Editor’s Note: Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University. Keri Leigh Merritt is a historian, writer, and filmmaker from Atlanta. They are at work on a new Civil War documentary. The views expressed here are the authors’ own. Read more opinion on CNN.
The American Capitol has long known violence in its halls. In 1814, the British stormed and burned it. In 1856, southern slaveholding Rep. Preston Brooks nearly beat abolitionist Charles Sumner to death on the Senate floor. During the Cold War, armed Puerto Rican nationalists barraged into the Chamber, shooting five Congressmen while unfurling the Puerto Rican flag.
Over the last four years, many have warned the public about the flagrant threat to democracy that President Donald Trump poses. Wednesday’s failed coup proved that “MAGA,” or Trumpism, is not over simply because Trump lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden. Trumpism is far from dead. Instead, it is now their New Lost Cause.
The Lost Cause, also known as the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, is America’s most successful disinformation campaign. It was an ahistorical theory advocating the erroneous belief that all White southerners valiantly fought for the Confederacy to save true “American” (read: White supremacist) values. It centers on the delusion that slavery, known as “the peculiar institution,” was often benign and even welcomed by the enslaved.
This postwar mythology exploded nationally in the late 19th and early 20th century through popular culture vehicles like the films “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” and White supremacist laced textbooks that argued the American Civil War hinged on the protection of states rights from an aggressive North or federal government – not the expansion of slavery – and the promise that the South would rise again.
A New Lost Cause raised the Confederate flag
During Tuesday’s Georgia runoff election, the South did rise to meet our historical moment and elected two Democrats, further spurring Trump’s New Lost Cause, a dangerous delusion of election fraud spread rampantly by social media algorithms proven to spread disinformation faster than fact, Russian bot farms and far-right media.
But the main perpetrator and beneficiary of the myth is Trump himself, who claimed even before the election took place that it would be stolen through rigged election practices, hacked voter machines and by fraudulent ballots. Much like the perpetrators of the Confederate Lost Cause, the proponents of the New Lost Cause claim to be patriotic defenders of the “real America” or authentic (White) America.
Much of Wednesday’s melee was more reminiscent of both the triumphs and the tribulations of the historical era that created the Lost Cause: Reconstruction. Its distorted representations in popular culture, with its brilliantly hopeful beginnings, its progressive ideals, and its attempts at racial justice unbearably gave way to an unrelenting violent, deadly white backlash that had no repercussions or consequences for home-grown terrorists.
Wednesday, for the first time in American history, White supremacists treasonously raised a Confederate flag inside the United States Capitol, disrupting America’s peaceful transfer of power and invoking tangled memories of our nation’s Civil War.
Live on CNN, Washington, DC’s former Chief of Police said the national guard needed to “take back the Capitol,” a structure built by enslaved Black laborers, making it clear that the bedrock of our nation’s legislative body was under siege.
Reconstruction is more than a punch line
As historian Heather Cox Richardson argued Thursday, “Yesterday the Executive Branch of our government tried to destroy the Legislative Branch.” Perhaps realizing this, Sen. Lindsay Graham, one of Trump’s most ardent defenders, finally spoke out against the violent attempts to avenge Trump. Invoking the 1876 election that essentially ended Reconstruction, Graham quipped that for people “looking for historical guidance, this is not the one to pick.” As a White Senator from the state that launched the Civil War, his aside about Reconstruction served to historically distance himself from the bloody violence and racist terror of his Confederate and segregationist forefathers.
Sen. Ted Cruz, advocating for a “third option,” also hearkened to the 1876 compromise to call for an electoral commission “to examine claims of voter fraud,” urging Congress to create a committee of House Members, Senators, and Supreme Court Justices to “conduct a 10-day emergency audit.”
Like Graham and Cruz, Sen. Dick Durbin also compared the Trumpist objections to the 2020 election results to the 1876 election. Durbin stressed the cataclysmic ramifications of ending Reconstruction too early: “It was a commission that killed Reconstruction, that established Jim Crow … (that) re-enslaved African Americans,” Durbin said. Relating the 1876 compromise to modern-day voter suppression, he blamed Trump for inciting the attempted coup.
Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat from Michigan, connected the day’s events to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, tweeted that politicians who supported the coup “have put their name on a list with Orval Faubus, George Wallace and Bull Connor.” Faubus, Wallace and Connor all used the Confederate flag as a rallying cry to White supremacists to join in Lost Cause ideology and maintain Jim Crow segregation.
As rioters, incited by the President and with some carrying White supremacist imagery descended upon the Capitol, scaled its walls, planted pipe bombs, and dangled from its railings, the pictures and videos were simultaneously stunning and revolting: The bright reds of the Confederate and Nazi flags and matching MAGA hats simmered against a sea of Trump flags now sold on street corner popup shops that outnumbered American flags, a noose, a raised wooden cross reminiscent of Klan lynchings, and a sweater reading “Camp Auschwitz.” The lineage between the slaveholding secessionists and the modern insurrectionists could not have been more clear: Both groups were willing to destroy the union and both used violence to deflect their own racial fantasies of power and privilege slipping away.
A scene – literal and figurative – from ‘The Birth of a Nation’
Many historians have feared, and some have warned of the possibility of this day for months, some for years. Trump even campaigned in the style of the Jim Crow South’s White supremacist demagogues, running on hatred and grievance, and cashing in on racism and xenophobia.
Now, in the same moment as the historic election of Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, who will respectively be the first Black and Jewish senators to represent Georgia, White supremacists armed with equipment ideal for taking hostages staged the nation’s first real coup attempt while seeking to burn the Electoral College ballots. Just like their Confederate forebears, they angrily rejected legitimate election results, vowing vengeance and inciting racist violence.
To be sure, the chaos and uncertainty from the attempted coup and their defiling antics were jarring but not without precedent - the entire scene could have been lifted out of the 1915 White supremacist film “The Birth of a Nation.” As the first major motion picture screened in the White House, the blackface epic rife with disinformation and Lost Cause sentiment had been based on the bestselling novel “The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Former President Woodrow Wilson, a historian and architect of federal segregation, was rumored to have deemed “The Birth of a Nation” “like writing history with lightning.” In one of the most pivotal scenes in the saga, set in 1871, former slaveholding Confederates watched in horror from the Capitol’s gallery – the exact place where Reps. Jason Crow and Susan Wild were pinned to the floor beneath chairs yesterday – and gawked at America’s newly-elected Black congressmen and the first (fictional) Black speaker of the House.
Like the domestic terrorists who vandalized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, defiantly putting their feet on her desk with the American flag prostrate, the Black congressmen in “The Birth of a Nation” (White actors in blackface) were admonished to keep their shoes on, with their feet off desks.
The blackface congressmen snuck liquor into the Capitol. They devoured fried chicken while wildly gesturing as they argued in favor of interracial marriage. They openly brandished guns and knives, gambled, and leered lasciviously at cowering white women in the gallery. As a silent movie, a title card on screen explained it all: “The helpless white minority.”
The lie of the ‘helpless white minority’
“The helpless white minority.”
That simple lie lays bare so much of America’s misery and suffering. The far-right and White supremacists’ purported fear of losing status, wealth and most importantly, political power, in the face of mass Black voter turnout has always been part of what animated racial violence in this country, from riots to lynchings to police brutality.
It’s no coincidence that the infamous “The Birth of a Nation” scene that perverts and degrades Black leadership supposedly occurs in 1871, one of the most tumultuous years in Reconstruction. Hiram Revels, America’s first Black Senator and a preacher like Warnock, was in office, serving only a year. Union Army Generals founded the National Rifle Association, and Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act outlawing terrorist conspiracies by white supremacists. The act gave the President the power to suspend the writ of Habeas Corpus in regions prone to homegrown terrorism.
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Despite this act, and the formation of Black militias and voting blocs throughout the South, White supremacist violence accelerated unabated throughout the region for another 90 years with a legacy that still haunts us today. Slavery, Jim Crow and Reconstruction’s failures to prosecute treasonous Americans materialized yesterday - in the plume of gun smoke inside the Capitol.
The task of peaceful unification is monumental, but it is imperative America upholds the Constitution and prosecutes those who commit treason to the full extent of the law – for the stability of the nation and for the continuation of democracy. As the Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens aptly concluded just months after the bloody Civil War, “If we fail in this great duty now, when we have the power, we shall deserve and receive the execration of history and of all future ages.”