How Trumpism Is Becoming America’s New “Lost Cause”

Zack Stanton
·15 min read

The idea of a new Civil War has been coursing through the national conversation lately, as Americans try to make sense of the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, or the polls showing a majority of Republicans still don’t recognize Joe Biden’s election. Fox News segments have warned that Democrats want to force a “new version of Reconstruction” on an unsuspecting public.

Overblown? Maybe. But one of America’s preeminent historians of that era thinks there’s good reason for the comparison. “We really have arrived at, it appears, two irreconcilable Americas with their own information systems, their own facts, their own story, their own narrative,” says David Blight, the legendary Yale historian whose work studying the Civil War and Reconstruction Era won him a Pulitzer Prize.

The threat he sees isn’t that there will be another literal war: It’s the threat of two rival stories about America taking root, as they did after the Civil War. One of them, a heroic “Lost Cause” narrative of a noble Confederacy whose soldiers sacrificed themselves for honor and tradition, flourished for decades, justifying the fight for slavery and continuing to distort American politics to this day.

As Donald Trump’s more extremist followers cling to his bogus claims of a stolen election, wrapping Trump’s complaints into a nationalist counternarrative driven by racial anxiety and anger at the government, they risk creating a legacy that will divide the country long after the man himself leaves the stage. “In search of a story—in search of a history, in search of a leader, in search of anything they can attach to—lost causes tend to become these great mythologies whose great conspiracy theories tend to explain everything,” says Blight.

Witness, for instance, the bizarre staying power of QAnon—the baseless pro-Trump conspiracy theory that imagined Trump would remain in power after January 20 as he fought off a cabal of Satanic pedophiles who secretly control the government. January 20 came and went. Joe Biden was sworn in. And while some QAnon devotees found themselves humiliated and questioning their beliefs, others doubled down, moving the goal posts—it’s all part of the plan, just wait and see.

“At the heart of a lost cause, if it has staying power, is its capacity to turn itself into a victory story,” says Blight. “Can Trumpism ultimately convert itself into some kind of victory story? We don’t know that yet.”

Especially in the wake of the January 6 insurrection, cries for unity have been heard throughout Washington, as the need to come together feels more urgent than it has in years. Here, Blight sees a useful lesson to be found in history: “In all the work I’ve done on the Civil War and public memory, the central thing I’ve learned is that you can’t have healing without some balance with justice,” says Blight. “You have to have both. The justice has to be just as real as any kind of healing.”

How does America move forward? Who gets to decide how we, as a public, remember our shared history? POLITICO Magazine spoke with Blight this week. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.

It seems that many Americans have the Civil War era on their minds, especially since the insurrection and the first nonpeaceful transfer of power since the 1860s. You know that era better than almost anyone. Do 2020 and 2021 remind you of 1860 and 1861?

I’ve been asked many times in the past two weeks which other election, which other inauguration we can compare it to. And really the only one is 1861. Lincoln faced seven seceded states and the formal inauguration of Jefferson Davis [as president of the Confederacy]. So, you know, a pretty horrible situation.

Biden is inheriting something different, but comparable. We really have arrived at, it appears, two irreconcilable Americas with their own information systems, their own facts, their own story, their own narrative. And we — whatever “we” is — on the other side keep wondering: How can this be?

We’re drawn back to the Civil War because its great issues—especially the great issues of Reconstruction—are still with us: the nature of federalism; the relationship between the states and the federal government; what government means in people’s lives; how centralized government should be; how energetic, how interventionist government should be; and race and racism. The Civil War and Reconstruction are the country’s first great racial reckoning, and it brought about tremendous changes in law and in life—and then, of course, it brought about a counterrevolution that defeated much of it.

One of the lingering images of that the insurrection is the photo of a man holding a Confederate flag outside the Senate chamber while walking past a painting of abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner.

Yeah, with a painting of John Calhoun right behind him.

What went through your head when you saw that?

I had sort of been following the news on and off all day. When I first saw that photo in the evening, I had to sit down: A new “lost cause” had stormed into the U.S. Capitol flying the flag of the original Confederate Lost Cause. They were very aware of their iconography and symbols.

When I saw that Confederate flag, more than anything, it just made me angry. But I’ll confess something else: It’s the first time in my life that I think I was rooting for the police to, in effect, bust some heads.

