Donald Trump’s War With the Past

Black paint covers the face and hands of the statues at the Confederate Memorial on the grounds of the Capitol in Montgomery, AL in 2007. (AP Photo / Rob Carr, File)

Yes, it was only last week—nine days to be exact, but who’s counting?—that President Trump committed the historical equivalent of hurling a live grenade into a crowd when he ventured into an improvisational analysis of the Civil War during an interview on Sirius XM radio. “People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War?” he said to the interviewer. “Why could that one not have been worked out?” It was a comment that poked the bee’s nest of public opinion and pushed the Civil War back into feverish public debate.

It’s been easy to dismiss President Trump’s comments as ignorant non-sequiturs or a childish attempt to divert attention from more pressing political issues. After all, there’s an entire field of inquiry devoted to asking exactly those questions about the Civil War, and scholars have devoted their lives to that question—but given Trump’s staunch anti-intellectualism, it’s not really surprising that he’s never bothered to notice. “Donald Trump has always acted in the moment, with little regard for the past…” wrote Marc Fisher in the Washington Post a day after the firing of FBI Director James Comey. But the Civil War, it seems, is an endless trauma to American democracy. As the republic reconsiders it again and again, it continues to mirror our understanding of the country we currently live in.

Perhaps, as Jon Meacham suggested in TIME after the president’s remarks, Trump was simply looking for himself in history—a plausible theory given the president’s perennially self-centered worldview. But by overlooking the war’s relevance and refusing to acknowledge slavery’s role in its birth, the president wasn’t merely sidestepping the issue; he was using tactics similar to those employed by “Lost Cause” revisionists and Confederate holdouts for generations, in which the cause of the war is questioned, reimagined, or willfully forgotten.

Our current decade marks the 150th anniversary of the war. Biographies, histories, and reconsiderations have come in measured steps and harsh reckonings—and discussions of memory, cause, conflict, reparation, and reconciliation have made it clear this war must continue to be discussed.

Conflicts rarely have only one cause, just as more than one thing can be true at a time. As Tony Horwitz wrote in The Atlantic in 2013 on the anniversary of the war’s start, slavery may not even have been central to Northerners’ experience of the Civil War. It was a kind of midwife, though, a stage on which a nation barely a century old played out its conflicts over sovereignty, autonomy, and national identity. Slavery as an institution concerned itself with just those questions. It used the bodies and labor of people stolen from their homes, excluded from equal society, and refused a personal identity.

In the summer of 2015, after Nikki Haley, then governor of South Carolina, announced the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol, Ta-Nehisi Coates collected the words of Confederate leaders who stated clearly that slavery was central to the identity of Southern states, which viewed it not just as an inalienable economic asset but as the very basis of white equality. The existence of slaves meant that white men could sidestep industrialized slavery of their own; the institutions’ proponents freely admitted that it upheld and enabled their quality of life.

Once slavery was abolished, the certain supremacy of Southern white men was threatened and the institutions it propped up were no longer guaranteed. The Confederate cause went from vaunted reason to fight to a heroic struggle that was snatched from its champions, spawning Lost Cause revisionist rhetoric that centralized the white Confederate experience. And as soon as the war ended, another one began, this one concerned with textbooks, memorials, and the “official” historical narrative.

Revisionists knew what they had lost. They knew that it would do them no favors to admit they had fought and lost a war over the right to oppress others. And so they turned toward telling their own story through the lens of states’ rights, a perspective that made room for the Confederacy to reintegrate into the union and still maintain face.

In documents like the “Confederate Catechism,” which was used by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the 1920s to mobilize and coordinate their stance on the war, slavery was cast as a mere side player in a war that was necessary for peace. History as weapon was embraced as a matter of religion. As Tracy Thompson notes in her book The New Mind of the South, the UDC didn’t just educate its own. It shaped the war’s public image through decades of grassroots organizing and struggles to include the “right” version of history in textbooks.

Trump’s no-big-dealism is a more plausibly deniable form of that same beast. Downplaying slavery, whether in textbooks that omit it or comments that ignore its existence with wide eyes, calls 150 years of historical reckoning into question without saying a word. It invites people to start from square one—sidestepping, perhaps, the abundance of historical evidence and analysis that already exists.

If Civil War history is a graveyard, it’s one still strewn with fresh graves. It will haunt us until we face it down collectively, reconciling its truths with the world we have constructed around its gates. The president is not the first person who’d rather avert his eyes than look inside—even though Trump whistles blithely by, it doesn’t mean the cemetery ceases to exist.

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