The Right May Be Giving Up the “Lost Cause,” but What’s Next Could Be Worse
The GOP’s new embrace of Lincoln, emancipation, and Juneteenth is no sign of progress.
BY REBECCA ONIONJUNE 25, 20215:59 AM
How can we understand the ease with which Juneteenth became a federal holiday, without much resistance from the ever-obstructing GOP? In a recent essay in Harper’s, Matt Karp, a historian of slavery, diagnoses a few critical recent shifts in the political uses of history. Among these shifts Karp sees a withdrawal, on the right, from the Lost Cause. “American conservatives, traditionally attracted to history as an exercise in patrimonial devotion, have in the time of Trump abandoned many of their older pieties, instead oscillating between incoherence and outright nihilism,” Karp writes.
Good news, right? Not really. Karp argues that even as they pull back from using pro-Confederate rhetoric, Republican politicians are claiming the 19th century history of emancipation, seeing it as a good way to beef up their politics of nationalism. This is a move he argues liberals are ill-equipped to counter with their own vision of history.
Karp and I spoke recently about the fights over critical race theory and the 1619 Project and why he thinks the left should reclaim abolition and emancipation as a specifically progressive historical legacy. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rebecca Onion: What are your strongest points of argument for this idea that the Lost Cause is losing its political force on the right?
Matt Karp: In the essay, I make a simple comparison between how these politics have played out in 2020 or 2021 as opposed to 20 years ago, when, in the Bush administration, you had a number of Cabinet appointees who had controversies floating over their heads about their outright unambiguous statements of praise for the Confederacy. John Ashcroft, Gale Norton—Bush himself had essentially defended flying the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Capitol, on states’ rights grounds. These were not seen as radical outsiders seizing the mantle of the state. This was part of the natural order of things for the conservative wing of the Republican Party, to have these kinds of associations. Of course it made people mad, it wasn’t uncontested. Liberals tried to use it to paint John Ashcroft as beyond the pale. But Confederate iconography and historical memory of the war was something that was present in elite media and national politics—there was nothing like a unanimous need to condemn it.
Whereas now, if you look at the spasmodic invocations of the Confederacy that have popped up in Trump-land, they received enormous and rightly critical hostile coverage. But the amount of weight they seemed to carry in policy or politics has radically diminished. In fact, the Trump administration saw a massive retreat: In the last military bill, which Trump vetoed, but the Republican Party passed anyway, there was a provision to remove all the Confederate names from every military base. There was another bill to remove all the Confederate statues from Congress that garnered a huge chunk of Republican support!
Look at the history wars over teaching. The previous big kerfuffle about this was in the 1990s, in the Clinton administration, when you had Lynne Cheney leading the fight on the right against Clinton’s new national history standards, which had been compiled by a bunch of left-leaning professors. She was openly saying, We need to teach Robert E. Lee in the schools, we need to treat Robert E. Lee fairly, put him alongside the other great white men, and so on. And the whole context of the debate admitted the Confederacy as a thing we need to hold onto, part of our heritage.
And if you look at today’s debate on critical race theory, none of these state legislators seem to be demanding that we teach the Civil War as a tragic tale of accidental conflict between brothers. If anything, the Texas Republican Party was tweeting about Juneteenth! Sharing links about how the Republican Party freed the slaves. This is huge. A huge difference from how they would have treated any of these issues 30 years ago.
It’s ahistorical to pretend like there hasn’t been a massive movement in the discourse, at least among elected officials, at the media level, and in legislation. I don’t have a clear sense of popular spirit around the issue—I’m not talking about polls and I’m not saying there aren’t deep and broad pockets of pro-Confederate sympathy that exist. But institutionally—to me, the support is weaker.
Funny you should say that—I just listened to an episode of the podcast Time to Say Goodbye where they discuss your essay, and one of the hosts was saying that she read it, then drove on a highway in Oregon past a monument to Jefferson Davis. I think she was implying that she wasn’t so sure this part of your argument held. But it strikes me that if Republican legislators are voting for Juneteenth as a federal holiday, they might see something has changed among their voters, that we don’t see.
Exactly. I would trust a member of Congress to understand the pulse of his or her base in their districts. They’re like, Where is our bread buttered? Right now the live front here is with this critical race theory stuff. They’re going to the wall with this, clearly. But they’re not including Lost Cause politics, not insisting on memorialization, not doing the old “the South will rise again!” Strom Thurmond stuff.
I want to make it clear that I’m not feeling triumphalist about this. David Blight writes about the reconciliation trope becoming sort of the dominant mode of remembering the Civil War through the 20th century. This was the kind of Civil War memory that you see in Ken Burns’ famous documentary—the aged men in gray and men in blue, shaking hands at Gettysburg over the stone wall, in 1915.
This vote for Juneteenth is a real victory for another category of memory Blight identified, which is the emancipationist kind. Juneteenth is really our first Civil War holiday. We have Memorial Day for all the wars, but this is the first specific historical holiday for the Civil War. And it commemorates emancipation! It’s long overdue, of course—though it can’t address the real roots of inequality today, and I agree with all the left critiques on that. But if you’re just talking about the symbolism of it, the federal holiday is a defeat for reconciliation as mode of memory, and a triumph for emancipation.