The next Lost Cause?

The South’s mythology glamorized a noble defeat. Trump backers may do the same.
Kiersten Essenpreis for The Washington Post

The Lost Cause offered former Confederates and their descendants a salve for the past. According to this mythology about the Civil War, the South was the victim, even in defeat. Confederate armies were not vanquished on the battlefield but overwhelmed by insurmountable Union resources; Confederate soldiers were heroic martyrs, none more so than Robert E. Lee; defense of states’ rights, not slavery, caused the war; and African Americans were “faithful slaves,” loyal to their masters and the Confederate cause. Through distortions and omissions, White Southerners constructed a version of history that absolved them of blame. Although they were a defeated minority, they organized to spread their message through monuments, literature, film and textbooks across the country — where it dominated for more than a century, shaping partisan politics, American culture and, of course, race relations.

Caroline E. Janney @CarrieJanney, the John L. Nau III professor in the history of American Civil War at the University of Virginia, is the author of “Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation.”

Even as Confederate monuments tumble this summer, we may be witnessing an attempt to form a new lost cause. Today, President Trump describes his opponents as “unfair,” the pandemic sapping his popularity as a “hoax,” the polls that show him losing to Joe Biden as “fake,” and the election in which he’ll face ultimate judgment in November as “rigged” or potentially “stolen.” His defenders are already laboring to cast him as a righteous, noble warrior martyred by traitors and insurmountable forces. They rely on the same tools that were used to promulgate Confederate myths: manipulating facts, claiming persecution, demonizing enemies and rewriting history. In other words, Trump is laying the groundwork to claim moral victory in political defeat — and to deny the legitimacy of the Democratic administration that would displace him.

The original Lost Cause will never be replicated. It articulated a fully developed set of beliefs about slavery, honor and region, grounded in the experiences of a slaveholding republic. Trump and his followers do not have such a coherent ideology, nor do they enjoy the kind of geographical monopoly that the Confederates possessed. But their arguments are animated by some of the same tactics that allowed the Lost Cause to thrive for more than 150 years, which may help Trumpism, too, live on past its political moment. If it succeeds in attracting adherents, they will be a minority. Nevertheless, a small but vocal set of defenders can still shape our politics and our society. We’ve seen it before.

The "Vindicatrix" statue is removed from atop a pillar at the Jefferson Davis Memorial on Richmond's Monument Avenue on July 8. A statue of Davis himself was torn down by protesters in early June. Many such markers across the South were erected decades after the Civil War as tributes to the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The Lost Cause was not born in defeat. Although most Confederates believed that their quest to create an independent slaveholding nation would triumph, they also laid the foundation for a new mythology long before Appomattox. In 1863, Walter Taylor, Lee’s adjutant, marveled at Confederate success given “our numerical weakness, our limited resources and the great strength & equipments of the enemy.” Taylor did not believe that such odds were decisive, but when Lee’s army surrendered at Appomattox in 1865, the general managed to twist defeat into a moral victory. “After four years of arduous service,” his farewell address began, “marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.”

Trump is already arguing that the odds are stacked against him: The man who claims to have worked tirelessly to put America back on track is being overwhelmed by left-wing extremism and political correctness. The “Fake News Media” prevents him from getting his message out. Millions of fraudulent votes were cast in 2016, and November’s election will be bogus, too, thanks to mail-in ballots.

After the Civil War, distortions of the past evolved and gained followers over the course of generations, allowing White Southerners to shape the present. As African Americans challenged the strictures of segregation, disenfranchisement and the extralegal violence of lynching, the Lost Cause sought a nostalgic elevation of the antebellum South that minimized the agency of African Americans. Heritage organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy commemorated the traditional privileges of whiteness by casting it as a “natural” part of the region’s history.

Central to the Lost Cause message was a “correct and impartial history,” as the Daughters put it. Through speeches, pamphlets and newspaper columns, Lost Cause proponents fought any version of the past that depicted the antebellum South and the Confederate war effort in anything less than a heroic light. Though never a majority of the population (in 1918 the Daughters could claim only 100,000 members), these boosters dotted the Southern landscape with monuments to Confederate soldiers. They established the auxiliary organization Children of the Confederacy in 1896, replete with a catechism intended for study and memorization that instilled in children the tenets of the Lost Cause. They reviewed histories and textbooks for material they deemed “unjust” to the South, helping to shape how generations of White children came to understand the Civil War, Reconstruction and the enslavement of African Americans. “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) and “Gone With the Wind” (Margaret Mitchell’s novel debuted in 1936, and the film followed three years later) distilled their ideas for popular culture. As historian Karen Cox has observed, the generation of children and adults who imbibed this Lost Cause message is the same generation that engaged in massive resistance against public school desegregation in the mid-20th century.

