After President-elect Donald Trump’s recent victory, some of his supporters celebrated by flying Confederate battle flags from pickup trucks and waving them at rallies.
But Trump’s victory may mark the resurgence of the Old South in another more sinister way: The return of “racial amnesia.”
That’s what some historians are saying as they watch a familiar storyline emerge. Trump’s triumph is now being roundly described as a revolt by white working-class voters; racism, sexism and religious bigotry had little, if anything, to do with it.
People making this argument are following a script first honed by another group of Americans who made history disappear. After the Civil War, “Lost Cause” propagandists from the Confederacy argued the war wasn’t fought over slavery – it was a constitutional clash over state’s rights, they said; hatred toward blacks had nothing to do with it.
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- This is part of an ongoing series by CNN's John Blake and Tawanda Scott on race, religion and politics
It was an audacious historical cover-up – to convince millions of Americans that what they’d just seen and heard hadn’t really happened. It worked then, and some historians say it could work again with Trump.
“It’s already happening again,” says Brooks D. Simpson, a leading Civil War historian who teaches at Arizona State University. “A lot of people are saying we’re going to have to unite behind the new guy and forget what he had to say. People who feel that they are part of those populations targeted by Trump are going to be told by whites to get over it.”
There are some who say people like Simpson are sticking to another familiar script: Blame everything on racism and oppressive white men.
Their counterargument: If America is so racist, why did legions of whites who once voted for President Barack Obama vote for Trump?
Trump won not because of race, but because he paid attention to the economic anxieties of Rust Belt Americans, says Matt Vespa, the associate editor at conservative website Townhall.com.
Trump’s win represents a “genuine working-class uprising,” Vespa wrote in a piece entitled “When Michael Moore Says Clinton’s Loss Isn’t About Racism, You Know It’s Not. And It Really Wasn’t Sexism Either.”
“One of the reasons why people think ‘racism, sexism, and fear of the other’ led to Clinton being defeated,” Vespa told CNN, “is because that is the default reaction from the left when they lose.”
How white America became good at forgetting
At first glance, comparing some Trump supporters to ex-Confederates may seem absurd, even insulting. But historians say both groups developed an uncanny ability to obscure the role race played in transformative events and to persuade millions of Americans to go along with the charade.
You don’t have to pick on the South, though, to spot racial amnesia. Racism is embedded in the daily lives of ordinary Americans in ways that many forget.
Where Americans live, worship, send their children to school – much of it is driven by race, says David Billings, a pastor who came of age as a white Southerner during the 1960s.
After the civil rights movement sparked the passage of laws that banned overt racism in the 1960s, many whites “built another country” in defiance of government dictates, Billings wrote in his new memoir, “Deep Denial: The Persistence of White Supremacy in United States History and Life.”
“Across the country, white people withdrew from the ‘public’ sphere and migrated to ‘whites only’ suburbs to evade racial integration. … The word ‘public’ preceding words like ‘housing,’ ‘hospital,’ ‘health care,’ ‘transportation,’ ‘defender,’ ‘schools,’ and even ‘swimming pool’ in some parts of the country became code words that meant poor and most often black and Latino. The word ‘private’ began to mean ‘better.’ ”
Consider a contemporary issue that seems race-neutral – the movement to give vouchers to public school students for private school. That effort started in the 1950s because many white Americans didn’t want their children to attend newly integrated public schools, says Kevin M. Kruse, author of “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism.”
Most Americans have forgotten that today, Kruse says.
“There’s a real reluctance of some to acknowledge the part that race has played in American history,” he says. “You cannot understand American history without understanding the fault lines of race. If we turn a blind eye to it, we’re going to miss an incredible amount of the picture.”
A 19th century cover-up
The Lost Cause campaign offers the definitive example of racial self-deception. Before there was fake news, the Lost Cause propagandists were creating fake history.
Their timing was audacious. They didn’t wait years to claim the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery. They started making those claims immediately after the war ended, when the physical and psychological wounds were still raw.
A year after the war ended, Edward Pollard, a Southern newspaper editor, published, “The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates.” Former Confederate leaders began to amplify Pollard’s argument that the war was over state sovereignty, not slavery. Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy, claimed that “slavery was in no way the cause of the conflict.” Alexander H. Stephens, the former vice president of the Confederacy, argued the war “was not a contest between the advocates or opponents of that peculiar institution.”
