The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP’s threat to the American idea is nothing new

Civil War reenactors gather in Gettysburg, Pa., on July 2 to mark the 159th anniversary of the battle that took place there. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Last week, President Biden delivered a speech warning of the threat to democracy posed by right-wing extremism. For perspective on the challenges he laid out, consider those the country faced during the Civil War.

By sheer coincidence, I traveled to Pennsylvania on Tuesday to speak to students at Gettysburg College. It was impossible to ignore the parallel between the decisive battle that happened there and the conflict we face today.

It takes no imagination to draw the line between the South’s mythical Lost Cause and the chant to “Make America Great Again.” Indeed, the MAGA movement venerates the Confederacy and managed to accomplish what the South never did: stage an assault on the U.S. Capitol bearing the Confederate flag and organize an effort to stave off the peaceful transfer of power. Both the old Confederacy and the MAGA movement pine for a fraudulent past and dress up base racism in a gauzy wrapping of honor, masculinity and military virtue. And the paranoia about an existential crisis that so many MAGA followers share tracks with the Confederacy’s fear that their way of life (slavery) was endangered by Northern forces.

No, the MAGA movement isn’t advocating for slavery. But it does seek to rewrite the history of race through its fraudulent attack on “critical race theory,” just as Jim Crow defenders sought to refashion the Civil War by erecting monuments to traitorous secessionists. The aim is the same: to exonerate Whites and to recast them as noble victims.

Guest Opinion: Why I’ve stopped fearing America is headed for civil war

The unfortunate truth about America is that it has always harbored a segment of people who want to redefine the country by race or religion or lifestyle, whether it was the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant Know Nothings, the Confederacy or its 20th- and 21st-century admirers. Today, this cohort seeks to appeal to “real America” by delegitimizing the voters of cosmopolitan, urban centers. For a perfect expression of this noxious view, see the lawsuit that attempted to throw out votes from states that went for Biden in 2020 and the efforts to cast doubt on the legitimacy of votes from states with large Black populations.

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Defenders of democracy have a hard task in face of the constant onslaught of fear-mongering, propaganda, phony history and dishonest right-wing media that shields its viewers and readers from disagreeable facts. Elevating America as an idea, a creed or the last, best hope for self-governance is more challenging that whipping up White resentment, fear of “replacement” and false victimhood.

Nevertheless, democracy advocates dare not shy away from confronting these forces. If left undisturbed, the extreme White Christian nationalism of today will inevitably lead to violence, cruelty and lawlessness.

Abraham Lincoln in his famous Gettysburg Address challenged the nation to undertake “the great task” to “highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Today, we are not asked to sacrifice our lives at Little Round Top or Cemetery Ridge. We must only vote responsibly and reject an entrenched, dangerous mind-set. Surely we can do that much.