I’m not an advocate of violence. But the idea that they thought they could just do this and just get away with it? They took over the Capitol and they’ll stay a few hours and leave? No. You desecrated the most sacred and important edifice in America. Take the consequences.

You mentioned the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. What is the danger of Trump’s Big Lie about the stolen election becoming a new Lost Cause?

Well, it’s hard to say whether this Trump “Lost Cause” will actually have staying power. But it has a lot of the main ingredients of most of the great “lost causes” in history—except one: It’s not the product of military sacrifice, at least not yet.

It’s very similar to the Confederate Lost Cause, and, to some extent, even what gave rise to the Nazis in the 1920s: the German “Lost Cause,” the “stab in the back” theory of World War I [the belief that the Germans didn’t lose the war, but were instead betrayed from within]. They have a set of passionate beliefs—not facts, passionate beliefs. In search of a story—in search of a history, in search of a leader, in search of anything they can attach to—lost causes tend to become these great mythologies whose great conspiracy theories tend to explain everything.

Lost causes are careful and organized in knowing what they hate. They know what the enemy is or was, and they manufacture these stories that explain almost everything that has happened to a people who are aggrieved. But I can’t even begin to understand something like the QAnon conspiracy, which seems beyond the pale of any kind of organized grievance.

A lot of the analysis of Trumpism is that these people were harboring all kinds of grievances for a long time—about their economic condition, about their sense of displacement in American society, about loss of status, and so on. There is a lot of reality in that that a lot of us liberals and academics don’t always want to face. The Confederate Lost Cause was rooted in some real things: a colossal defeat and tremendous loss—probably 300,000 white Southerners perished in that war—and destruction of their land and economy. It was a collective psychological response to mass trauma.

The Trumpian Lost Cause is, at its core, a set of beliefs in search of a history and a story. The question is, how long do these beliefs survive? The stolen election is the biggest of their beliefs, but they’ve got a lot of others: the liberals are coming for your guns, and liberals are coming for your taxes, and the liberals want to plow all your tax money into those cities for the black and brown people, and liberals are going to open up the border and continue this browning of America, and liberals are running the universities and taking them to hell in a hand basket, and so on.

Trumpism has the ingredients for this. It may depend on how much of a “victim” he becomes. If he’s really victimized, in their view, by the impeachment trial or by prosecutions—if he goes to jail for two years, like Jefferson Davis did—God help us. He could come out the victimized saint of that Lost Cause. Even if it dwindles down to only a few million people, they could be extremely dangerous.

At the heart of a lost cause, if it has staying power, is its capacity to turn itself into a victory story. The Confederate Lost Cause really did that: By the 1890s, it became the story of victory over Reconstruction. The Germans did something very similar with the “stab in the back” and the whole “Jewish conspiracy” story: They turned it into a victory over corruption, over communism and over Jews and everything. Can Trumpism ultimately convert itself into some kind of victory story? We don’t know that yet.

How do you go about combating a “lost cause” mythology? Here we are, 150+ years after the end of the Civil War, and there’s still a degree of that mythology around the Confederacy.

Oh, there is indeed, and a lot of us have spent our careers trying to kill it off. It’s like stomping on flowers that come back the next spring or something. I think you can only do what you have the tools to do. In journalism, that means to keep finding the truth, writing about it, and spreading it as wide as you can. In writing and teaching history, you find the evidence, you write good narratives, and you write in a way to reach the broadest public as best you can.

I don’t think we’re going to do it by having groups of neighbors get together at churches and just talk to one another. You’re not going to get neighbors to get back together. So I don’t know, except that we just have to keep doing what each of us knows how to do: persuade with our professions by reaching out to people as widely as possible.

I also believe this firmly: In all the work I’ve done on the Civil War and public memory, the central thing I’ve learned is that you can’t have healing without some balance with justice. You have to have both. The justice has to be just as real as any kind of healing. I hope it’s not all olive branches with no clenched fist, because it’s got to be both.

A few nights ago, Fox News host Tucker Carlson told his viewers: “What the Democrats really have in mind is a new version of Reconstruction. Look up ‘Reconstruction’ if you’re not familiar with that story.” Other media figures on the right have invoked Reconstruction in a similar manner. What is the fear they’re drawing on, and why is it so resonant to some people 150-some years after the Civil War ended?

