Opinion | The Potency of Trump’s ‘Lost Cause’ Mythmaking

At an Ohio rally this month, Donald Trump saluted the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, calling them “unbelievable patriots” and referring to those who’ve been locked up for their involvement on that terrible day as “hostages.”

This was a continuation of Trump’s “Lost Cause” mythmaking that began during his successful presidential campaign in 2016 and was ramped up in service of his efforts to remain in power despite his 2020 loss and the deadly riot that those efforts stoked.

More than 1,200 people have been charged related to Jan. 6. And though it shouldn’t have to be said, let’s be clear: Those who’ve been tried, convicted and imprisoned for storming the Capitol aren’t hostages, they’re criminals.

But Lost Cause narratives aren’t about truth. They’re about negating the truth.

Which is what happened when the Lost Cause mythology was constructed after the Civil War. The cause of the war was framed as “Northern aggression” rather than slavery. A lore about happy slaves and benevolent enslavers proliferated. The narrative valorized those who seceded from and fought against the United States.

And it has survived to some degree for over 150 years, tucked into the cracks of our body politic. It still surfaces in ways that may seem remote from the Confederate Lost Cause myth, but that definitely promote it.

It manifested itself last year when Florida changed its African American history standards to say that the enslaved “in some instances” benefited from their enslavement, and in Nikki Haley’s hesitance on the campaign trail to state the obvious, that slavery was the cause of the Civil War.

It manifested itself in the infamous torchlight march in Charlottesville and in the bitter resistance to removing Confederate monuments.

Trump has his own version of the Lost Cause, one that’s not completely untethered from the old one, but one that’s miniaturized, personal and petty.

The Confederate Lost Cause narrative came after enormous loss: Hundreds of thousands of soldiers had died, the South was decimated and its economy was hobbled. Trump’s Lost Cause, on the other hand, is about the grievances he promotes, his inability to accept losing to Joe Biden and his utter disregard for democratic norms.

Trump’s version grows out of a more recent vintage of the Lost Cause narrative, one that has been around at least since George Wallace’s first presidential campaign in the 1960s. One in which a sense of displacement and dispossession is driven by a lost cultural advantage.

David Goldfield, a historian at the University of North Carolina Charlotte and the author of “Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History,” told me that many of Trump’s supporters feel that they’ve lost something similar to what white Southerners felt they had lost after the Civil War: “They were no longer relevant. They were no longer listened to. And on top of that, there were lots of other voices that were in play in public that were not there before.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Yale historian David Blight, who has written on several occasions about Trump’s Lost Cause, told me that Trump’s iteration has all the necessary elements: a story of loss, culprits, ready-made villains and “an enormous narrative of grievance.”

As Blight explained, Trump “feeds on this imagined tale of what could have been, should have been, might have been and once again can be retrieved; the glory can be retrieved.”

And Trump invokes his Lost Cause in combination with another false telling, one of unprecedented happiness and unity — in which all the glory belongs to him. As he told a crowd at Mar-a-Lago on Super Tuesday, “African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, women, men, people with diplomas from the best schools in the world and people that didn’t graduate from high school, every single group was doing better than ever before.” He continued, “Our country was coming together.”

What he ignores is that his presidency began with the Women’s March, the day after his inauguration, and ended not long after the 2020 summer of protests, driven by outrage over the murder of George Floyd. Trump didn’t bring the country together; he tore it further apart.

Unlike previous Lost Cause appeals, Trump’s has the advantage of a modern communications environment: 24-hour cable news, an internet replete with partisan news sites and social media — an octopean virtual world that reaches deep into the darkest places of our politics.

And Trump’s appeal is getting a do-over, a chance not to simply recast history — to win the narrative — but to win the actual contest and convert an electoral loss into an electoral victory.

In this election, disciples of the MAGA movement not only have an opportunity to enshrine Trump’s fallacies. MAGA also might rise again.

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