During a heated press conference earlier this week and through a series of subsequent tweets, President Donald Trump drew equivalencies between Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson with more storied, less controversial patriotic figures: presidents and Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
"So this week it's Robert E. Lee," Trump said about the discussions over the possible removal of a statue of the Southern general in Charlottesville, Virginia — discussions that spurred a white supremacist rally that erupted into deadly violence last weekend. "I notice that Stonewall Jackson's coming down . . . I wonder: Is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?" He added. "You know, you really do have to ask yourself — where does it stop?"
He later added via Twitter, "Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You . . . can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!"
The president's apparently sudden sympathy for Confederate leaders such as Lee and Jackson, and his comparisons of them to Washington and Jefferson, seems somewhat out of place given his long history of statements of most cherished values. After all, they were, to use Trump's favorite insult, losers.
Gen. Robert E. Lee began his career as the golden boy of West Point and a hero of the Mexican-American War. In time, he became a skilled military tactician, strategist and leader.
Yet, this same man lacked the moral courage to stand up to his Southern brethren over the issue of slavery. Despite acknowledging in 1856 (five years before the outbreak of the Civil War) that "slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country," he never spoke out against it and owned and whipped slaves himself.
Eventually, after being asked to lead the Union Army in the buildup to the Civil War, Lee chose to lead a force of traitors against the nation founded by many statesmen from his own beloved Virginia. While he found early victories, he was ultimately unable to win what should have been a manageable defensive war of attrition on home soil (some say because the Confederacy emphasized offensive expeditions over defensive preparation in the early months of the conflict). In the end, he lost his beloved Army of Northern Virginia to slaughter and surrendered to an unwashed Union general in someone's front parlor.
In his short time the Civil War, Lee repeated mollifying messages to his former Confederate countrymen, admonishing them for their more violent tendencies (as the president of Washington College he expelled students who attacked black men). He was, by Trump's accounting, a loser. By the language of the alt-right, he was a cuck.
Then there is Jackson. An able and brave leader who terrified Northern Generals in his Valley Campaign and other battles, he was also a hypochondriac with multiple, long-lasting health issues who lost an arm and later his life when he was shot by his own men at the Battle of Chancellorville.
While these sorts of ailments and tragedies do not normally confine one to the status of loserdom in the eyes of all, Trump certainly looks down the weak and the defeated. It is also important to compare Jackson's fate with a comparable one suffered by Sen. John McCain of Arizona during the Vietnam War. What did Trump have to say about that?
He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.
It isn't difficult to imagine replacing "captured" with "shot by your own men" in that sentiment.
Ultimately, the general who was loved by his men and hated by his foes lost pretty much as many encounters with the enemy as he won (his reputation as a commander now is better than it was in his lifetime). The flashing hero of soaring victories and the engineer of disorganized defeats, he died of pneumonia and would be, if Trump actually knew any of this, considered a loser by the current president.
While our commander-in-chief has never mentioned him by name, statues to and places named after Confederate president Jefferson Davis certainly fall within the "history and culture of our great country" Trump is concerned about losing.
While adored by the alt-right and other racists today, Davis was widely regarded as a terrible president during his own lifetime. Many of his own generals despised him, and his inability to connect with ordinary Southerners rendered it impossible for him to really inspire or galvanize the public. As General P. G. T. Beauregard once wrote, "If he were to die to-day, the whole country would rejoice at it."
After his imprisonment following the Civil War, Davis emerged from captivity a broken, bitter man prone to outbursts of recrimination. While his reputation was burnished during and after Reconstruction and his funeral was massively attended, his lack of vision, coordination and ability helped doom the Southern cause. The Confederate currency printed with his face on it became, for the most part, little more than collectibles, stuffing for mattresses and fuel for fires after the hostilities ceased. Loser.
And what about those Confederate memorials that Trump declares to be "beautiful?" It's important to note that most of them were erected not immediately after the Civil War, but between the 1890s and 1920s, as well as to a lesser extent during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
In part they were there to reinforce a national narrative of white supremacy. As well, they were created to make sure that supporters of the Confederacy, despite losing the Civil War, could still feel good about themselves. They're steel and stone equivalents of participation ribbons — something the right claims to hate with a vengeance. They are tributes to losers erected by losers for losers.
So why is Trump championing of these Confederate symbols? Why is the biggest hater of losers now a fan of them?
It's hard to know the mind of this man, but let's remember the notion that certain people are inherently inferior because of their race, religion or gender is often held by those who lack such confidence in their own self-worth that they feel compelled to hold others down. (My Salon colleague Amanda Marcotte effectively demonstrates the role of misogyny in the Charlottesville protests.)
For all of their talk about how whites are superior to non-whites, or how gentiles are superior to Jews, or how men are superior to women, the individuals who celebrate Nazism or the Confederacy have yet to demonstrate how they as individuals are in any way better than those whom they look down upon.
Trump himself demonstrated this by repeatedly conflating Confederate heroes with Washington and Jefferson. While the fact that Washington and Jefferson owned slaves was indeed shameful, the two founding fathers didn't fight the American Revolution in order to protect slavery. They did so in order to guarantee each individual the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
While the nobility of their cause doesn't negate their preservation of slavery, it does elevate their potency as symbols above the pathetic, run-of-the-mill racism represented by the Confederacy and its leaders. Trump and the alt-right fail to recognize this fact because, if they did, it would require them to face up to their own deep personal inadequacies.
It is unfortunately quite likely that Trump will never recognize that, by cozying up with Nazis, Klansmen and their ideological sympathizers, he is sharing common cause with losers. For him, racism and his need for approbation from the only people who seem to accept him unconditionally outweigh his desire to be a winner.