Trumpism without Trump: He taught Republicans how to seize power — and they may not need him anymore

Trumpism without Trump: He taught Republicans how to seize power — and they may not need him anymore
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis meeting with Donald Trump in the White House Oval office on April 28, 2020, Wikimedia Commons

Donald Trump's recent endorsement struggles (most notably in Georgia) in the weeks leading up to House Jan. 6 hearings have led to renewed speculation that the former president is losing his grip on the Republican Party. In fact, recent reporting suggests that several prominent Republicans are likely to run for president in 2024, whether or not Trump himself launches a third campaign. But let's put that in the proper context: Trump's oft-repeated Big Lie about the stolen 2020 election has been called the new "Lost Cause" (in literally hundreds of articles) but it's only one facet of a broader mindset that has moved to the center of GOP politics — and none of that is going away, regardless of what happens to Trump as a person or a political figure.

That mindset is rooted in Trump's claim that the system is specifically and maliciously rigged against his base — meaning white Christian conservatives, especially men, who are wholesome, innocent victims of malevolent outside forces, sinister elites and dangerous minorities. This echoes the Lost Cause reframing of the Civil War to cast white Southerners as the noble and innocent victims of similar malevolent forces. Freedom, not slavery, was the cause the South fought for, according to the Lost Cause story goes — "freedom" defined as "states' rights," but only for certain states and on certain issues, of course. Their soldiers, led by General Robert E. Lee, — were depicted as the greatest and most noble warriors of history. That's the heart of the big lie that Trump's big lie echoes, as attested by the Confederate flags carried into the Capitol during Trump's failed coup attempt, and echoed in his repeated defense of Confederate monuments that wildly misrepresent history.

The "great replacement" theory echoes the same basic claim of victimhood, as do a number of other Trump-era big lies: the "fake news" deflection of all damaging revelations, the QAnon conspiracy theory, the "critical race theory" panic and the related anti-"woke" crusade. (It also underlies Fox News' decision not to air the Jan. 6 hearings — a point I'll return to below.) With all these victimhood narratives in place, it's ludicrous to expect the return of a "strong, responsible" GOP that Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden and the never-Trump Republicans yearn for.

Two days after the Jan. 6 insurrection, historian Karen L. Cox drew striking parallels, in a New York Times op-ed, between Trump's wholesale mendacity and the "Lost Cause" of the Confederacy, whose central hero was Robert E. Lee. "Mr. Trump's lost cause mirrors that of Lee's," she wrote. "His dedicated followers do not see him as having failed them, but as a man who was failed by others. Mr. Trump best represents their values — even those of white supremacy — and the cause he represents is their cause, too."

But in both cases, the myths were bigger than the men, Cox continued:

The Lost Cause did not belong to Lee; Lee belonged to the Lost Cause — a cultural phenomenon whose momentum could not be stopped.

Even if Mr. Trump were to remove himself from public life in the coming years, his lost cause and the myths he's helped create about elections, voter fraud and fake news will likely continue, a cultural and political phenomenon that shows no sign of ending.

Cox is hardly alone in making this point. Five years earlier political scientist Angie Maxwell, co-author of "The Long Southern Strategy" (Salon interview here), identified Trump's candidacy with the Lost Cause. "Southern white support for Trump is not just about losing the Civil War. It's about losing, period," she wrote. Nor was it limited to the South, even if that was where he ran strongest. "Trump's Southern strategy turns out to be less about geography and more about identity. And many want to go back to an America in which people like them run the show," Maxwell wrote. While race was clearly a fundamental ingredient, the defensive logic goes much farther:

Southern whiteness expands beyond racial identity and supremacy, encapsulating rigid stances on religion, education, the role of government, the view of art, an opposition to science and expertise and immigrants and feminism, and any other topic that comes under attack. This ideological web of inseparable strands envelops a community and covers everything, and it is easily (and intentionally by Donald Trump) snagged.

