President Donald Trump is a neo-Confederate.
On August 17, 2017, in a series of morning tweets, Trump made this fact incontrovertibly clear.
Responding to the growing controversy surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments in the wake of the Charlottesville bloodshed, Trump lamented that he was “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”
As in his infamous August 15, 2017, press conference, he again suggested that taking down statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson would lead to the removal of similar monuments dedicated to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, something that would be “So foolish!” He ended his Twitter rant on a sentimental note, writing that “the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”
The significance of Trump’s declaration cannot be understated. The President of the United States of America unabashedly aligned himself with the history, legacy and cause of a treasonous nation who sought to destroy the country which he has sworn to preserve, protect and defend.
Trump regularly traffics in historical distortion and falsehoods. Indeed, his very ascendency to the White House was built on this practice. It is tempting to become immune to his lies. But his thoughts on the Confederacy are particularly noxious and warrant both scrutiny and condemnation.
The President of the United States of America unabashedly aligned himself with the history, legacy and cause of a treasonous nation who sought to destroy the country which he has sworn to preserve, protect and defend.
The history that Trump speaks of is clear. The Confederate States of America was founded on the bedrock principle of white supremacy and the defense of slavery. Secession commissioners, in rallying support for their cause, made this very argument. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, in his “Cornerstone Address,” stated the Confederate nation-building project rested upon “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” The Confederate Constitution, adopted on March 11, 1861, almost identically mirrors the Constitution of the United States except in its protection and explicit naming of slavery.
Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and other Confederate generals and leaders are thus fundamentally different from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other so-called “founding fathers.” While Washington and Jefferson—yes, both brutal slaveholders—fought and labored to create the United States of America, Lee and Jackson fought to destroy it. Washington and Jefferson, while fundamentally flawed, were Americans. Lee and Jackson were traitors.
The “beautiful statues and monuments” that Trump valorizes were erected as “Lost Cause” tributes to this traitorous history. Ex-Confederates, defeated on the battlefield, committed to winning the war of historical memory.
Following the overthrow of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, memorials to the Confederacy began to appear throughout the South, as well as in parts of the North. White supremacy, undergirded by a distorted retelling of the Civil War in which slavery was not the root cause, white soldiers in blue and gray were brothers, and the Confederacy fought and lost with pride, reigned throughout the nation. As Black people endured segregation, disfranchisement, convict leasing, and lynching, white Americans stood before Confederate monuments and celebrated reunion and national healing at the expense of racial justice.
A second wave of Confederate memorialization took place during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The Confederate battle flag, along with statues and monuments, became symbols of white “massive resistance” to racial change and the federal government. Lee, Jackson, Davis, Forrest and other Confederate heroes were resurrected by segregationists as inspirations in the continued battle for white supremacy and southern independence.
“…when Trump talks of “our country,” he is not talking about Black people.”
That Trump cannot think of any other historical figures to honor in place of Confederate generals and leaders exposes the Jim Crow nature of his racial imagination. The thought that Union leaders and soldiers, who fought and died for a nation in which slavery would no longer exist, is apparently beyond Trump’s realm of possibility. And it goes without saying that he can’t imagine the “beauty” of a statue dedicated to Frederick Douglass, or Harriet Tubman, or Robert Smalls, or the 187,000 Black soldiers who served in the Union army. For Trump, a history of the Civil War with Black people and Black struggle for freedom at the center is a history not worth memorializing.
So when Trump talks of “our country,” he is not talking about Black people. He is not even really speaking about the United States of America. He is speaking about a segment of America that sees no wrong in what the Confederacy stood for and the value of monuments erected in its honor. This is white nationalism. It is the twisted history that a white supremacist racial identity is built on.
It is also treason.
Donald Trump took an oath of office to “serve, protect and defend” the Constitution of the United States. He now unflinchingly romanticizes a Confederate nation that seceded from the United States and sought to create a country which believed that Black people were not created equal and would be inherently deprived of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In coming out of his neo-Confederate closet and making his white supremacist allegiances plainly clear, Trump has yet again, but now in the starkest of terms, demonstrated that he is unfit to be President of the United States.
His next tweet should be, “I resign.”
Chad Williams is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University. He is the author of Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era and co-editor of Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism and Racial Violence.