Trump's Lost Cause: Jamil Smith Commentary - Rolling Stone
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Trump’s Lost Cause

The fight underway to keep Trumpism alive post-presidency has an ugly and worrisome precedent in American history

Keith Weber of Centralia, Washington holds a flag that combines a Gadsden flag from the American Revolution with a Confederate flag from the American Civil War as he talks to protesters holding flags with US President Donald Trump on them as people demonstrate against Washington state's stay-home order at the state capitol in Olympia, Washington, on April 19, 2020. - Hundreds protested on April 18 in cities across America against coronavirus-related lockdowns -- with encouragement from President Donald Trump -- as resentment grows against the crippling economic cost of confinement. (Photo by Jason Redmond / AFP) (Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)

Keith Weber of Centralia, Washington holds a flag that combines a Gadsden flag from the American Revolution with a Confederate flag from the American Civil War as he talks to protesters holding flags with US President Donald Trump on them as people demonstrate against Washington state's stay-home order at the state capitol in Olympia, Washington, on April 19, 2020.

Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images

The junior senator from Missouri announced Wednesday that he’ll contest the certification of Biden’s victory when the House and Senate convene on January 6th. Why do this? If you believe Sen. Josh Hawley’s office, it’s because the Americans who are lying about this fair and settled election being riddled with fraud deserve to be heard. “At the very least, Congress should investigate allegations of voter fraud and adopt measures to secure the integrity of our elections,” their statement reads. “But Congress has so far failed to act.”

There are no valid allegations of voter fraud. Congress can’t fix problems that don’t actually exist. Even Mitch McConnell has been privately pleading with his caucus not to do this very thing, because it’ll force Republicans who have been content to express their sympathies for Trump through their silence to now put votes on the record. Will you side with the states, who have certified all the electoral votes that give Biden his victory? Or will they line up with Trump’s pursuit of a stolen election?

That’s why this is a smart move for Hawley, politically. The 40-year-old is widely considered a top Republican presidential contender in 2024, and we can expect to see this charade hyped up in a campaign ad. All he is doing is sowing chaos with little end other than to stoke misbegotten grievances. It’s the same sedition in a younger package. Trumpism, but with better tailoring.

But by merely forcing this unnecessary debate, the young Missouri senator isn’t really siding with either side. He’s merely keeping the chaos going. What Hawley understands about Republican politics, however, is that being a sore loser sells. Overturning the results isn’t the point. In lieu of new ideas or competent governance, Republicans have sold their voters on being mad about things supposedly not being fair for their side. And considering the overwhelming proportion of their voters are white, you can guess who the villains are in their story.

In her book White Identity Politics, Duke scholar Ashley Jardina noted that Trump’s use of grievance to exacerbate cultural agita is no accident. “Whites high on racial solidarity,” she wrote, “are preoccupied with the possibility that other groups are chipping away at their privileges.” 

Thus, it is easy to see why many are terming the effort to keep Trumpism alive beyond this dying presidency as a new “Lost Cause.” That isn’t as much an insult as a historical reference.

6416922 12.12.2020 Supporters of President Donald Trump wave flags during a rally, in Washington D.C., the United States. The MAGA-march, the second one after the election, brought to the nations capital thousands of Americans who side with the Republican incumbents bid to overturn his defeat to the Democratic rival Joe Biden. Aleksey Bogdanovskiy / Sputnik via AP

Supporters of President Donald Trump wave flags during a rally, in Washington D.C.

Aleksey Bogdanovskiy/Sputnik/AP

One hundred forty-three years ago, Southern Democrats were also besotted with the lost cause of a defeated regime, and like Trump, they too cried foul on an election’s result. The elevation of Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency was only secured after his Republican Party agreed in secret with southern Democrats to remove members of the federal military from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, three states where votes were being contested. 

In the so-called Compromise of 1877, black people were the only ones compromised. Hayes, as he’d promised to do during his campaign, removed the troops and unleashed hell. That agreement ended Reconstruction after only 12 years and gave rise to Jim Crow laws, with the generations of discrimination, disenfranchisement, and domestic terrorism that came with them.

The continued physical violation of black Americans in our modern day remains, to this day, the most visibly horrific consequence of the Hayes compromise. It may be true that myriad videos of police killings have inured so many to black death, but consider what lynchings did in the wake of emancipation. As W.E.B  Du Bois said of Reconstruction’s end: “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”

Like the legacy of murderous violence, the Confederate apologism that came in the wake of Hayes’ compromise continues even today. As loyalists to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy killed and intimidated those who stood in the way of their ahistorical narrative, who was left to tell the story? 