All this was in place before Trump ran in 2016, but it wasn't center stage in American conservative politics. Now it is. And even if Trump leaves the stage, the play will go on. Evidence to that effect is overwhelming. As noted above, the same basic victimhood mindset underlies the Fox News decision not to air the Jan. 6 hearings, catering to the whole spectrum of reality-denying narratives about Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election. "There is a kind of perverse public service standard there. Fox is protecting its public from the news," NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted. "It has made the call that the committed audience won't stand for having the hearings 'shoved down our throats.'" This may not qualify as new information, but Fox News is in the identity-protection business, not the "news" business. That quasi-cult identity has been reshaped by Trump over the past seven years, even as he previously reshaped himself as someone capable of doing that.

Republicans like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger successfully defied Trump's efforts to steal the 2020 election, and then defeated Trump-endorsed candidates. But it's important to understand that they're committed to project of potentially stealing future elections, by repeating, amplifying and acting on a subset of election lies that they're personally most comfortable with — which of course could always shift again in the future.

That's precisely what happened with the original Lost Cause, as historian Adam Domby explores in "The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory," which focuses on the unique political culture and history of North Carolina. "The construction of a coherent Lost Cause narrative was not always a deliberate process," Domby writes. "At times, it was an organic one built on minor exaggerations and fabrications woven into daily life. Some stories were created to serve a specific purpose for an individual, often for monetary gain; others, to garner social capital; and others still to aid in political mobilization." A similar narrative mishmash was used by many so-called conservatives, first to justify supporting Trump in 2016, then to explain away his 2020 election loss, and now to justify or explain away the Jan. 6 insurrection. In every case, a supposedly conservative, no-nonsense, traditionally-minded population engaged in fanciful, inventive storytelling in order to create a new comfort zone and then inhabit it.

As noted above, the core of the Lost Cause lay in denial about the central cause of the Civil War and in portraying the Confederacy as engaged in an heroic struggle for freedom, not slavery: "freedom" defined as states' rights to self-determination, thus turning the North into a tyrannical bogeyman. "This allowed Confederates to be recalled not as traitors but as noble patriots fighting to defend a set of principles that survived the war despite defeat on the battlefield," Domby notes. "In addition to a new gallant cause, this narrative required a legacy of valiant military deeds. The Lost Cause presented Confederate soldiers as the greatest in human history, warriors who only lost the war due to the overwhelming resources of the North."

These key elements shaped others, such as the disappearance from historical accounts of any white Southern opposition to slavery or secession and the historical fabrication of "Black Confederates," along with the disappearance of mass Black resistance.

"Confederate mythmakers excised the memory of southern dissenters, Unionists, deserters, draft dodgers, and even ambivalent southerners from their retelling of the war," Domby writes. "Neither black nor white North Carolinians of the Civil War generation believed there had been black Confederate troops during the conflict," but the long-belated creation of "Class B" pensions for formerly enslaved people "reinforced white supremacy by perpetuating a myth of widespread loyal slaves," even though the arguments made for such pensions around the turn of the century "made clear that the loyalty being rewarded was to white slave owners rather than the Confederate state." Only in the last two decades has the existence of these pensions been trotted out to argue that enslaved people fought for the Confederacy in any meaningful sense.

Domby's book is strongest in illuminating how these different strands weave together, serving different subjects and their shifting needs over time. For simplicity's sake, military historian Edward Bonekemper's "The Myth of the Lost Cause" effectively demolishes the core of that false narrative. He identifies seven main tenets that fall into two main categories: The first two are devoted to denying the central role of slavery in the conflict, and the rest to casting the war in chivalric terms, with Lee as doomed hero. Although he devotes separate chapters to refuting each tenet, two brief passages effectively refute the first four tenets in just a few sentences.

The first two tenets are these:

Slavery was a benevolent institution for all involved but was dying by 1861. There was therefore no need to abolish slavery suddenly, especially by war.

States' rights, not slavery, was the cause of secession and the establishment of the Confederacy and thus of the Civil War.

In response, Bonekemper cites one simple fact: When the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act was strengthened in 1850, "the fear of being kidnapped and sold into slavery led some fifteen to twenty thousand free Northern blacks to migrate to Canada between 1850 and 1860." This terror-driven mass migration is clearly incompatible with the invented notion that slavery was on the way out, or that the South was genuinely committed to the principle of states' rights.

