The Roanoke Times
We’ve been writing a lot about history lately, because, as William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
It does, though, present itself in some unusual ways. Here’s one of them: Why has President Trump become the most prominent defender of Confederate statues, monuments and names? And why have some — though certainly not all — Republicans gone along with him?
There are a lot of political and social reasons we could list, but those aren’t what we’re here to debate today. Instead, it’s a historical curiosity that we ponder: Defending Confederate statues is an odd position for any Republican to take, one that betrays his or her party’s heritage. Mind you, not all Republicans have wrapped themselves in the Confederate flag the way that Trump has — metaphorically, at least, in defending Confederate statues and military bases named after Confederates. Consider what one Republican who might have been president had to say recently: “For a lot of reasons, I don’t have some personal affinity to the Confederacy, which is a rebellion against the United States of America. I just think it has to be through the right process.” That, by the way, was U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
It’s certainly easy to understand those who don’t think Confederate statues ought to be pulled down by mobs. It’s harder, though, to understand why certain other Republicans — Trump tops the list but he’s joined by others such as U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri — have made a point of defending Confederate iconography. We’re just a few years removed from Corey Stewart, a Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Virginia who campaigned in front of Confederate flags and made defense of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville central to his campaign. We’re zero years removed from Amanda Chase, a state senator from Chesterfield County who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor and says that taking down Confederate statues is tantamount to “erasing the history of the white people.” For people who claim they don’t want history erased, they seem to have forgotten a good bit of it.
To be historically accurate, Republicans should be leading the charge to bring down Confederate monuments — lawfully, of course. Why? Because that would help complete the work that the Republican Party was founded on.
The Republican Party was explicitly founded as an anti-slavery party. And it was the Republican Party that, politically, was most enthusiastic about preserving the Union and crushing the Southern secessionists who wanted to leave that Union so they could preserve their “peculiar institution” of slavery.Northern Democrats were deeply divided, between the War Democrats who backed the Civil War and the Copperheads who were more inclined to make peace with the South. The Confederate battle flag, all those Confederate generals now enshrined in bronze, granite and marble — Republicans in the 1860s stood against all those things. Furthermore, it wasn’t Republicans who put up those monuments across the South. Maybe there were some Republicans somewhere who participated. But, historically speaking, all those monuments went up at a time when conservative Democrats controlled the South.
It’s hard to ignore this sequence of events: In Virginia, the Readjusters (a local variant of Republicans) ran the state in the 1880s. They used that time to pass a lot of civil rights laws that were quite progressive for the day. Then came the conservative backlash. Democrats — conservative Democrats — came back into power and set about the veneration of The Lost Cause. They disenfranchised as many voters as possible — not just Black voters but many white ones as well, especially Republicans in Southwest Virginia. They passed what today we call Jim Crow laws. And then proceeded to put up Confederate statues — such as that massive tribute to Lee that stands on state property on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. The governor who signed off on that was Democrat Philip McKinney, whose 1889 campaign was notable for two things. Firstly, he ran on an unabashed platform of white supremacy. Secondly, the acclaimed Virginia historian Virginius Dabney says his victory marked “a severe reverse for the Republican Party. It would be generations before the party regained its influence in Virginia.” (It didn’t help Republicans that McKinney’s Republican opponent, William Mahone, was considered massively corrupt — no party has a monopoly on virtue)
In any case, the point is Republicans don’t just have plausible deniability on all these Confederate monuments, they have actual, historical deniability. So why would any Republican today go out of their way to defend them the way some have? Those statues stand for all the things that the founders of the Republican Party stood against.
The answer, of course, is also found in history. The political parties that existed then are not the ones that exist today — even though the names remain the same. Virginia is not that much different from other Southern states in this respect: From Reconstruction into the late 1960s, Democrats were the conservative party, Republicans were a more moderate party, and liberals were few and far between. When those liberals came to power within the Democratic Party, the old conservatives either died off — or became Republicans. The 1970s saw a great realignment. Nationally, that was driven by Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” — the effects of which we see today. The Solid South is still mostly solid — solidly Republican. These are not the Republicans of the 1800s just as the Democrats of today aren’t the Democrats of the 1800s. Still, we all choose what parts of the past we embrace. It was one thing for Republicans to take in those conservative Democrats because they shared the same views on fiscal policy. However, if any Republican today defends venerating the Confederate leaders who went to war against the United States of America, they are really rejecting their own party’s heritage and becoming — dare we say it? — “Republicans In Name Only,” at least in historical terms.
Rubio is being true to the Party of Lincoln — and in Virginia, the party of the westerners who remained loyal to the Union. Trump, Chase and the others are true to something else. Whatever it is, it’s not the history of their own party.
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