On Ken Burns and Donald Trump

The unexpected and shocking election of Donald Trump is one which requires deep analysis and reflection. Much energy should be spent examining the class, race, and gender dynamics of this question. Yet one key element to grasp, perhaps greater than any other, is tied to an understanding of The Civil War, the multi-hour documentary miniseries directed by Ken Burns and shown on PBS in fall 1990. I would argue that there was a definite and clear trajectory from the broadcast of the Burns film to the broadcast of Trump’s victory speech.

To begin with, it should be stated that the Civil War as an event is understood within American culture to a significant degree as a result of multimedia representations of those events. The first motion picture epic, Birth of a Nation, directed by DW Griffith, portrayed the war. The entire Western genre is loaded with cowboy veterans of the Union and Confederate armies. Mathew Brady’s famous images of the battlefields and soldiers are some of these earliest multimedia representations. Telegraphy and a mass distribution press combined with rudimentary photography to create the first modern media warfare representation. Indeed, the success and proliferation of photography as a form of communication is wholly indebted to the Civil War. Prior to its outbreak, photography was a tabooed form due to a variety of legitimate issues, including time expediency, cost, and the cumbersome nature of the technology. But as soon as mothers and wives realized there was a technology that would allow them to hold onto a small portrait of their dearly beloved soldiers that was not as costly or time consuming as the commissioning of a painter for such a task, an art form was born.

This context is vital because of how Burns tells his story in narrating the events. He does not rely on staged reenactments, although a vibrant reenactment subculture did exist in America when the series was in production, and instead uses celebrity voice-overs narrating words written by both famous and everyday participants in the war while panning over vistas he has filmed and still imagery. Burns introduces the “peculiar institution” with a quotation from “Alexis de Tocqueville, who described socialists in his Souvenirs as ‘rabble’ (canailles) but remained a loyal friend and intellectual accomplice of Gobineau, the founder of modem racism, throughout his life”, to borrow wording from an Enzo Traverso essay.

Peppered throughout are commentaries by several historians, most prominently being the southern historian Shelby Foote, author of a three volume “narrative” history of the war. In 1997, Foote said “I am what is called a narrative historian. Narrative history is getting more popular all the time but it’s not a question of twisting the facts into a narrative. It’s not a question of anything like that. What it is, is discovering the plot that’s there just as the painter discovered the colors in shadows or Renoir discovered these children. I maintain that anything you can possibly learn about putting words together in a narrative form by writing novels is especially valuable to you when you write history.”

“There is no great difference between writing novels and writing histories other than this: If you have a character named Lincoln in a novel that’s not Abraham Lincoln, you can give him any color eyes you want to. But if you want to describe the color of Abraham Lincoln’s, President Lincoln’s eyes, you have to know what color they were. They were gray. So you’re working with facts that came out of documents, just like in a novel you are working with facts that came out of your head or most likely out of your memory. Once you have control of those facts, once you possess them, you can handle them exactly as a novelist handles his facts,” said Foote.

“No good novelist would be false to his facts, and certainly no historian is allowed to be false to his facts under any circumstances. I’ve never known, at least a modern historical instance, where the truth wasn’t superior to distortion in every way.” That’s a good point worth keeping in mind.

It would be a mistake to say that Burns owes his entire narrative to the Foote volumes, it is quite obvious that he has created his own work here through the inclusion of other historians. Yet Foote does steal the show in terms of talking heads, taking up the most screen time and providing some of the best-remembered commentary with 89 appearances as opposed to 9 to 11 made by African American historian Barbara Fields. For all intents and purposes, the show could have been titled The Civil War with Shelby Foote. His voice-over closes out the series, which ends with a tender embrace between elder Confederate comrades-at-arms against the signature theme of the series, Jay Ungar’s haunting and notably Scotch-Irish sounding Ashokan Farewell, a tune played primarily on a rustic fiddle accompanied by guitar. This flavoring of the proceedings makes it subtle yet obvious that Burns is telling a Euro-American story, an epic one featuring a pageant of characters but a Euro-centric one nevertheless.

