I had to double-check recently that the Civil War actually did end in 1865. I wondered whether this was still the case after hearing Republican spokesmen and Conservative Inc. celebrities demonizing Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other 19th century Southern leaders. American history seems to grow more hateful to our establishment conservatives as the years flow by.
Anti-Confederate rants are now common on Fox News and in mainstream Republican publications. These conservatives seem to approve, at least implicitly, of the toppling of Confederate statues, and they seem shocked and hurt when the left doesn’t give them credit for this stance. Fox News commentator Brit Hume in an interview with Bret Baier expressed shock that President Trump’s July 3 Mt. Rushmore speech caused Democrats to accuse him of being pro-Confederate. Trump, notes Hume, kept out of his speech any defense of anything even remotely Confederate, while glorifying Lincoln, Grant, and especially Martin Luther King, Jr. The president even managed to suppress any outrage over the toppling and dishonoring of Confederate memorial monuments.
Since GOP propagandists Dinesh D’Souza and Mark Levin have been attacking the Democrats repeatedly as the party of Southern traitors, I have begun to wonder whom these tirades are supposed to persuade. This is aside from the question of whether the South had an at least defensible right to secede, given the circumstances in which it joined the Union. Or, whether the 11 Southern states, which collected an army of a million men, were necessarily engaging in traitorous rebellion by deciding to form a new nation.
Today’s conservative movement may be beyond pondering such historical questions. On July 12, the New York Post published a two-page exposé by Michael Goodwin on The New York Times’ late 19th-century founder Adolph Ochs. A German-Jewish newspaper magnate from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Ochs came from a pro-Confederate family that had fought in the War for Southern Independence, as Robert N. Rosen wrote in The Jewish Confederates. Ochs’s beloved mother belonged to the Daughters of the Confederacy, and the Times’ owner went out of his way to fly Confederate Battle Flags. A few years ago, the Post’s editorial board expressed pleasure when a tile with a Confederate flag that the Times’ founder had embedded in the New York subway system was removed. According to the Post, Ochs had been buried with a Confederate banner.
This fixation with ritualistically denouncing the Confederacy is rather bewildering. The Civil War, which appears still to be traumatizing the GOP, has been over for some time. Moreover, the winning side was wise to eventually accord equal honor to the defeated South. This was a highly intelligent strategy to restore peace, as was the decision to pay the pensions of Confederate as well as Union veterans; as was allowing the conciliatory Virginian aristocrat who commanded the Southern armies, Robert E. Lee, to become one of America’s most honored heroes. Lee was until recently venerated by Americans of all political stripes. The Republican president of my youth, Dwight Eisenhower, came close to worshipping him.
This grace in victory is exactly what made Americans of the past different from the Spaniards, who have never stopped fighting their civil war, waged between the two irreconcilably hostile sides of their country, since it began in 1936. Today, some Americans have decided to descend into the same muck of irreconcilable hostility. This conflict might escalate more thoroughly if Southern whites cared a bit more about being slimed. Remarkably, most of them do not. But Southern white indifference or Southern Republican servility in the face of being collectively insulted still does not make this bizarre obsession look any more sensible.
Whom are establishment conservatives trying to impress by trashing the Southern side in the Civil War? Pace Levin and D’Souza, the present Democratic Party has nothing in common, other than its name, with the party of Jefferson, John C. Calhoun, and Franklin Pierce. As Fox News host Tucker Carlson has pointed out between his own broadsides against the Southern “traitors,” Democrats today may indeed be unfit to govern—but not because the politicians who called themselves Democrats owned slaves in 1860. English Tories in the 1820s opposed the enfranchisement of Catholics. Still, it is hard to figure out what that position has to do with the party of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. American Democrats up until a few years ago opposed gay marriage, but are now fanatically supportive of LGBT rights. European parties of the right have switched to become working-class parties, while European parties of the left attract woke corporate executives and radical lifestyle activists. Political landscapes do change and have done so dramatically since 1860.
All this gnashing of teeth over the events of the 1860s would make some sense if it were likely to bring about an electoral windfall. But it’s hard to see whom the anti-Southern conservatives and GOP operatives hope to win over by engaging in such hysterics. Do they really think more blacks will vote for them if they stridently demand the removal of the statues of Confederate “traitors,” which has become a hallmark position of the editor of National Review? The blacks who will likely vote Republican are concerned with the burning of their businesses and homes, acts of violence that the Democrats either incited or excused. The GOP has no hope of recruiting those of the left who are seething with rage, or pretending to seethe, over Confederate monuments.
Paul Gottfried is Editor in Chief of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is also the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.