Right But Wrong: Trump’s Defense of Confederate Symbols and Its Threat to Color-Blind Liberalism

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The ugly scenes of neo-nazis, neo-Confederates, and self-proclaimed white supremacists marching in large numbers and brawling on the streets of Charlottesville shocked American culture. President Trump spoke three times commenting on those troubling events.  His first statement, given during a signing ceremony for a veteran’s health-care bill, was roundly condemned as failing to mention white supremacy, racism, or neo-nazis by name and instead condemning violence “on many sides.”  Under extreme political pressure from all sides and a sudden rush of resignations from his CEO advisory council, Trump spoke a second time, this time delivering remarks carefully crafted to dampen the storm of criticism engulfing him.  Then, on Tuesday, August 15, Trump unnecessarily revisited and undermined his own damage control from the day before in what was one of the longest and most heated press conferences of his tempestuous first half-year.

Obviously angered that he had been pressed earlier to place blame for the violence where it squarely belonged, on the side of the racist alt-right, Trump lashed out at the “alt-left”: “You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent….There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You have just called them the left, that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.”

Trump’s remarks were a firehose of gasoline gushed onto a political firestorm. Almost giddy with the easy political points to score, Democrats rhetorically lashed Trump to the Klansmen and Nazis he defended.  Nearly the entire Republican leadership took to Twitter to denounce bigotry, even Senator Orrin Hatch, who had earlier said Trump was “not a racist,” after Trump attacked federal judge Gonzalo P. Curiel’s fairness because of his Mexican heritage, tweeted, “We should never hesitate to call out hate. Whenever and wherever we see it.”[1]

On margin, more things were revealed by the reaction to Trump, than by Trump’s own reaction to the outrage in Charlottesville, for certainly no one should by now be surprised that Trump is a supporter of the alt-right and white nationalism (which in somehow in his feeble reasoning can be distinguished from racism).  Amidst the fury of mainstream denunciation of “bigotry, hate, and racism” one of the functional props of racism in a self-proclaimed color-blind society was exposed. This strut in the architecture of modern racism functions by transferring the stress of ongoing racist institutions and behaviors onto a token few bigots, thus relieving society and government from responsibility for it. The backlash to Trump’s soft defense of white nationalism was so immediate and so deep because it allowed those in power to appear to stand against the very things their own policies have long perpetuated and even furthered.

Full-throated condemnation of white supremacists follows long-discredited psychopathology theories of bigotry: that racism is a psychological disorder, or a deviant personality trait, or a maladaptive learned behavior. From the 1920s well into the civil rights era many researchers applied a medical model to bigotry, viewing it like a disease and sought educational and therapeutic cures for it. While these theories were superseded in academic circles by Boasian anthropology, semiotics, and critical race studies, they lived on in popular culture because their continued vitality excused and rendered invisible the shared social basis of actual racism. Bigots serve the useful purpose of allowing the rest of us white people off the hook, giving us the ability to feel morally superior and apart from the problems labelled passively as “race relations.”

Throughout the first days of reaction to Trump’s reluctance to denounce bigots it seemed as though his fellow Republicans were frustrated not so much at his racism as his political ineptitude in not being able to shoot the biggest fish in the smallest barrel in the world–Nazis and Klansmen.  At first it seemed as if his party critics were attempting to tutor the president, showing him publicly how easy and effective it was to beat up on bigots. When Trump refused to follow suit they seemed to suddenly become aware that the president’s own soft bigotry was actually a threat to the whole color-blind bigotry dichotomy their own demagoguery rested upon. Indeed, if Trump was right and the alt-right is not just a mob of knuckle-dragging, drooling, racists, but is also a movement of good regular folks: “…not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee.”  Without actual bigots to blame racism on, the existing structures of color-blind racism are weakened.

Likewise, when Trump’s Tuesday press conference took an odd turn and Trump testily backed into equating Confederate leaders with America’s Founding Fathers, he cracked yet another pillar of American color-blind racism.  On a roll and sparring angrily with reporters that he addressed as “fake news,” Trump defended those who had gathered to protest the removal of monuments to the Confederacy by offering some “slippery slope” reasoning:

Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee.

So — excuse me — and you take a look at some of the groups and you see and you would know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases, you are not. But, many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?….George Washington as a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down — excuse me — are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him. Good.

Are we going to take down the statue? Cause he was a major slave owner. Are we going to take down his statue? So you know what? It’s fine. You are changing history, you’re changing culture.