While I have by no means engaged in a the thorough analysis of timing each segment, it is rather obvious to me that Fredrick Douglass is a minor supporting actor in this epic and that Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, William Sherman, Ulysses Grant, George McClellan, and Abraham Lincoln dominate the screen time allotted to historical personages. Obviously there is some merit to such allocation, these men were the major leaders of the military conflagration. But the American Civil War was much more than just the events on the battlefields, it was a massive social, cultural, political, and spiritual uprising that redefined the meaning of America forever. The reduced presence of the abolitionists in this uprising that they were entirely responsible for creating despite the best efforts of these military leaders is nothing less than the equivalent of producing a documentary about the Soviet Union and making Lenin an incidental character or a series about Nazism that does not prominently feature Adolf Hitler. For heaven’s sake the abolitionists get less screen time than a lowly Rhode Island corporal named Elisha Hunt Rhodes!

This would merit an obvious question, what does Foote think of the Confederacy, a state founded to preserve the slave economy after the election of Abraham Lincoln made it seem the system was nearing death’s door?

In 2000, Foote offered some remarks regarding the flying of the Confederate flag in South Carolina that are quite informative for these purposes. “The flag is a symbol my great grandfather fought under and in defense of. I am for flying it anywhere anybody wants to fly it. I do know perfectly well what pain it causes my black friends, but I think that pain is not necessary if they would read the Confederate constitution and knew what the Confederacy really stood for. This country has two grievous sins on its hands. One of them is slavery – whether we’ll ever be cured of it, I don’t know. The other one is emancipation – they told 4 million people, you’re free, hit the road, and they drifted back into a form of peonage that in some ways is worse than slavery. These things have got to be understood before they’re condemned. They’re condemned on the face of it because they take that flag to represent what those yahoos represent as – in their protest against civil rights things. But the people who knew what that flag really stood for should have stopped those yahoos from using it as a symbol of what they stood for. But we didn’t – and now you had this problem of the Confederate flag being identified as sort of a roughneck thing, which it is not.” In another interview, Foote said the flag “represents many good things.” So much for no historian being allowed to be false to his facts under any circumstances.

In another interview, this given to NPR in 1994, Foote said he felt he personally had lost that war and said “You go with your people.” He goes as far as saying in another part of the interview that Reconstruction, a revolutionary moment akin to any other over the next century, was the complete opposite of the Marshall Plan and that he could identify with the Southern cause as being a revolutionary one. In yet another interview he says “The Confederacy respected law above all things.”

This is a common ideological detail shared with many Euro-Americans today. They insist that there was something to the Confederacy and its soldiers which was fundamentally different than the white supremacist project of maintaining slavery. From here stems a rather banal nostalgia for the nobility of the soldiers on both sides of the lines, that these were men who found themselves in combat that was over something far-removed from the morality of slavery. Is that so?

A review of the record dictates a strong NO. First, what created the Confederate army which was almost fully-formed prior to secession? Southern men began to form militias across the region just and prepare for future violence following one key event, the John Brown raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. That event galvanized the south and sent a palpable terror through the population, almost akin to the panic following a terrorist attack when people stock up on firearms and emergency supplies. Brown was not making a statement about the Articles of Confederation or the meaning of federalism when he attacked Harper’s Ferry, he was trying to create a nationwide slave rebellion. There had been strains in the relations of the federal to state governments prior to Harper’s Ferry that were tied to issues other than slavery, that cannot be denied in totality. But these issues would have either been resolved amicably or simply diminished to non-issues within a few decades had the Harper’s Ferry raid not taken place. There is simply no way to deny the way that John Brown turned a state of affairs from one emphasis into another. It is the pivotal event that changed historical outcomes forever and irreversibly.

