COMMENTARY

Robert E. Lee and the Trumpists: Why a Confederate "hero" is still important

Trump's remarks about the treasonous general were historically ignorant. To his followers, that's not a problem

By Chauncey DeVega
Published September 16, 2021 5:50AM (EDT)
People gather around the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, on June 4, 2020, amid continued protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody. (Ryan M. Kelly/AFP via Getty Images)
People gather around the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, on June 4, 2020, amid continued protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody. (Ryan M. Kelly/AFP via Getty Images)

Last Wednesday, a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee was finally removed from Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the old Confederacy. The statue was erected in 1890, as Jim and Jane Crow tightened their hands, often literally, around the throat of Black America. The AP reported the big moment:

Hundreds of onlookers erupted in cheers and song as the 21-foot-tall bronze figure was lifted off a pedestal and lowered to the ground. The removal marked a major victory for civil rights activists, whose previous calls to dismantle the statues had been steadfastly rebuked by city and state officials alike.

"It's very difficult to imagine, certainly, even two years ago that the statues on Monument Avenue would actually be removed," said Ana Edwards, a community activist and founding member of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom Justice & Equality. "It's representative of the fact that we're sort of peeling back the layers of injustice that Black people and people of color have experienced when governed by white supremacist policies for so long."

Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, had ordered the statue's removal last summer amid the nationwide wave of protest that followed the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But it took more than a year for lawsuits aimed at saving the statue to work their way through the courts. Northam called it "hopefully a new day, a new era in Virginia," adding: "Any remnant like this that glorifies the lost cause of the Civil War, it needs to come down."

Lee's statue, like those "honoring" other Confederates, was the physical embodiment of centuries of racial intimidation, racial violence and threats against Black Americans and other people of color. Such statues and monuments were — and in many places still are — an attempt to create a usable past that reinforces and legitimates white supremacy, with the goal of defeating the civil rights movement and the long Black Freedom Struggle. In effect, they communicate that Black people are supposed to forever remain second-class citizens in their own country.

In addition, Confederate statues and monuments are symbolic acts of psychic and emotional violence against Black people. Many Black people — especially those who survived the era of Jim and Jane Crow — experience anger, pain, humiliation and other forms of trauma when they are forced to confront these statues and other symbols of racist hatred and white supremacy. Confederate statues and monuments are meant to make a claim on public space, one that creates boundaries of civic belonging and community. In that way, some public spaces are declared to be "whites only," even long after the end of legal segregation.


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In a 2017 op-ed for the Washington Post, noted historian James Loewen, author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me" and "Sundown Towns," offered this intervention against the distortions and lies about the Civil War offered by Donald Trump and other neo-Confederates, including the ludicrous notion that the war didn't need to happen:

Trump's conclusion about [Stonewall] Jackson places him in a camp of 1930s historians who called it a "needless war," in the words of James G. Randall, brought about by a "blundering generation." That view is a product of its time, and that time is now known as the Nadir of Race Relations. The Nadir began at the end of 1890 and began to ease around 1940. It was marked by lynchings, the eugenics movement and the spread of sundown towns across the North. Neo-Confederates put up triumphant Confederate monuments from Helena, Montana, to Key West, Florida, obfuscating why the Southern states seceded. They claimed it was about tariffs or states' rights — anything but slavery. …

Today, when slavery has no state sanction anywhere, it seems obvious that the institution could not have survived to the 21st century. But if the South had prevailed, cotton would have resumed its role as "the largest and most important portions of the commerce of the earth," to quote Mississippi's secession document.

There is one more layer on this onion: The South did not quite secede for slavery, but for slavery as the mechanism to ensure white supremacy. On many occasions, its leaders made this clear. In 1863, William Thompson, founder of the Savannah Morning News, proposed a new, mostly white national flag for the Confederacy: "As a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause." The government agreed and adopted his flag.

Some Trump partisans are clearly still fighting for that idea. Unfortunately, the Civil War settled only the issue of slavery — not white supremacy. 

There is a powerful historical symmetry at work in the reality of the Lee statue's final removal from Monument Avenue. It was taken down and carted away by Team Henry Enterprises, a company whose CEO and president, Devon Henry, is a Black man.

Hundreds of thousands of Black men joined the Union Army during the Civil War. They were integral to turning the tide of battle and finally defeating Lee's forces and the Confederate slaveholding oligarchy.

I personally believe that Lee's statues and other monuments "honoring" the Confederacy should be shattered and otherwise destroyed, melted down and turned into chamber pots or other types of toilets. Those objects should then be auctioned off with the money going to civil rights organizations. I would be among the first people to bid on such a prize.

After Lee's statue was removed in Richmond last Wednesday, Donald Trump, de facto leader of the white right and larger American neofascist movement, issued this statement:

Just watched as a massive crane took down the magnificent and very famous statue of "Robert E. Lee On His Horse" in Richmond, Virginia. It has long been recognized as a beautiful piece of bronze sculpture. To add insult to injury, those who support this "taking" now plan to cut it into three pieces, and throw this work of art into storage prior to its complete desecration.

Robert E. Lee is considered by many Generals to be the greatest strategist of them all. President Lincoln wanted him to command the North, in which case the war would have been over in one day. Robert E. Lee instead chose the other side because of his great love of Virginia, and except for Gettysburg, would have won the war. He should be remembered as perhaps the greatest unifying force after the war was over, ardent in his resolve to bring the North and South together through many means of reconciliation and imploring his soldiers to do their duty in becoming good citizens of this Country.