In much the same fashion, Trump already recasts the past for his political and personal needs, most especially in his exhortation to “make America great again.” He even offers an explicit defense of Confederate symbols, almost all of which have a subtext of White supremacy. (Those who wish to remove them “want to destroy our heritage,” he said last month.) He insists that the rebel banner is not a racist emblem and threatens to veto bipartisan congressional efforts to rename Army bases that commemorate Confederate generals.

It’s easy to imagine Trump supporters looking backward at his presidency as a golden era, touting efforts to forestall illegal immigration, protect White suburbs and battle China — not unlike the ways Lost Cause boosters reimagined the antebellum South. Just as former Confederates relied on the press and popular culture to disseminate their myths, we might expect cable news outlets and right-wing websites to perpetuate his charges of “rigged elections.” MAGA and Trump flags will fly on private property along major interstates or highways, just as Confederate battle flags do today. And while it’s hard to envision a monument to Trump on the Tidal Basin, the president remains popular in many states and municipalities, any of which could memorialize him with Donald J. Trump Middle Schools and Donald J. Trump highways.

Protesters toppled a statue of Confederate Gen. Albert Pike near Judiciary Square in the District on June 19. President Trump has defended Confederate monuments as part of the nation's "heritage." (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

One final mechanism to ensure that followers clung to the Lost Cause faith was the punishment of apostates; those who strayed from the message, such as former Confederate cavalry colonel John S. Mosby, were branded as traitors. In letters to fellow Confederates, Mosby refused to deny slavery’s centrality to secession. He avoided Confederate veterans reunions and declined to attend the 1890 unveiling of the Lee statue in Richmond. He did not see the point in dotting the South with monuments to the failed rebel cause. It is “both a waste of money & time,” he wrote in 1894 to a former comrade. Most problematically for former Confederates, Mosby supported Ulysses S. Grant and the Republican Party, which most White Southerners deemed enemies of the region. Like his fellow Confederate general turned Republican James Longstreet, Mosby became a pariah in the South. He lost clients from his Warrenton, Va., law practice, his income plummeted, and even his young children were subjected to taunts that their father was a Judas. Having betrayed his Confederate identity, he felt forced to leave Virginia in 1877 for Washington, D.C. He would never again reside in his home state.

Trump and his defenders, too, have long sought to drive perceived enemies from the GOP. He declined to consider hiring for his administration people who had opposed him in the primary campaign, a common practice. He has flayed Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a frequent foil, whose name was greeted with boos at the last Conservative Political Action Conference. When aides leave the White House on bad terms — including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats — Trump accuses them of being plants, advancing agendas to undermine him or simply showing disloyalty. Conservatives say their allies who break with the president are RINOs, or “Republicans in Name Only.”

The Lost Cause proved so enduring and powerful because, by the early 20th century, the White masses bought into it. In Trump’s case, it seems unlikely he’ll reach a wide audience with an analogous pitch. The “cancel culture” he frets about has doomed the legacies of far less prominent figures. Turn on the TV, look at recent Academy Award winners or glance at the bestseller lists to see that popular culture is not on Trump’s side.

Still, he and his defenders have appropriated the Lost Cause ethos: in a rigidity that allows for no dissenters, a dogmatic belief in the superiority of their position and a failure to comport with facts — even when there is a solid historical record to the contrary. There are even ideological parallels in the fear of changing demographics and norms. Some Republicans will challenge his movement’s grip on their party in the coming years, but it’s unclear how successful they will be at dislodging it. And even if mainstream Republicans recapture control, Trumpism could have a long life in third parties and far-right congressional primary challenges. It could offer a banner of grievance politics that anyone dissatisfied with a Biden administration can rally around.

When Mosby cast his ballot for Union general turned Republican presidential nominee Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, he endured the wrath of the White South. “I ceased to be a Confederate soldier about eleven years ago, and became a citizen of the United States,” he informed another Confederate veteran. “I know very well the measure of denunciation which the expression of these sentiments will receive from the people in whose cause I shed my blood and sacrificed the prime of my life. Be it so. I wait on time for my vindication.” With the apparent dismantling of the Lost Cause more than 155 years after its making, Mosby might finally have his wish. Republicans who want to avoid posterity’s final repudiation should take note.

Related stories:

The whole point of Confederate monuments is to celebrate white supremacy

Destroying Confederate monuments isn’t ‘erasing’ history. It’s learning from it.

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