Haley and Trump wave the flag for the Lost Cause
It's not an accident that Republicans have such a hard time denouncing slavery.
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Republicans have trouble talking about the Civil War without sounding both confused and racist. Former South Carolina governor and current presidential candidate Nikki Haley demonstrated this axiom once again during a recent town hall in Berlin, New Hampshire, when a prospective voter asked her, "What was the cause of the United States Civil War?"
Rather than responding with the correct answer — slavery — Haley fumbled into a word salad.
"I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run, the freedoms, and what people could and couldn't do … I will always stand by the fact that I think government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people. It was never meant to be all things to all people. Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life.”
Those comments were widely criticized, and Haley did herself no favors with her self-defenses. Pressed on her slavery omission during a CNN town hall last Thursday, Haley obliviously claimed she “had Black friends growing up.”
Haley’s inability to simply say “slavery” is telling, though not surprising. Republicans are a party of white identity, and — increasingly openly — a party of white hegemony. Their politics are based on a narrative of (natural) white superiority and (unnatural) white victimization. As such, they are intellectual heirs of the Confederacy, which makes it difficult for them to understand, or criticize, the Confederacy and its commitment to chattel slavery.
Instead, Republicans obfuscate — and imply (or more than imply) that the real victims of the Civil War were white Southern conservatives. This topsy-turvy narrative of ahistorical white grievance serves as an excuse for a politics of white ascendancy, and Black subjugation, in the present.
The Lost Cause lives
Haley’s response to her questioner was incoherent, but not unprecedented. She was clearly influenced by the myth of the Lost Cause.
Following the Civil War, defeated Southern whites engaged in conscious historical revisionism. They argued, in clear contravention of their own secession documents, that slavery was, in the mendacious words of traitor and former Confederate president Jefferson Davis, “in no wise the cause of the war.”
Davis and others claimed that enslaved people were happy, and that the South was a paradise of organic community. They said that the “War of Northern Aggression” was started by the North for nefarious economic purposes, and that the South fought valiantly for “states’ rights” and freedom. This neatly reversed victim and victimizer. The viciously tyrannical white South, which was literally built on kidnapping and enslaving people against their will, was supposedly the last bastion of liberty against the repressive North.
The Lost Cause narrative has, in theory, been thoroughly debunked. Nikki Haley herself took a stand against it in 2015. After a white supremacist murdered nine people in a Black church in Charleston in 2015, she removed the Confederate flag from the state capitol, explicitly acknowledging that the Confederacy was and remains a bastion of white supremacist ideology which should be relegated to the sewer of history.
Why couldn’t they have just worked it out?
And yet Republicans, when they talk about the Civil War, continue to drop severed, decayed bits of Lost Cause ideology from their mouths.
Ron DeSantis has defended the idea that Black people benefited from slavery — an echo of the Lost Cause insistence that enslaved people were happy with their lot. And Trump has repeatedly questioned why the Civil War had to happen, including most recently during a speech he gave Saturday in Iowa.
“So many mistakes were made,” Trump began. “See, there was something I think could’ve been negotiated, to be honest with you. I think you could’ve negotiated that.”
“For all those people to die … Abraham Lincoln, of course, if he negotiated it, you probably wouldn’t even know who Abraham Lincoln was. That would’ve been okay.”
Those statements sound ridiculous. But they’re basically a very dumbed down expression of typical Lost Cause retroactive sentimental whitewashing, which portrays the Civil War as a tragic and unnecessary rift between Northern and Southern whites, who never should’ve let Black rights get in the way of white amity and white supremacy.
As Virginia’s governor Charles T. O’Ferrall fulminated in 1896, “there is no lingering feeling of bitterness engendered by internecine strife in our breasts.” The Civil War was about nothing; (white) people should have just worked it out. And eventually, via Jim Crow and a renewed commitment to racism, they did.
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Sometimes Republicans do directly admit slavery was bad, in contradiction to the Lost Cause narrative. Ted Cruz for example recently tweeted, “Republicans fought to end slavery, while Democrats fought tooth-and-nail to keep slavery. Thankfully Republicans won.”
The deliberately deceptive argument here is that because Democrats were evil in the past, therefore they’re evil now — even though the parties now are not what they were then, because Democrats embraced Civil Rights in the 1960s while the Republicans embraced segregation.
What Republican voters want
It's notable that Cruz made his argument on twitter by trolling Democrats, not by making a direct appeal to Republican voters. Haley, too, was able to speak more clearly about slavery when she wasn’t in a town hall setting. On a radio program the day after her ill-fated New Hampshire event, she tried to do damage control, saying “of course the Civil War was about slavery.”
But even there she couldn’t stop.
“What’s the lesson in all that?” she asked rhetorically. But her answer was not, “Don’t be a racist nightmare society which enslaves Black people.” Instead, she nattered, “we need to make sure that every person has freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to do and be anything they want to be without anyone or government getting in the way.”
Haley wandered away from the specifics of slavery to hit a bunch of conservative buzzwords about “freedom of speech” and “freedom of religion,” and suggested government “getting in the way” is the cause of unfreedom. But this libertarian-ish word cloud has little to do with slavery, which was brutally imposed by Southern state governments and ended by federal intervention. And of course Haley’s effort to universalize the lessons of slavery glosses over the fact that the core of slavery was inequity. Racism justified treating Black people differently and excluding them from (white) promises of freedom.
Again, Haley doesn’t want to acknowledge the racism or brutality of slavery because it’s not what Republican voters want to hear. Some 74 percent of Republicans say that the Confederate flag symbolizes “Southern pride”; only 12 percent say it stands for racism. White Republicans (about 83 percent of the GOP) are more likely to say that white people face a lot of discrimination than they are to say that Black people do.
The Lost Cause — which said the Confederacy was noble, and that white people are the real victims — is still the guiding ideology of the Republican Party in many ways, and if you’re a Republican politician it’s best not to defy it.
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Denial is a tool of oppression
The Lost Cause wasn’t just a lie about history. It was a justification for white supremacy.
Per the Lost Cause, the Civil War was an unprovoked attack on noble white Southerners. Per the Lost Cause, federal government intervention was tyrannical, and subjugation of Black people was natural and an expression of freedom. Misrepresenting the Civil War was a kind of atrocity denial, which justified and enabled further subjugation and further atrocity — including disenfranchisement of Black people, as one example.
The GOP is still misrepresenting the Civil War and, not coincidentally, still disenfranchising Black people. Haley is supposed to be a more moderate and responsible alternative to Trump. But she joins him in obfuscating the causes of the Civil War, and she struggles to acknowledge that the oppression of slavery and the “oppression” of being forced to stop enslaving people are not symmetrical or equivalent. Even Haley’s GOP can’t reject the Lost Cause, which means that even Haley’s GOP is still Trump’s party.
That’s it for today
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