Trumpism will be the new “lost cause”

Yesterday in my Pennsylvania History class we were talking about the role that monuments have played at the Gettysburg National Military Park. We are reading Jim Weeks’s excellent book Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine.

I gave a brief lecture on the connection between Confederate monuments at Gettysburg (and elsewhere) and the so-called “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. In her entry in the Encyclopedia of Virginia, University of Virginia Civil War historian Caroline Janney describes six central tenets of the “Lost Cause”:

The Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War typically includes the following six assertions:

1. Secession, not slavery, caused the Civil War.

2. African Americans were “faithful slaves,” loyal to their masters and the Confederate cause and unprepared for the responsibilities of freedom.

3. The Confederacy was defeated militarily only because of the Union’s overwhelming advantages in men and resources.

4. Confederate soldiers were heroic and saintly.

5. The most heroic and saintly of all Confederates, perhaps of all Americans, was Robert E. Lee.

6. Southern women were loyal to the Confederate cause and sanctified by the sacrifice of their loved ones.

She adds:

The Lost Cause is an interpretation of the American Civil War (1861–1865) that seeks to present the war, from the perspective of Confederates, in the best possible terms. Developed by white Southerners, many of them former Confederate generals, in a postwar climate of economic, racial, and social uncertainty, the Lost Cause created and romanticized the “Old South” and the Confederate war effort, often distorting history in the process. For this reason, many historians have labeled the Lost Cause a myth or a legend. It is certainly an important example of public memory, one in which nostalgia for the Confederate past is accompanied by a collective forgetting of the horrors of slavery. Providing a sense of relief to white Southerners who feared being dishonored by defeat, the Lost Cause was largely accepted in the years following the war by white Americans who found it to be a useful tool in reconciling North and South. The Lost Cause has lost much of its academic support but continues to be an important part of how the Civil War is commemorated in the South and remembered in American popular culture.

At the heart of the Lost Cause is the idea that the cause of the Confederacy during the Civil War was just.

As we live through the last days of the Trump presidency, I am wondering if we are going to see something similar to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. Donald Trump won over 70 million votes in 2020. Only Joe Biden has won more votes in an American presidential election. Trump will leave office on January 20, 2021, but he will not go away. He will continue to claim that the Democrats engaged in fraud and thus stole the election. He will claim that he did “make America great again.” His ardent followers will turn him into a martyred hero. They will claim that the “Deep State” conspired against him.

To paraphrase Janney, Trump will provide a sense of relief to white Americans who felt dishonored by his defeat. He will promote his lost cause through rallies and perhaps a cable television station or streaming service. His presidential “library” will be a museum of Trumpism. He will continue to preach nativism, Christian nationalism, xenophobia, and “America First.” Many conservative evangelicals will continue to hail him as messenger of God, a new King Cyrus, an anointed one. Trump will use his Twitter feed to undermine Biden’s call for healing and unity. And in 2024 he may try to “redeem” the “corrupt” 2020 election by running for president again.

While not all 70 million Trump voters will embrace his lost cause, many of them will.

Trump and Trumpism is not going away.

And there will be monuments.