Trump understands this all too well. It is no coincidence that he now seeks to have his name slapped onto an international airport or an aircraft carrier. It isn’t merely an act of solipsism. Throughout the world, people who get their names or likenesses emblazoned on something — whether it be a skyscraper or a street sign — are typically being honored. It’s usually because they did something that was perceptibly good, even if that’s just being wealthy. It’s not about branding or even just lying. He seeks a path to immortality.

Perhaps Trump was trying to uphold that standard when last week, he vetoed the $740 billion defense authorization that had been passed with veto-proof majorities in both congressional houses. One of Trump’s complaints was that the bill, which contains a three-percent pay raise for those enlisted to serve, also includes Senator Elizabeth Warren’s provision renaming 10 U.S. bases that bear the names of Confederate officers. 

Fort Bragg in North Carolina, the one we seem to hear cited in every Hollywood military drama? Named for a slaveholder named Gen. Braxton Bragg, whose own troops wanted him removed because he was so ill-tempered. Fort Gordon in Georgia is named after Confederate lieutenant general John Brown Gordon, a former leader of the state’s Ku Klux Klan. Yet Trump seeks to preserve this, just like Robert E. Lee’s monument in Charlottesville. 

Speaking of that instance of right-wing domestic terrorism, Trump hasn’t been shy about inciting it, despite its sharp rise during his tenure. Watching Trump avoid the renunciation of white supremacy has been like watching someone trying to pass a kidney stone. It seems physically painful for him. Days after sidestepping a question about it at a September debate with Biden, Trump’s own acting Homeland Security secretary, Chad Wolf, warned that he was “particularly concerned about white supremacist violent extremists who have been exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent, targeted attacks in recent years,” adding that “they seek to force ideological change in the United States through violence, death, and destruction.” Only days after that, the FBI arrested 13 men who’d schemed to kidnap and possibly kill Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer. At the time, Trump brushed the plot aside in favor of continuing to criticize her for her effective response to the coronavirus pandemic. He also invoked the Proud Boys, that violent gang of bigots, during a presidential debate and told them to “stand back and stand by.” And lately, Trump is egging his worshipers to rally in Washington on January 6th, the date Hawley has set for his more genteel act of sedition — despite assaults at recent MAGA events in the capital. 

Much like Hayes’ compromise, we’ve been reminded in this ghastly year that negligent or malevolent governance can also be its own kind of violence. If the Covid-19 crisis has taught us anything, it is that America needs a competent and functioning federal government. Trump and his party have disagreed. 

Republicans have largely stood behind Trump’s lazy approach to a coronavirus pandemic that is killing more daily than were killed in the September 11th terrorist attacks. It has now infected nearly 20 million people in this country and killed more than 330,000 of them. Thanks to a higher rate of exposure and not some genetic flaw or pre-existing conditions, the disproportionate number of the victims are poor and aren’t white. With an incoming Democratic president and Republicans still fighting cultural wars over pandemic safety, there is no reason to believe that the Republican approach will change after Trump leaves.

Why would it? The recent removal of General Lee’s sculpture from its pedestal inside the U.S. Capitol was encouraging, but since when have racism and misbegotten white resentment been either unpopular, or considered so thoroughly shameful that they finally evaporate into history? And how else do Republicans, by and large, plan to get votes? Trumpism has become a modern Lost Cause for conservatives because they have nothing else to sell besides snake oil and hatred. Rather than hawk tax breaks for the wealthy to coal country, they’ll just keep making them feel better about being white.

Stoking grievance is not merely the central Republican turnout machine. It is an industry, particularly for Trump. There is already talk of him acquiring television networks and staging rallies after his term, for there is a cult of personality to maintain — one that is proving quite profitable, in a literal sense, for Trump. His unwarranted outrage about the election has brought in more than $200 million from supporters, which he can spend either on debts, future political activity, or even on himself. 

Until grievance is no longer a viable political tool, we’ll continue seeing Republicans pervert our government and the very idea of public service. That is a small price to pay for men like Trump and Hawley, whose pursuit of prominence, privilege, and power remains paramount. Whether anything actually consequential gets done, even in the midst of national crisis, is secondary. It is both sadism and sedition at once, a willingness to sacrifice both Americans and American ideals to maintain power. Contrary to what you may have heard, history isn’t written solely by the winners. The losers have a say, as well.

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