Our culture is being destroyed and our history and heritage, both good and bad, are being extinguished by the Radical Left, and we can't let that happen! If only we had Robert E. Lee to command our troops in Afghanistan, that disaster would have ended in a complete and total victory many years ago. What an embarrassment we are suffering because we don't have the genius of a Robert E. Lee!

On cue, the mainstream news media, many liberals and progressives and other members of the chattering class and commentariat began mocking Trump once again. There were numerous essays, op-eds and commentaries proclaiming Trump to be ignorant of history because of his lack of knowledge about Robert E. Lee, himself a slave-owner and leader of an evil and defeated cause. 

Laughing at Donald Trump may provide comfort for his detractors and opponents. But that laughter is actually rooted in helplessness, impotence and overall despair in response to Trump and his movement's escalating assault on American society. In a recent conversation at Salon, psychiatrist Justin Frank explained this to me:

It is unhealthy humor. The humor you are describing is defensive in nature. It's defending against anxiety and fear. Specifically, it is a defensive use of contempt. Through it, people can demean and insult Donald Trump, which in turn means they don't have to be afraid of him. One of the ways a person can express contempt is through laughter. Thus it is a denial of one's vulnerability, because contempt means the other person is harmless, therefore he or she cannot hurt you. In that way, Trump is made into a pathetic fool. "If I laugh, it's not going to hurt me."

Ultimately, defensive contempt is a way of dismissing Trump's dangerousness. However, that type of contempt toward Trump is really an attack on reality. It is also an attack on one's own perception because you have actually undermined your own ability to understand just how dangerous Donald Trump is.

Historians and other experts eviscerated Donald Trump's public display of his severely limited historical understanding of Lee and the Civil War. That is well and good: Truth is an important weapon against the lies that sustain fascism. But one should make those interventions with the understanding that truth and facts alone is not sufficient to defeat Trumpism.

Instead of self-satisfied mockery, a more effective counter to Trump's lies about Robert E. Lee (and other matters) is to ask oneself the following question: What is the meaning of this latest controversy? How should we locate Trump's lies, distortions and propaganda relative to the larger context of America's democracy crisis?

Some examples may help. Trump and his supplicants have repeatedly described the campaign to remove Confederate statues and monuments as part of a "politically correct" assault by "Radical Leftists", "Black Lives Matter" activists, proponents of "critical race theory" and other perceived enemies of the "real" America.

Trump and his propagandists have repeatedly used white supremacist language and code — "our culture," "our heritage," "our history" — when defending Confederate statues and monuments. The worldview here is one fixated on white grievances and fake victimhood. Those claims and feelings are cornerstones for larger white supremacist fantasies of violence and revenge against Black and brown people (and their supposed white allies) who are engaged in a fantastical global campaign of "white genocide."

The controversy over a different statue of Robert E. Lee was also the pretext for the "Unite the Right" rally and its ensuing white supremacist rampage in Charlottesville in August 2017. Donald Trump infamously defended those white supremacist thugs and their allies as "very fine people."

Today's Republican Party has largely embraced the neo-Confederate movement and its white supremacist "Lost Cause" narrative. These white supremacist fantasies about the Confederacy's valor and heroism as defenders of "White Southern Civilization" are foundational to Trumpism and its racial authoritarian political and social project.

White Christian evangelicals (especially the Southern Baptists) are among Trump's most loyal supporters. Those denominations can trace their origins back to the Southern slaveocracy and the white supremacist terror regime of Jim and Jane Crow. White Christian evangelicals remain deeply committed to the political and social project of creating a Christian nationalist theocracy.

The Confederate battle flag — which is a white supremacist hate symbol that threatens violence against nonwhites — is a fixture at Trump's rallies and other events as well as those of the Republican Party and "conservative" movement more generally. Flags, hats and other MAGA regalia often prominently feature the Confederate flag.

Public opinion and other research have repeatedly shown that today's Republican Party and its followers, especially Trump supporters, believe in the Lost Cause mythology and other white supremacist lies about America's past and present. While the United States may have defeated the Confederacy and forced its surrender in 1865, as historian Heather Cox Richardson persuasively argues, today's Republican Party and "conservative" movement are in many ways the Confederate States of America reborn in the 21st century.

On Jan. 6, Donald Trump's assault force carried Confederate flags and at least one white Christian nationalist cross. Those thousands of Trump terrorists included Nazis, Klan members, and other white supremacists. Their goal was to overturn America's multiracial democracy by nullifying the results of the 2020 presidential election and keeping Trump (and in their minds, white people) in power indefinitely. History echoes: The treasonous Confederates believed themselves to be "patriots" and the true heirs to the tradition of George Washington and the American founding. Donald Trump's followers have deluded themselves in much the same way.

The Jim Crow Republican Party's coup against democracy did not end on Jan. 6. Instead, it Is escalating, and scoring victories across the country. The dangers represented by Trump and the Republican Party's threats against democracy are so great that George W. Bush recently declared that Trump's terrorists and others of their ilk are of the same poisoned tree as the terrorists who killed thousands of Americans on 9/11.

Laughter may make you feel good. Fact-checking may give you a feeling of intellectual superiority. Liberal schadenfreude may provide momentary happiness. But none of that will save American democracy from Donald Trump, the Jim Crow Republican Party and their fascist movement. Only the hard work of mobilizing and engaging in corporeal politics can possibly do that.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Civil War Commentary Confederacy Jim Crow Racism Richmond Robert E. Lee Slavery Virginia White Supremacy