The next two tenets — central to the chivalric account — are also quickly demolished.:

The Confederacy had no chance of winning, but did the best it could with its limited resources.

Indeed, it almost won, led by Robert E. Lee, one of the greatest generals in history.

Bonekemper points out, however, that in military terms, "All the Confederacy needed was a stalemate, which would confirm its existence as a separate country. The burden was on the North to defeat the Confederacy and compel the return of the eleven wayward states to the Union."

If Lee had really been "one of the greatest generals in history," surely he would have understood this. Instead, he pushed for dramatic victories, leading to catastrophic defeat. Bonekemper has written an entire book on that topic, "How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War," but this observation alone suffices to pierce the great man's myth. A military commander's first responsibility is grand strategy (as we have seen more recently in Ukraine), and getting that wrong is to inflict carnage and defeat on your own troops.

Of course historians have much more to say about these questions, but the point here is that the Confederate Lost Cause myth can be refuted with a few straightforward facts — and the same is true of Donald Trump's 2020 Lost Cause. The 63 court cases Trump and his allies lost offered absolutely no hard evidence for his stolen-election claims, and we just heard former Attorney General Bill Barr, no friend to the Democrats, calling many of those claims "complete nonsense," "crazy stuff" or simply "bullshit." We also now know that Trump's internal campaign operatives, who had remained loyal through and after Election Day, told him clearly he had lost, and that his own daughter took Barr's word for it.

But here's the thing about myths: They generally can't be punctured by evidence. What matters for myths is their power to make meaning, as Karen Armstrong argues in the introduction to "The Battle for God." Secondly and even more important, the consequences of Trump's election lies continue to unfold: There's a vigorous multi-pronged effort to enable Republicans to win the White House in 2024, regardless of what voters want and regardless of whether Trump himself is the candidate. In other words, Trump's Lost Cause myth is still thriving, even if it will never give him what he wants most: erasing the stigma of being a loser.

Kemp and Raffensperger's success in winning re-election despite Trump is evidence, in fact, that Trumpism can continue even without its namesake. Much the same can be said about the other Trump-era big lies I referenced above. The QAnon cult began, for example, to deflect attention from Robert Mueller's investigation deflection, although it had deep roots in American conspiracy culture and historical antisemitism. Ambiguity was part of its DNA, morphing in all manner of ways, so the end of the Mueller investigation without any payoff made little difference to its spread, and belief in QAnon has reportedly increased since Trump left office, even though he can no longer order the mass arrests of alleged pedophile liberals.

Similarly, the hollowness of the "critical race theory" panic, as captured in Don Moynihan's "Bullshit, Branding and CRT," is its not-so-secret source of strength. If Trumpism is our real problem, more than Donald Trump as a figurehead or actual candidate, then opponents of Trumpism need an appropriate counter-myth. Trump triumphed over the rest of the Republican field in 2016 because conventional conservatism had utterly failed to deliver on its promises.

Conservatives have excelled at winning elections and gaining political power, as shown in Edmund Fawcett's historical overview, "Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition" (author interview here.) But exercising political power hasn't gone nearly as well — because conservative solutions based on ideologies of "small government" and the "free market" simply don't work. Rather than running away from "big government" as Democrats have habitually done, at least since the Clinton years, liberals and progressives need to think constructively about how to make government serve people better — not just as a matter of policy, but as a way of shared meaning-making, because that's literally what it is.

This is most visible in public schools, public libraries, public parks and other such areas of the commons, as explored in the recent book "The Privatization of Everything" (author interview here), yet we consistently fail to recognize or celebrate that, let alone be guided by it in more difficult realms, such as responding to crime or inflation, to cite two highly relevant examples.

The essence of democracy is the promise that the people, acting together, can shape a better world. When democracy fails to deliver, openings are created for autocrats, who will promising impossible, quasi-utopian solutions in order to gain power. Once they have power, as we have recently discovered, they never give it up willingly. By allowing anti-government conservatives to hold power for far too long, along with their Democratic appeasers, we have left ourselves vulnerable to authoritarian takeover. Even if Donald Trump is beginning to fade from the scene, that danger is very much still with us.

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