Well, they must be drawing on this idea of the “Yankee colonization of the South,” the remaking of their schools, the remaking of their economy, the forced politicization of the freed Black population in very narrow corners of the South for a very short period of time, and some land and property redistribution. They must be drawing on that fear of pushing great change on people either before they’re ready for it or forcing a change that should never be done anyway.

That deep myth—that somehow if Reconstruction just hadn’t been pushed so fast, the country would have healed and there wouldn’t have been all that violence, and the country would have gotten along better if you didn’t have government imposing itself on people—it’s that idea that the federal government is always waiting to become the giant leviathan that’s going to take over your lives, your schools, churches, homes, your habits and your values.

One of the great successes of the modern conservative movement, especially since Reagan, is that they have made a huge swath of this country essentially hate government, fear government, detest government. And I’ve always felt like it’s also been a mistake of the Democrats to not fight back on that one harder than they are.

Would America benefit from a third Reconstruction Era? And what would that even look like?

Well, it would. You don’t have to call it a new “Reconstruction,” which invokes this old imagery that you just cannot kill. It’s a reinvigoration of what already has existed, like the John Lewis renewal of the Voting Rights Act. Just flip the switch, put it back in place and enforce it. Or a big-time federal stimulus into the economy, for small businesses, for unemployed people—the needs are so obvious. Why not follow less the Reconstruction model than the New Deal model? Then there’s infrastructure—you can model not only the New Deal, but the 1950s and the building of the interstate highway system.

This is something we’ve done before. But it needs it needs a Democratic Party willing to stand up with a new kind of narrative about the role of government in our lives. If Biden can get this $1.9 trillion package passed, and if they can get a massive infrastructure plan working, reinvigorate the EPA, if you can actually really begin to do some things about climate at the federal level, you give the country 2-4 years of experience with what government can do. But the reaction is going to be ferocious.

On the topic of public memory of U.S. history, this week, the Trump administration released its “1776 Commission” report, which you reacted to very candidly on Twitter.

I only meant to write one tweet. But I just couldn’t stop.

Walk me through your reaction to it.

My reaction is anger. It’s disgust. The more I read of that report [Monday] night—and I really did try to read most of it—it’s almost infantile. It’s like some kind of sixth-grade history from the 1950s, where the purpose of history is patriotism, or the purpose of history is to make you feel good, to make you understand that progress is congenital to Americans.

So many of us have spent our lives trying to turn that around. For three or four generations, we have been rewriting the history of the United States based on all kinds of new evidence and approaches and so on. We’ve written all this history in thousands of books. I’ve taught for more years than I want to admit—at all levels, high school, universities, colleges, elite places like [Yale]. And if this report can be put out by the White House, it makes you ask, “What have we done?”

I can’t see it getting any real traction unless some right-wing money gets behind it and they want to influence textbooks or something—because textbook publishers run scared easily. They will go wherever the bright lights are.

One final question: There’s an aphorism that “history is written by the winners,” but that isn’t quite right. History is rewritten over and over, and the meaning of particular moments gets debated generations after the fact. Should we expect Americans 150 years from now to still be fighting over the meaning of the Trump era and how to think about this moment in time?

I pray we won’t be. But this is a fundamental turning point, there’s no question. It’s a singular, unique presidency that reinvigorated a radical right in the country and tested American democracy to its limits. We’ve been shown that by the assault on the Capitol. If Trump actually got a second term—and look how close he got—what’s left of an American republic at the end of that?

It’s entirely possible that this is a turning point a little bit like 1968, possibly a little bit like 9/11. We won’t know until enough time has gone by.

The real thing, when you’re talking about something with staying power of a lasting legacy, is our awareness of our brokenness. Trump exposed that we have some broken institutions, everything from the Senate to the Electoral College to our media environment, to a lack of support for public education. We may be analyzing that for half a century. I mean, that’s what the ’60s left us, and we’ll be talking about the ’60s forever. The ’60s shaped and changed a great deal, from culture to politics to foreign policy.

I think Trump himself could fade away—if he’s in jail or just becomes less interesting for the media. But what he stirred up, it’s got to go somewhere.