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Opinion The GOP is now the party of neo-Confederates

A Confederate battle flag and a Trump flag fly along the Lincoln Highway in Chester, W.Va.
A Confederate battle flag and a Trump flag fly along the Lincoln Highway in Chester, W.Va. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The far left and far right have long been warning about neocons taking over the Republican Party. Turns out they are right. Only the “neocons” in question aren’t the neoconservatives — a small group of intellectuals, in whose ranks I have often been included, who have espoused a values-based foreign policy and a centrist domestic policy. Many of us have left the GOP in disgust over the rise of Trumpism. The neocons who are now in the ascendancy are the neo-Confederates who have been encouraged to come into the open by President Trump’s unabashed appeals to racist and xenophobic prejudices.

A defining moment in the Trump presidency was the violent rally by tiki-torch-carrying white supremacists in August 2017 to protest plans to take down a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville. Three people died, but rather than condemn far-right terrorism, Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides,” and he actually sided with the white nationalists in their desire to keep intact the “beautiful statues and monuments” honoring the Confederacy.

This is the only Trump syndrome we need to worry about

It is no surprise, then, that Trump will be in Mississippi on Monday to campaign for Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in her Nov. 27 runoff election against Democratic challenger Mike Espy. Trump calls her “an outstanding person who is strong on the Border, Crime, Military, our great Vets, Healthcare & the 2nd [Amendment].” She also has strong ideas about the War Between the States — the name preferred by neo-Confederates to describe what the rest of us call the Civil War. Hyde-Smith used that very term in a 2007 state Senate resolution that she introduced to commemorate a 92-year-old daughter of a Confederate soldier who “fought to defend his homeland.” Another bill she introduced as a state senator would have renamed a stretch of highway after Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America.

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) encountered a series of controversies leading up to victory. Here’s a recap of the contentious campaign. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Hyde-Smith’s attachment to the Confederacy makes sense, given her upbringing. The Jackson Free Press reports that she attended a private, all-white “segregation academy” created so white parents would not have to send their students to school with African Americans. A photograph in a 1975 high school yearbook shows her as a cheerleader next to the school mascot, who is dressed as a Confederate general and waving a Confederate battle flag. Hyde-Smith sent her own daughter to another “seg academy.”

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In 2014, Hyde-Smith was photographed posing with a Confederate hat and a rifle at the Jefferson Davis homestead in Biloxi. “Mississippi history at its best,” she enthused on Facebook. And just this year, she appeared to joke in a state still scarred by its history of lynching that she would be in the “front row” of a “public hanging” if invited to do so by a supporter. Called out for this egregious attempt at humor, she said, “For anyone that was offended by my comments, I certainly apologize” — the clear implication being that plenty of right-minded people wouldn’t find it offensive at all.

Hyde-Smith is a neo-Confederate troglodyte and a former Democrat who now feels right at home in the Trump Party. She is hardly alone. The defeated Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Virginia, Corey A. Stewart, pals around with white supremacists, defends the Old Dominion as the state of “Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson” and says the Confederate flag “is our heritage, it’s what makes us Virginia, and if you take that away, we lose our identity.” This self-described “proud Southerner” was born and raised in Minnesota, suggesting that his reverence for the Confederacy is rooted in hatred, not “heritage.”

President Trump has irreversibly changed the Republican Party. The upheaval might seem unusual, but political transformations crop up throughout U.S. history. (Video: Adriana Usero, Danielle Kunitz, Robert Gebelhoff/The Washington Post)

The same can be said of Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the most openly white-supremacist member of Congress. He used to display a Confederate battle flag on his desk, even though 13,000 Iowans died while fighting for the Union. King recently gave an interview to a far-right Austrian website in which he reiterated his view that “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies” — yet the Republican Party refuses to censure him.

While few Republicans are as flagrant in supporting white supremacy as King, many others dog-whistle to the same constituency. Gov. Kay Ivey was just elected in Alabama after running a commercial in which she bragged of standing up to “special interests” and people “up in Washington” who want to take down Confederate monuments. She also attacked “out-of-state liberals” for messing with the state’s heritage, echoing segregationist Gov. George Wallace’s 1960s-era complaints about “outside agitators.”

Brian Kemp was elected governor of Georgia this month after opposing Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams’s plea to take down the biggest Confederate monument in the world — the one carved into the side of Stone Mountain. And in Tennessee, the Republican-dominated House voted to pull $250,000 in funding from Memphis to punish it for taking down Confederate monuments.

It is hard to remember that Republicans were once the Party of Lincoln. But in the 1960s they sold out their birthright to court Southern voters smarting over desegregation. In more recent years, leaders such as George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney had been trying to appeal to minority and moderate voters. But with his pandering to white grievances, Trump has abetted the rise of the neo-Confederates.

Read more:

Catherine Rampell: Trump isn’t to blame. His entire party is.

Michael Gerson: Will the GOP become the party of white backlash?

Dana Milbank: Is it a coincidence that Trump uses the language of white supremacy?

Eugene Robinson: If Trump’s not a white supremacist, he does a good impression

Dana Milbank: Donald Trump, Steve King — and some very happy white nationalists