A famous aphorism holds that history is written by the victors, but it’s less often noted that many of the victors are disingenuous narcissists, and also, sometimes, idiots. The pandemic has given Americans lots to think about, not the least of which are the awful historical analogies and references used to make its worst actors seem valorous. Below are some of the most egregious examples, why they’re absurd, and why they should be taken seriously.
The coronavirus has been especially lethal for older people and black people, killing both at rates that outstrip their shares of the population. So when agitating for relaxed stay-at-home orders and “reopening” businesses prematurely, thereby imperiling these populations anew, mostly white and conservative protesters have, of course, been analogized to Rosa Parks, because that’s the kind of country we live in. “I call these people modern-day Rosa Parks,” Trump economic adviser Stephen Moore told the Washington Post in April, echoing a characterization he made several times to other outlets, including CBS News and the New York Times. “They are protesting against injustice and a loss of liberties.” In 1955, a then-middle-aged Parks became a face of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts when she refused to give up her seat to a white man, sparking a years-long protest that overturned the city’s Jim Crow laws. To hear Moore tell it, this black civil-rights attorneys’ modern analogs are indignant white people in Michigan, Virginia, and Minnesota, so dedicated to a white-supremacist president that they’ll risk their lives — and the lives of people more vulnerable than they are — to preserve his reelection hopes.
Perhaps this is warranted, though, given that Trump is being treated worse than Abraham Lincoln — according to Trump. “They always said nobody got treated worse than Lincoln,” the president told Fox News in May, citing how his pandemic response has been criticized. “I believe I am treated worse.” Lincoln, you may remember, was shot in the head while watching a theater production in 1865, after half a decade spent leading the Union Army through a war against slaveholding secessionists. In the years preceding his assassination, the 16th president was regularly at odds with partisan reporters, who often lied to discredit him and whose work he followed, like the current president, with a mix of dogged interest and indignant disgust. If this was Trump’s reference point, he’s ignoring both the substance of their relative positions and crucial differences in expression. Trump was the chosen candidate of Klansmen and neo-Confederates, while Lincoln fought the Confederacy; Trump is at constant and open war with press who cover him accurately, often singling out journalists he dislikes. Conversely, “[it] was Lincoln’s job to keep the various factions united, and to do that he had to suppress his own ego and not express anger at the press, at least publicly,” Michael Burlingame, a history professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, told the State Journal-Register.
Comparably galling is how Trump’s administration has characterized its allies who aren’t involved in managing the COVID-19 response. A drama somewhat eclipsed by the pandemic has been the Department of Justice’s decision to drop perjury charges against Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who lied to the FBI about his conversation with the Russian ambassador regarding an end to Obama-era sanctions. Flynn confessed, but more to the point, he’s understood by Trump’s reelection team as a potentially galvanizing campaign surrogate — a military man who embodies the fictional persecution of Trumpists that his supporters gobble up. “Years ago when Nelson Mandela came to America after years of political persecution he was treated like a rock star by Americans,” John McLaughlin, one of President Trump’s chief pollsters, told the Daily Beast. “Now after over three years of political persecution General Flynn is our rock star. A big difference is that he was persecuted in America.” Another big difference: Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years for fighting apartheid rule in South Africa; Flynn was charged with lying to authorities in the course of advancing the interests of a racist president whose campaign trafficked in nostalgia for when apartheid more accurately characterized the United States’ racial arrangement, and spent no time imprisoned.
