Trump’s ‘southern strategy’ exploits racist history

President Trump may be right in saying Confederate generals are part of American history, but he gets their role wrong – intentionally.

After the Civil War, southerners erected the statues of leaders of what they called “the Lost Cause.” To sanitize their rebellion, they claimed their intent had been to preserve states rights and was not about saving slavery.

The claim ignored the obvious fact that the South openly asserted that the right to be preserved was the right to keep slaves.

The South saw the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln as a sure sign of the eventual end of slavery. They rejected his effort to convince them not to secede by offering a constitutional amendment allowing slavery where it already existed.

The 11 states that joined the Confederacy believed that the admission of more free states would produce enough votes in Congress to ban the region’s “peculiar institution.” So they wanted out.

The issue first arose on July 4, 1776. Drafts of the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that “all men are created equal” and included a rejection of slavery. But Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina would not sign such a document, so all mention of slavery was dropped.

That may have been a big mistake. A later case involving Rhode Island showed why.

The smallest state refused to ratify the Constitution, fearing that it would be overwhelmed by larger states. Treating it as a foreign country, the U.S. imposed tariffs on trade with the tiny nation. That action changed the state’s policy, and it reluctantly joined.

Perhaps the same kind of tactic would have brought the southern states around. Remaining aloof would have left them under British control. Had the Deep South remained British, the Civil War might not have occurred. There would have been no point in being loyalists, because Britain banned slavery in 1833, well before the U.S.

Despite their failure to secede and slavery being outlawed, the southern states managed to preserve the system of oppression without the formality of slavery. African-Americans, though freed, had no rights.

It might be claimed that the Civil War ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But current attempts at voter suppression, gerrymandering of congressional districts and encounters with public authorities, especially the police, indicate ongoing systemic racism.

Trump’s politics depend on the “southern strategy,” first deployed by Richard Nixon in reaction to the new civil rights laws. It is a barely hidden racist appeal to white voters, and it has worked for all Republican presidents since Nixon.

Trump’s continual effort to discredit President Barack Obama, the first African-American president, is part of his southern strategy.

Trump would have voters believe that history, racist or not, deserves to be revered because it is part of what made today’s America. He praises rebel leaders who had been barred from holding public office by a constitutional amendment.

His theory that good and bad people deserve statues can extend to an absurd point. Nobody thinks that, given Japan’s historic attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, we should erect statues to Admiral Yamamoto. Why is the rebel attack on Fort Sumter, setting off the Civil War, different?

Slavery was wrong. In July 1776, the signers knew that. They made a political decision that a unified declaration was more important than the issue of slavery.

Should every statue of every signer, no matter their personal views, be torn down? Does our belated recognition that “black lives matter” mean that no history matters?

It ignores history as much as Trump does to insist on dismantling the statues of all American leaders who fought for independence.

Take George Washington. Without him there might not be an American Republic. He had slaves, but told a fellow Virginian that if the country split he would join the North. His will provided that his wife should free his slaves after his death, and she did. Hers, as well.

The difference between Washington and Robert E. Lee is clear. Washington was a patriot. Lee renounced a position of honor and responsibility in the U.S. Army to take on the leadership of the Army of Northern Virginia in defense of the state’s effort to preserve slavery. He owned slaves.

A mature understanding of American history must distinguish between people who owned slaves 244 years ago and knew it was wrong and people who, decades later, were willing to destroy their own country to preserve and extend slavery.

We might wish that Trump could see the difference. All he seems to see is that appealing to historic racism will gain him some votes.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.