Many took special umbrage at Trump’s equation of Confederates and America’s founding heroes. Newsweek reporter Kurt Eichenwald responded, ““Trump equated a traitor to the Father of our Country.” Keith Olbermann wrote, “Trump just equated Robert E. Lee to George Washington. His moral authority to lead this country has ended.”  Michael Moore tweeted, “… He likened George Washington to Robert E. Lee. Donald. Trump. Fuck. You.”[2]

Liberal historians objected to Trump’s “slippery slope” argument by differentiating between Confederate heroes and Founding Fathers, but with a logic that was shaky at best.  Harvard’s Annette Gordon-Reed made a fair start when she told the New York Times that Confederate generals should be viewed differently from Washington and Jefferson because their main purpose was to tearing down the American union, not building it up.  But when she waded into the problem of moral equivalency, she found herself in some deep quicksand:  “This is not about the personality of an individual and his or her flaws…This is about men who organized a system of government to maintain a system of slavery and to destroy the American union.”[3]

Just as America needs bigots to excuse its lack of interest in taking any meaningful action to overcome the continuing racism that is woven into the warp and woof of society and its institutions, white Americans crave a nostalgic version of their own national history that views racism as an infection on the body politic. Racism cannot be seen as being endemic to the American system, for that would imply that to counter it requires continuing and vigorous anti-racist action. Rather, America’s founders are depicted as “tragically flawed” but great men who were entrapped in an institution of slavery that they struggled but failed to rid themselves of.  According to this comforting narrative, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and the other Founding Fathers may have “owned” slaves but envisioned ending slavery.  Confederates were rebels who wanted to sustain and grow slavery in opposition to the ennobled north, led by the Great Emancipator, Lincoln, who rose up on the side of freedom. The Civil War not only settled the question of the perpetual union of the states, it erased the treasonous stain of racism from American institutions, except for the southern bigots who took a century to accept this fact.

Equating Confederates with the problem of racism and Founders with a failed but noble color-blind progressivism, has long served to insulate American government and American society from the sort of deep and critical examination of racist practices that any true belief in equality would require.  So when Trump pierced this balloon by drawing the uncomfortable parallels between General Lee and General Washington, he was again failing to follow the political consensus that helps sustain actual white supremacy. Historically, Trump was right: there really is no moral difference between Lee and Washington or Jefferson. All enslaved others which means not just buying a “slave” as one buys a horse — horses are horses but men and women are only enslaved by a daily active effort to keep them bound and obedient. Jefferson posted ads for the recapture of a 35 year old man named “Sandy” the same year he proposed Virginia pass a bill for the gradual ending of slavery. Washington took time away from his Presidential duties to pursue 22 year old Ona Judge when she escaped and fled north.  Washington’s teeth were not wooden, they were skillfully crafted from the human teeth extracted from a living enslaved man’s mouth.

Like the statues now being removed, America’s color-blind liberalism stands upon a plinth of racism. Americans in 1776 were not only fighting against taxes, they fought against the first efforts of British abolitionism: when in 1772 in the case of James Somerset, the British high court emancipated all enslaved people in the British homeland, American patriots condemned the grave threat to their economy and society.  From enslaved people’s perspective, the war that began in 1775 and ended in 1781 was a war for freedom and Americans were on the wrong side. Lord Dunsmore and other colonial governors early in the war turned the Americans’ slaves against them by offering to free any enslaved person who joined their regiments. When the Americans finally prevailed at Yorktown, Washington busied himself hunting down the men and women who had fled slavery by joining the King’s army. Washington caught two of his men and women he claimed as his property and had them dragged back to his farms and did his friend Jefferson a favor by dragging to Montecello some of Jefferson’s human chattel.

America’s victory over the imperial British led to the intensification and extension of slavery, not its impairment. American shipping, freed from British restraints, quickly grew to dominate the international slave trade. Not only slavery, but white supremacy was strengthened by the American revolution as naturalized American citizenship was limited to whites alone in 1790.  When southerners declared their secession they laid claim to the mantle of the American Revolution and these claims were not without justification.

American color-blind liberalism depends on a less messy history, one with the moral clarity that is useful to deny the inherently racist nature of American government and society.  President Trump, in his crazed blustering, in his ignorant attempt to find daylight between “white nationalism” and “white supremacy,” failed to follow this script and thereby became even more dangerous to those upholding these forces by cleansing the past.

[1] Miranda Green, “GOP members of Congress criticize Trump’s comments: ‘We should never hesitate to call out hate’,” CNN, Aug. 15, 2015.

[2] Itay Hod, “Trump Equates Robert E Lee to George Washington, Twitter Revolts,” The Wrap, Aug. 15, 2017.

[3] Jennifer Schuessler, “Historians Question Trump’s Comments on Confederate Monuments,” New York Times, Aug. 15, 2017.

Tim Messer-Kruse is a Professor of Ethnic Studies in the School of Critical and Cultural Studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.