The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Trump lost one of his biggest fights — and nobody noticed

A roadside shop in White, Ga. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
5 min

As his time in the Oval Office wound down, President Donald Trump vetoed a defense authorization bill. He did this because it included money to rename military bases named for Confederate officers, people who waged war against the United States of America to maintain slavery.

For various reasons Trump’s veto was overridden by overwhelming bipartisan majorities. But what’s remarkable is what has happened since: The project to remove Confederate names is proceeding apace, and it’s not remotely controversial anymore. Trump lost this battle decisively — and no one noticed.

This week a commission established by Congress announced the completion of a report showing that removing Confederate names from places of honor in the military will cost $62 million, covering everything from changing signage and stationery to removing monuments.

That commission has recommended nine major Army posts be renamed for women and minorities who are historic figures with great significance to those installations’ local communities. Among these are Black Army officers who broke through military racial barriers.

The project now appears to be moving forward. But, notably, there’s almost no one left to object.

We forget this now, but Trump tried to make this question into a major battle in the culture wars, an existential test of whether the nation would succumb to the dark forces of political correctness.

Yet by doing that, Trump ended up pushing the country to take a firm stand — against his position. As long as almost nobody knew or cared who Braxton Bragg, Henry L. Benning, or John Bell Hood were, their names could be honored on military bases. A few names could be removed here or there without any sense of urgency.

But after Trump forced the issue, it could no longer continue under the radar. And no conservative could offer even a moderately persuasive argument for why U.S. soldiers should train and live at bases named for enemies of the United States who fought in support of one of the worst evils in human history.

Removing those names is a long overdue correction of an outright obscenity. But Trump seemed like the last Republican determined to keep the Confederate names on the bases.

One strange thing about this saga was how it combined Trump’s relentless race-baiting with his zeal for forcing the country into utterly needless social and political conflicts.

Trump seized on a number of key moments in our recent history to try to do this. But it probably intensified most prominently when Trump praised the “very fine people” on both sides after white supremacist rioting in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.

That collection of neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis and other far-rightists were in Charlottesville in part to protest the potential removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.

After an outcry over his remarks, Trump directly condemned anti-Black racism. But we subsequently learned that Trump was furious about having to do so, and saw it as a display of weakness and capitulation to political correctness: “The biggest f---ing mistake I made.”

It was in the aftermath of all this that Confederate statues became a weapon for Trump. He clearly believed a defense of the Confederacy could supercharge his base during his 2020 reelection campaign. And that led him to draw a line against renaming military bases named after Confederate generals.

Many Republicans continued to oppose removing Confederate statues. But they often hid behind disingenuous arguments about “heritage” and “history,” as though we put up statues not to venerate people but just to say they were important historic figures. Those arguments seemed weaker and weaker over time, to the point where even Republicans largely stopped making them.

Trump, by contrast, forced the conflict in the other direction, to a place many Republicans didn’t want to go: Over an explicit honoring of the Confederacy’s military aims by resolutely keeping Confederate names on bases. On that point many GOP senators broke with Trump and supported renaming them.

In short, Trump forced the entire political system into a culture war that even many in his party didn’t want. Some surely wanted to keep the race-baiting in dog whistle mode. Trump very much wanted it to be explicit.

To be clear, the $62 million needed to begin expunging the deeply embedded celebration of the Confederacy in the military shows how far we have to go to cleanse it. The continued entrenchment of systemic racism — and the white nationalism or worse animating some in the GOP and right-wing media — shows that this erasure, while welcome, is not something to get overly self-congratulatory about.

But there’s no longer any serious argument over whether that particular expungement should happen. Even Trump must be able to see that his side lost that argument, with so many institutions — the military, NASCAR — ridding themselves of their celebrations of the Confederacy.

So it’s doubtful that Trump will bring this up again if he runs for president in 2024. Which means he’ll have to find some other way to stoke racism and foment division. No doubt he’s up to the challenge.