidified, the Ku Klux Klan was created, and Blacks were the targets of a decades-long campaign of terrorism.

The statues, like the naming of U.S. military bases after Confederate figures, were instruments of propaganda — a message that, though the Confederacy had been defeated, its ideology was alive and well. And for so long, they stayed up not only because of the political power of neo-Confederates but because other White people just accepted them.

But all that changed quickly, as The Post reports:

As recently as two years ago, Confederate enthusiasts waving battle flags were a common sight around Richmond. A succession of Black mayors and Black-majority city councils dared not challenge Richmond’s Lost Cause iconography, and even the violence of 2017’s “Unite the Right” rally around a Lee statue in Charlottesville failed to change the landscape in Virginia’s capital.
Last summer’s social justice protests, triggered by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, smashed the status quo. Rallies for racial justice quickly focused on the Lee statue as the most visible symbol of past inequities in perhaps all of the South. Protesters covered its stone base with a riot of graffiti condemning police violence and racial injustice.

Now it’s gone — and so are many other statues, while Confederate flags are banned at military facilities and NASCAR events, and have been removed from statehouses.

I’d argue that former president Donald Trump deserves some credit here, because his repeated embrace of the Confederate cause made it harder and harder for mainstream Republicans to go along with it.

Trump was a New Yorker who evinced no concern about the “heritage” and “tradition” that many claimed were the real reason they so revered the Confederacy before he ran for office. He also became America’s best-known bigot, and his advocacy of the Confederacy could not be understood by anyone as anything other than a naked attempt at race-baiting.

He kept it up all the way through his term in office, culminating in his post-2020-election veto of a defense authorization bill, following through on a threat he had made to veto it if it included a measure providing for the renaming of military facilities named after Confederate figures.

Trump couldn’t have told you who Fort Benning or Fort Bragg were named for if his life depended on it, but he knew which fires he wanted to stoke. And both houses of Congress overwhelmingly overrode his veto.

You wouldn’t think it would have been possible to further discredit the Confederate cause, but Trump managed it. And in the future, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find any ambitious Republican who’ll want to talk about the Confederacy.

There are still Confederate statues standing, and the Lost Cause will continue to have its advocates. But today, the GOP sees more fruitful ground to sow resentment and rage not in defending the South’s role in the Civil War, but in fighting to make sure children aren’t taught that racism is a present-day reality.

So the culture war over race continues. But as much as the right is able (and eager) to create White backlash, the crumbling statues tell us that there’s no mystery about which side is winning.