There is a sinister congruence between the president’s reaction to the white-supremacist riot in Charlottesville yesterday and the object the rioters assembled to defend: the city’s doomed Robert E. Lee statue. Both are manifestations of Neo-Confederacy, the fierce, century-long effort of the Southern ruling class to normalize white racism so long as it did not degenerate into extralegal violence.
Like most of its counterparts across and beyond the South, Charlottesville’s Lee statue was not erected during the Civil War or in the period when ex-Confederates might be expected to remember the famed military leader of the planter’s rebellion. It was commissioned in 1917 and erected in 1924 as a monument, not to the Confederacy, but to the rebellion’s posthumous victory over Reconstruction and the Civil War amendments to the Constitution.
The Neo-Confederates and their many Yankee sympathizers viewed Jim Crow as a peaceable compromise between slavery and racial equality. In that regime’s latter days, whole generations of white Southern politicians posed as civil upholders of law and order equally opposed both to civil-rights “agitators” and to the white-trash hoodlums of the Ku Klux Klan, who were successors to the white terrorists that the “better element” of Southerners strongly supported during and immediately after Reconstruction. These politicians often condemned, as Donald Trump did yesterday, the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides,” that threatened the quiet tyranny of Jim Crow. They preferred a “civil” resistance to equality in Congress and the courts, and in the genteel Citizens’ Councils that, as one sociologist aptly put it, “pursued the agenda of the Klan with the demeanor of the Rotary Club.”
The Neo-Confederates lost the battle against civil rights, but maintained a cultural rearguard for many years. You heard at least a faint echo of their words every time a conservative Southern politician hailed “law and order,” or attacked “the welfare,” or demanded maximum incarceration of African-American “predators.” This sort of politics maintained an unmistakable connection to nostalgia for the Old South, an imagined tranquil place of good manners and interracial understanding.
But until Donald Trump’s election, it seemed Neo-Confederacy had finally about run its course. The display of Confederate regalia on state flags, public buildings, and even football mascots gradually became distasteful, even to many conservative politicians. In 1993, when Georgia governor Zell Miller (later a conservative hero) proposed getting rid of the Confederate symbolism on Georgia’s state flag (imposed not during or after the Civil War, but during the period of white resistance to desegregation), soon-to-be House Speaker Newt Gingrich supported him. And by the time South Carolina governor Nikki Haley finally had the Confederate Battle Flag taken down from the statehouse after an outburst of racist violence — nearly 20 years after a Republican predecessor had proposed the same thing — it aroused little public opposition.
Yes, even hard-core conservatives began to understand that Confederate insignia were not just parts of history that today’s Southerners should “cherish,” to use the president’s startling allusion to the Lee statue, but part of a retroactive effort to whitewash history in the pursuit of racist lies.
But then, in the blink of an eye, the backlash to acts of simple racial decency began. It was not confined to Donald Trump’s campaign, but in many corners of the right, hostility to “political correctness” — defined as sensitivity to the fears and concerns of, well, anyone other than white men — became a hallmark of the “populist” conservatism Trump made fashionable and ultimately ascendent.
And so the relatively uncontroversial movement to get Jim Crow era Confederate insignia and memorials out of the public square and back into museums and history books suddenly faced renewed opposition — not just from the motley crew of open white supremacists who viewed the 45th president as their hero, but from politicians who saw a broader constituency for a brand-new era of white backlash. It is no mistake that Corey Stewart — who was Trump’s 2016 Virginia campaign chair until he was dumped for excessive public hostility to anti-Trump elements in the Republican National Committee — seized on the decision of the Charlottesville City Council to remove the Lee monument as an example of contemptible “political correctness” in his surprisingly successful 2017 GOP gubernatorial campaign (which fell just short of upsetting the heavily favored Ed Gillespie). Stewart, who is now running for U.S. Senate, not only defended Trump’s refusal to distinguish between white supremacists and their opponents in the Charlottesville violence, but took it to the next level in an interview with Breitbart News:
We have the violent left which recently attacked a U.S. Congressman [Steve Scalise], which has been attacking Trump supporters across the country, and I never hear Democratic politicians condemning them. I’m not going to play their game. I am not going to condemn anyone other than the criminal. We always have to protect citizens who are trying to exercise their First Amendment rights. From my perspective, there were a lot of left-wing agitators who violently attacked citizens who were trying to espouse their views last night and today.
So there you have it: Not only were the Nazis, Klansmen, and other white supremacists who chose Charlottesville for their big rally simply trying to “espouse their views,” but also conservatives should not say a discouraging word to them so long as they aren’t “the criminal,” however that is defined.
Perhaps the president will eventually be convinced by his more politically pragmatic allies to draw a clear line between himself and the racists who revere him. It would be immensely more valuable if he condemned not just idiot Klansmen and neo-Nazis but demagogues like Stewart whose idea of “Trumpism” is to champion any and all types of white backlash to “political correctness” and “the Left” as legitimate, or at least understandable. As my colleague Olivia Nuzzi notes, Trump is not a politician who has shown the least reluctance to call out and condemn by name — and by insulting nickname — whomever and whatever he finds objectionable. His silence condemns him to the opprobrium rightly felt toward the Neo-Confederates who even now defend the monuments to white supremacy.