It’s not enough to say of these comparisons that they’re ludicrous, which they are. Historical analogies, ideally, shed light on the present by using clear-eyed assessments of the past. The reverse is happening here: The motives and dynamics of present-day actors and actions are being obscured by misunderstanding or willfully misrepresenting the historical record, mostly to make amoral people look heroic. They do so specifically by invoking periods when black struggle against white supremacy was particularly strident. The civil-rights era, the Civil War, apartheid South Africa — all are being decontextualized and reenvisioned as shallow vectors for conflict where every person is interchangeable with whatever modern-day opportunist wishes to lay claim to their legacy, no matter how wildly their ideologies diverge. By this method, dullard white supremacists become pragmatic emancipators. Feckless mobs become principled activists, dissenting out of deep wellsprings of duty felt toward their countrymen. Far from aberrant, this brand of revisionism is quintessentially American. Republican bigots and enablers of oligarchy feel no dissonance when self-aligning with Martin Luther King Jr. on his holiday. Reimagining the Confederates as valiant crusaders for a noble Lost Cause was central to white post–Civil War reunification.
The latter myth’s endurance sheds light on the logic of dissenters waving Confederate flags at the Michigan State Capitol in April. A network of Trump-supporting special-interest groups and advocacy organizations, eager to foment partisan discord, responded to Governor Whitmer’s stay-at-home order by bankrolling a “gridlock” protest — thousands of demonstrators blocking traffic in front of the capitol — aimed at undermining her and recasting public-health common sense as economic tyranny. The protest was amplified by entities ranging from fringe activist Facebook groups to Fox News and the White House. “Liberate Michigan!” Trump tweeted, even though Whitmer was following guidelines promoted by his own epidemiologists. Some protesters waved “Make America Great Again” flags; others brandished the Confederate emblem, including State Senator Dale Zorn, who wore it emblazoned on a protective mask he donned for a legislative session. When asked by Kiyerra Lake, a WLNS reporter, about his accessory, the Republican denied it was the Confederate flag (it was), but qualified that, even if it were, “we should be talking about teaching our national history in schools” because “our kids should know what that flag stands for.”
There are two major strands of Confederate apologist: avowed white supremacists who celebrate the flag for what it is, an emblem of white supremacy, and denialists who insist it represents some nebulously defined white southern “heritage” that has nothing to do with racism, but just so happened to coalesce when the men who flew it waged a war to preserve black enslavement. Zorn seems to be a peculiarly noncommittal proponent of the latter vision. When Lake, the reporter, asked him what he thought the Confederate flag really stood for, he responded with a chuckle, “The Confederacy,” then sheepishly apologized for wearing it later that week. This is consistent with how the flag is often regarded in states, and by people, with no actual connection to the Confederacy. From NPR in 2017:
[Owen] Golay [of Pleasantville, Iowa] says his interest in Civil War history and symbols deepened during the Obama administration, when he felt President Obama was overstepping his executive authority. He says he feels a resonance today with 19th century Southerners’ resistance to what they saw as federal overreach.
“Those people were fighting for states’ rights, and the freedom to make their own way and to choose their own way against a tyrannical federal government,” Golay said.
Zorn’s precise views on the matter seem poorly reasoned and not especially dedicated. Much more apparent is his internalization of a mythos wherein the Confederates were freedom fighters — whether against government overreach, the threat of multiracial democracy, some mix of both, or some other threat known only to him. Like much of his right-wing cohort during the pandemic, Zorn fancies himself heroic. It’s delusional, but to ignore it on those grounds forgets that heroes are precisely what his ilk will remember themselves as, and if given the chance, will labor to convince whoever will listen that it was the truth. This is how history often gets written.
Stephen Moore’s Rosa Parks analogy is so brazen because it claims common cause with such an obvious ideological foil. The presence of the Confederate-flag is ironic because its proponents misrepresent history but still arrive at a similar result as if they’d read it correctly: Both the Confederates and today’s reopen protesters agitated for a country where tremendous black suffering was a stepping stone for white prosperity. Far more absurd self-deceptions have come to be accepted as reality; the Lost Cause continues to require demystification, a project with vocal and aggressive opponents at the highest levels of government. The risks are clear. False heroes beget descendants who are emboldened by their forebears’ valorization to behave as badly as they did, or worse. If today’s dreadful historical comparisons become tomorrow’s consensus, it wouldn’t be the first time, or likely the last.