Confederate veterans’ groups started to spread the myth at reunions. So did storytellers. The Lost Cause was recycled in early 20th century films like D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” “Gone with the Wind” and Walt Disney’s “Song of the South.” All recast the antebellum South as a moonlight and magnolia paradise of happy slaves, affectionate slave owners and villainous Yankees.
Why would so many Southerners embrace such a big lie?
Part of it was embarrassment. They had to decontaminate history by recasting what they did as a noble cause, historians say.
They also wanted to look good to their children and future generations, Civil War historian Alan T. Nolan wrote in “The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History.”
“The Lost Cause was expressly a rationalization, a cover-up,” Nolan said.
Not all Confederates bought into the deceit. Historians often cite what one astonished Confederate war hero, John Singleton Mosby, said in 1902 as the Lost Cause myth spread:
“In retrospect, slavery seems such a monstrous thing that some are now trying to prove that slavery was not the cause of the war.”
The Lost Cause myth took hold even though Americans could easily consult the public record. The declarations of secession made by Southern states on the eve of the war cited slavery as the cause. And Stephens, the Confederate vice president, said in a speech in South Carolina in 1861 that the Confederacy was not founded on the “false idea” that all men are created equal.
“The Confederacy, by contrast, is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and moral condition,” Stephens said.
The Lost Cause also took root because many Americans were being urged to reconcile with the South so the nation could move forward, says Simpson, the Civil War historian.
“White Northerners came to accept it because their own commitment to black equality was never that deep in the first place,” Simpson says. “By the beginning of the 20th century, most white Americans began to believe that the war was over economic differences and state’s rights, and that it had nothing to do with the issue of slavery or only tangentially with the issue of slavery.”
The Lost Cause today?
The same dynamics that nurtured the rise of the Lost Cause are evident now, some historians say.
Those who deny that racism and xenophobia were central to Trump’s victory are engaging in another Lost Cause cover-up, they say.
“Anybody who says that the recent election is not, at least in part, a racial event is functioning as an apologist, whether they know it or not, for white prejudice,” says, Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian.
There are abundant examples of Trump’s explicit racist statements. He didn’t campaign in dog whistles; he used a bullhorn. He once called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and proposed a travel ban on all Muslims entering the United States. Even Republican House leader Paul Ryan once said Trump’s comment that a federal judge couldn’t do his job because of his Mexican heritage was “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”
Trump’s rise to political prominence was driven in part by a conspiracy theory coated in racism.
Trump led the “birther” movement that repeatedly implied Obama was an illegitimate president who was not born in the United States. The president was eventually forced to release his original long-form birth certificate to quell birther rumors. Trump’s demands that Obama prove his citizenship evoked the slave era, when freed blacks were often forced to show their “certificate of freedom” to justify moving about in public.
While the impact of globalization on white, working-class voters was a factor in Trump’s victory, it was not decisive, Ellis wrote in a column for CNN:
“Race was the deepest and defining issue of this campaign. It was the coded message in Trump’s slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ and embodied in his stigmatizing of Hispanics as rapists and Muslims as likely terrorists, his dog whistles to white supremacists, his mainstreaming of blatantly racist language previously confined to the margins of American society.”
Many of those who ignore the role of race in Trump’s victory, Ellis says, are following the example of Lost Cause propagandists who said the war was a clash over the Constitution – whether it gave states the right to secede, just as the Founding Fathers had seceded from the British Empire.
“The constitutional interpretation explanation disguised what really happened in the Civil War,” says Ellis, author of “The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789.”
“Similar interpretations of Trump’s victory also obscure the unattractive and ugly forces that are now present.”
The Lost Cause persisted in part because Northern white voters knew they wouldn’t pay a personal cost for embracing the myth, some historians say. Some white Trump voters are following the same logic, says Brogan Morris, a political commentator who wrote an essay for Paste magazine entitled, “This Election Was All About Race, But Not the Way We Thought.”
To overlook racism is an act of racism, Morris says.
“If you’re a white man, you can overlook Trump’s Islamophobia, his Hispanophobia, his sexism, because it’s never going to affect you directly,” Morris says. “That’s voting from a place of privilege, the privilege of being a born a white man.”
A word from a white voter for Obama and Trump
All the Lost Cause analogies evoked by historians like Ellis bump up against one inconvenient question: Why did so many once-solidly blue states go for Trump? Four Northern states that once went for Obama – Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio – flipped to Trump. The margins were razor-thin, but they flipped.
“The 2016 election was the revenge of the white working-class voter,” Vespa wrote in his Townhall column. “It wasn’t due to racism, sexism or misogyny. … If it was, then millions of Obama supporters became racist overnight, and I don’t think that’s the case.”
