Preview: Trump’s “Lost Cause”
After the South lost the Civil War in 1865 it only took a year for a powerful mythology to take hold. According to Wikipedia, “The Lost Cause” was:
an American pseudo-historical, negationist ideology that advocates the belief that the cause of the Confederate States during the American Civil War was a just and heroic one. This ideology has furthered the belief that slavery was just and moral, because it brought economic prosperity. The notion was used to perpetuate racism and racist power structures during the Jim Crow era in the American South. It emphasizes the supposed chivalric virtues of the antebellum South. It thus views the war as a struggle primarily waged to save the Southern way of life and to protect "states' rights", especially the right to secede from the Union. It casts that attempt as faced with "overwhelming Northern aggression". At the same time, it minimizes or completely denies the central role of slavery and white supremacy in the build-up to, and outbreak of, the war . . . white supremacy is a central feature of the Lost Cause narrative.
Yale University history professor Rollin G. Osterweis summarizes the content that pervaded "Lost Cause" writings:
The Legend of the Lost Cause began as mostly a literary expression of the despair of a bitter, defeated people over a lost identity. It was a landscape dotted with figures drawn mainly out of the past: the chivalric planter; the magnolia-scented Southern belle; the good, gray Confederate veteran, once a knight of the field and saddle; and obliging old Uncle Remus. All these, while quickly enveloped in a golden haze, became very real to the people of the South, who found the symbols useful in the reconstituting of their shattered civilization. They perpetuated the ideals of the Old South and brought a sense of comfort to the New. (Bold print is mine)
One does not have to take a great leap to see how “the Lost Cause” mentality not only animated the MAGA movement and led to Trump’s 77,000 vote Electoral victory in 2016. It foretells the direction MAGA will now morph into. Trump, as we know, will never concede or acknowledge that he actually lost the 2020 election and he will continue to rile his base by way of Tweets and through State Television (Fox News). And that’s where the new mythology of a modern “Lost Cause” will be shaped.
If we look at the Wikipedia description of the South’s “Lost Cause” we can see its underpinning was not only white supremacy but also a belief that “slavery was just and moral because it brought economic prosperity.” (bold mine) As we have watched Trump bet his ranch on the Stock Market, on riding herd over “the greatest economy in history” while he systematically defended white supremacists and tore immigrant children from their parents --- putting them into cages! In Trump’s World the pandemic has been a problem only in that it destroyed his economy. So, what will the MAGA “Lost Cause” mythology sound and look like, starting January 20, 2021?
With the end of Reconstruction in 1876, the North --- ten years out from the war’s end and tired of military occupation of the Southern states --- acceded to the South’s mythology of a” Lost Cause.” The interest of “reunification” superseded racial and social justice. It wasn’t the first betrayal of African-Americans by white people, certainly, but it was one that shaped the next 145 years. The South, without Northern objection, constructed their Jim Crow world --- and the North, slowly but surely, aided and abetted the white-privilege/white supremacist society (housing segregation, racial profiling and criminalization, etc.). Statues and societies arose glorifying the “Lost Cause” and it has only been in these last few years that U.S. society has begun to exorcise those demons.
How can looking at what followed the Civil War allow us to foretell what might arise around us in the next few years? Where the South couldn’t overtly attack the North in 1866, we almost immediately saw a strong strain of literature supporting the “Lost Cause” myth emerge, after the War. We can be sure that Trump and his minions like Fox News, Alex Jones, and Rush Limbaugh will immediately not only glorify the Trump presidency but also incessantly attack the Biden Administration. As we watch the Trump white nationalists and neo-Nazis, the Qanon crazies and Proud Boys gather in D.C.’s Black Lives Matter Plaza, outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we can identify the through-line of the Trump narrative as we go forward. The Democrats are “socialists” and “unpatriotic” who have thrown in with Blacks and immigrants and other people of color as well as white “snowflakes” who “stole the election.” Another strong element supporting Trump and his “lost cause” was documented in Friday’s Washington Post by opinion columnist Dana Milbank (and I have to offer profuse “thanks” to the brilliant jurist, Jim Moyer, for bringing this to my attention).
Milbank notes that White Evangelical Christians comprise 26% of the electorate, even though their percentage in our population has steadily shrunk since 2008 (it may be as low as 15% of the U.S. population). What makes that significant --- and directly contributes to the Trump “Lost Cause” mentality --- is that they comprise 40% of Trump voters and they, more than any other group, have responded to Trump’s dog whistles. As noted by Milbank:
A Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary graduate who now runs the Public Religion Research Institute, Robert P. Jones, argues that Trump inspired White Christians, “not despite, but through appeals to white supremacy,” attracting them not because of economics or morality, “but rather that he evoked powerful fears about the loss of White Christian dominance.” (bold, mind)
The Institute’s American Values Survey from September found overwhelming majorities of White evangelical Protestants saying that police killings of African Americans were “isolated incidents,” and that Confederate flags and monuments are symbols of Southern pride rather than racism. (Smaller majorities of White mainline Protestants and Catholics felt the same way.) Majorities of White evangelicals also perceived discrimination against Christians and Whites and rejected the idea that slavery and longtime discrimination make it difficult for Black Americans to succeed.
There was little evidence of differences among White evangelicals by gender, generation or education.
They are, as a group, dying out (median age in the late 50s), and their views are hardly recognizable to many other Americans. Majorities of White evangelical Protestants don’t see the pandemic as a critical issue (they’re less likely than others to wear masks), believe society has become too “soft and feminine," oppose same-sex marriage, think Trump was called by God to lead and don’t believe he encouraged white supremacist groups.
That sums it all up, doesn’t it? All the elements of the post-Civil War “Lost Cause” is contained in the White Evangelical Christian base that Trump panders to and they will, through their mega-churches and outsized political influence, persist in opposing Black Lives Matter as well as dismissing science regarding the pandemic and climate change while cleaving to their leader who was “called by God” to protect White Christian America.
Even though Trump will leave office on January 20, 2021 we will not have seen or heard the last of him and his most loyal followers. The mythology of Trump’s “Lost Cause,” like the mythology of Trump “the brilliant businessman,” or Trump “the billionaire,” will persist, if not grow. If Trump finds (or creates) a media outlet to continue flogging his rancid creed of white supremacy we will be subjected to an onslaught of “Lost Cause” diatribes and screeds. Looking at the Electoral Map, it is becoming more and more obvious that the former Republican Party, now the Trump Party, is shrinking. Texas is certainly becoming purple, as is North Carolina, and only the Belt Buckle of Old Dixie and the deepest Red rural flyover states can be counted on in a country whose demographics are rapidly changing. Nonetheless, the Confederacy’s “Lost Cause” hung on for almost a century and a half so, given that change is happening faster due to technology, we can expect to hear about Trump’s “Lost Cause” for the foreseeable future --- but hopefully not beyond the 2028 or 2032 cycles. Hopefully.
Stay safe. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Don’t congregate indoors.