Second, the actions of the British workers are quite instructive. A major pillar of the Victorian economy was the cotton supply from America used in the British textile industry. At one point the Confederacy was seeking to gain diplomatic recognition by the Crown. At the same time, textile workers across the country were out of work due to a dearth of cotton. But in the face of a profound hardship, these workers continued to support the abolitionist efforts amongst their elected officials and within their ranks. The International Workingmen’s Association sent high praise to Lincoln and damned slavery. The opposition to slavery amongst the common men and women worldwide was quite well established and demonstrates that abolitionism was a popular sentiment extending well beyond the boundaries of religious movements like the Quakers or John Brown’s brand of liberation theology.

Yet Shelby Foote and Ken Burns do not seem inclined to this perspective in their collaboration, instead proffering near-legendary soldiers dying for a noble cause. How should we grapple with such proposed yet wholly unmerited moral neutrality?

If I might be so bold, the truth is that Foote and Burns are conflating the morality of the Union cause with the Confederate cause. Abraham Lincoln did not want to end slavery if such would be unnecessary. His was a war effort to preserve the United States as a federalist body politic and nothing more. But, at a key moment, the abolitionist movement, one that was quite powerful and morally certain, wrestled control of the war from him and made it a war against slavery itself. The finest representation of this, to my mind, was formulated by Gore Vidal in his quite excellent (and funny) novel Lincoln.

How did they do this? The answer is again to be found in this modern media warfare representation idea. The abolitionists had significant access to the media of the day and used the opportunity to build their movement during revolutionary times unseen in America prior to these events. The erstwhile Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ran for president against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries of 2015-16, saw a similar occurrence take place around his campaign. Very suddenly and despite his own efforts to the contrary, his base turned the campaign into an outright movement not just supporting a New Deal-Great Society Keynesian Democrat but in fact protesting neoliberal austerity measures that stemmed from Clintonism over the past quarter century. Indeed, it was readily apparent to skeptics and seasoned political observers that Sanders was amazed and somewhat flabbergasted to see what he had wrought, much as Lincoln might also have been.

And so in this sense it bears merit to indicate what should actually be appearing on the Burns series and what actually does. By conflating the moral certainty of the Union cause with the Confederate one, we see an ever-so-slight paradigm shift. But these slight shifts are the augury of a much larger occurrence that has taken place with the election of one Donald Trump.

If you start out by saying “oh well the Confederates weren’t all that bad, some of them were actually noble”, quite quickly the ripples of bigotry begin to form. If the Confederates were not so bad, perhaps Reconstruction was not so necessary. Perhaps the evolution of liberalism into socialism amongst the working class at the middle of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, meaning the addition of an economic dimension to the liberal universalism of John Stuart Mill, becomes foolish. And then these rippling effects continue until you find yourself electing a president who has not just toyed with but catered his political campaign to both working people who have no grasp of critical race theory as well as outright white nationalists, perhaps epitomized by the personage of one Steve Bannon, an unrepentant white nationalist whose Breitbart website is the undeniable enclave of every reactionary line of thought. To use an analogy, the Treaty of Versailles did not directly lead to the Nazi death camps, there were a thousand steps between the two. But the cultural, political, and spiritual impact of the Treaty of Versailles on the German people certainly did inform the ideology of Nazism and its cannibal logic.

Ken Burns is rather well-known at this point for his political efforts also, having made short films for various Democratic Party events. Yet this soft-gloves liberal treatment of militant, violent white supremacist tendencies within American history and culture is the sort of enabling that fuels the rise of men like Donald Trump. The violence of the Trump ideology is not a random occurrence, akin to a bolt of lightening that splits a tree in an otherwise verdant landscape. Instead, it is an opportunistic infection that grows, develops, thrives, and finally strikes with painful outcomes much as the staphylococcal bacteria uses a warm, moist environment to develop after some time into a skin boil. The brand of liberalism that Ken Burns trafficked in when he presented his miniseries is such a warm, moist environment. Nothing less than an extremism in the opposite direction of Trump’s brand of ideological poison can properly combat such infection, an ideological antibiotic called “abolition democracy” by W.E.B. Du Bois.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.