Others have made the same point. Ramesh Ponnuru, a National Review senior editor, wrote an essay for Bloomberg entitled “Trump Didn’t Win Because of Racism.” He said claims that Trump voters were motivated by bigotry have a “thin evidentiary basis.” In a USA Today column entitled “Trumping the liberal elite” CNN political analyst Kirsten Powers wrote that Trump won because white Americans “feel under constant assault by a cultural elite that treats them with contempt.”
Mike Rowe, former host of CNN’s “Somebody’s Gotta’ Do It,” wrote in a Facebook post that went viral that Trump did not tap into America’s “racist underbelly.”
“The winner was NOT decided by a racist and craven nation – it was decided by millions of disgusted Americans desperate for real change,” Rowe wrote. “The people did not want a politician. The people wanted to be seen. Donald Trump convinced those people that he could see them. Hillary Clinton did not.”
One of those white Midwesterners who voted for both Obama and Trump is Drew Domalick, a retiree in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He says he voted for Trump because he promised to renegotiate trade deals to benefit ordinary Americans.
“Getting some new blood in with Trump and getting away from the Clintons and the Bushes will do this country a lot of good,” Domalick says.
Trump’s bragging about grabbing women’s genitalia, a 2005 moment caught on videotape, was “hyperbolic” talk that Trump apologized for, Domalick says. The President-elect actually has a record of hiring strong women, he says.
Domalick likes Trump’s immigration policies. Domalick is concerned that mass Muslim immigration to Europe will come to America.
“It’s basically a form of genocide,” he says. “They’re trying to breed out the white population – that’s what they say they want to do with Europe. What’s happening in Europe is going to happen in the United States if we take on the policies that Europe has taken on.”
He dismissed the notion that Trump is a racist. Trump signed an agreement with the US Justice Department in 1975 without admitting wrongdoing after he was sued for refusing to rent to black tenants, but that doesn’t bother Domalick.
“He saw non-blacks as being more reliable when it came to paying the rent than blacks,” he says. “That doesn’t make it right, but it doesn’t make it racist. That’s a business decision.
“There’s not any major event where he was called a racist,” Domalick says. “I think he even dated a black girl. She was like a model.”
Vespa, the Townhall commentator, says some Trump voters may have been motivated by racial resentment, but they were a minority.
“We’re a nation of over 315 million people,” he says. “There are definitely racists and folks with a few screws loose, and sadly some of that was probably a motivating factor for a few voters, but it was hardly the reason why Clinton lost.”
He says Trump won because he reached out to white voters in the Rust Belt who are fighting stagnating wages, a heroin epidemic and rising health care costs. He doesn’t think Trump is racist, sexist or xenophobic.
“I’m not going to definitively say he’s any of those things at this point,” Vespa says.
“He has certainly made remarks that were bigoted in nature, but I think a few are blown out of proportion by the media. I didn’t see the news media going ballistic over what Harry Reid said about President Obama’s lack of a ‘negro dialect.’ “
The wolf at the door
There is some evidence, though, that explains how a white voter who supported Obama can still be driven by racial resentment. A recent experiment suggests that even white liberals’ racial attitudes shift when they perceive people of color moving into their area.
In 2012, a group of Harvard University researchers surveyed Boston-area train commuters about immigration. The views of these mostly white, liberal commuters were neutral, says Ryan D. Enos, who conducted the survey.
Researchers then dispatched pairs of young, Spanish-speaking Latino men to ride the same trains for two weeks. Afterward, the researchers asked the commuters about immigration again. The riders were now “sharply” opposed to allowing more immigrants in the country, Enos wrote in a Washington Post column entitled “How the demographic shift could hurt Democrats, too.”
A sense of racial threat was activated in the white commuters by the new Latino riders, Enos says.
“If you live in a segregated area and all of a sudden a new population shows up, these are the conditions for activating racial threat,” Enos told CNN. “Racial threat is a general term that describes when somebody is threatened by the close proximity of an out-group.”
Some people don’t need a Harvard study to confirm the fluidity of racial views. Stories of the white liberal man who believes in racial equality until his daughter brings home her new black boyfriend circulate freely among blacks. A famous 1967 movie, “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” was based on this premise.
It may be that some moderate whites are starting to feel like white Northerners did in the early 20th century. They, too, felt a sense of racial threat because of something called the “Great Migration.”
By the beginning of the 20th century, millions of blacks had fled the racial repression in the South for Northern cities. The more that whites encountered these migrants, the more their true racial attitudes were revealed, says Caroline E. Janney, author of “Remember the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation.”
“It’s about proximity for white Northerners who had never encountered African-Americans before,” she says.
“White Northerners could claim the moral high ground when they said they had freed the slaves during the Civil War. But when you’re living in the same city and the same town, then ideas about ‘freeing the slaves’ held no weight.
“Instead, they were more concerned with many of the same racial questions as their Southern counterparts – such as whether their children would attend the same schools.”
A similar dynamic has been playing out across the country over the last eight years, some observers say. Some white Americans have felt that their physical and psychological space was being invaded by the demographic changes embodied by Obama. It’s why one historian wrote a recent New York Times column entitled “Without Obama There Would Be No Trump.”
Those who say white voters can’t be racist because they elected a black president twice are ignoring another inconvenient fact: Obama was elected despite opposition from white voters, political scientist Cornell Belcher told Vox in a recent interview.
He said whites didn’t put Obama in the White House. Obama grabbed only 43% of the white vote in 2008 and 39% in 2012.
“The majority of whites did not elect Obama, and that’s the wolf at the door,” Belcher told Vox. “The vast majority of whites did not support President Obama and President Obama won back-to-back majorities, and that caused the realization of their power waning. Mitt Romney ran up a higher score among white voters than Ronald Reagan when Reagan had a landslide in 1984.”
What does true reconciliation look like?
Now there’s another wolf at the door: How does the country move forward when so many can’t agree about what just happened?
The Lost Cause was eventually discredited. But it took almost a century for historians to roundly reject the myth. It still persists today among those who fly the Confederate battle flag while claiming it’s about “heritage, not hate.”
The Lost Cause propagandists, though, didn’t just make history disappear. They made the humanity of those who suffered vanish as well.
The myth paved the way for racial apartheid in the South. It distracted Americans from facing the racist ideology that led to the Civil War and the reign of Jim Crow that followed.
When many white Americans thought of the South, they didn’t see segregation. They read newspaper accounts of cheerful reunions between Union and Confederate veterans and watched black caricatures like Uncle Remus singing “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, what a wonderful day!”
The rush to national reunion enshrined white supremacy, says Eric Liu, who wrote a recent article in The Atlantic entitled “Americans Don’t Need Reconciliation – They Need to Get Better at Arguing.”
“Reunion meant paying homage to the nobility of the Confederate cause. It meant skipping past moral judgment and moving on to the common endeavor of Gilded Age moneymaking,” Liu wrote.
That Gilded Age bypassed much of the South, though. The region lagged behind the rest of the nation in economic and educational development for nearly a century after the Civil War – in part because the South refused to face its own racism.
Unless people today face the country’s myths about race – past and present – they won’t be able to reconcile Trump’s election, says Liu, author of “The Gardens of Democracy” and a former White House speechwriter.
He points to South Africa as a model. After apartheid was dismantled in 1994, the country’s new leaders created a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” encouraging both victims and perpetrators of apartheid violence to come forward in public hearings and testify.
“They didn’t call them reconciliation commissions,” Liu says. “They called them truth and reconciliation commissions. You can’t do reconciliation without truth first. We haven’t done truth.”
There are already signs that arriving at some truth about Trump’s victory will be elusive.
When Harvard University recently gathered together the leaders of Clinton and Trump’s campaign teams to talk about the election, a shouting match erupted.
Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri condemned the Trump campaign for hiring as its chief executive a man who ran a news site popular with white nationalist groups.
“If providing a platform for white supremacists makes me a brilliant tactician, I am proud to have lost,” Palmieri said. “I would rather lose than win the way you guys did.”
“Do you think I ran a campaign where white supremacists had a platform?” Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, shot back.
Expect more of these arguments as Trump takes the presidency. The alternative could be worse.
There will be books, movies and commemorative magazines that explain Trump’s victory. Commentators will keep talking about Trump shocking the Republican establishment, shaming the “cultural elites” and inspiring white, working-class voters. A dominant narrative will eventually take hold.
But what if others continue to say racism “was the deepest and defining issue” of Trump’s campaign? Will they be accused of their own mythmaking? Will they be dismissed as politically naïve, even rude?
Will facing what Trump’s victory says about America be too monstrous to bear?
If that happens, Trump’s road to the White House won’t just be a story about an astounding presidential victory.
It could become another Lost Cause.