Once again Heather Cox Richardson has compared current developments in US governance to nineteenth-century antecedents, with concerning results. See her post for June 22. She has been doing this well for many months now. I recommend her 2020 book How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America for an introduction and overview. In short: some of us were fearing that Trumpism represented a US appearance of German-style Nazi politics, but it’s probably better understood as a resurgence of the homegrown politics that produced and perpetuates the political philosophy of the Confederate States of America.
So it’s unsurprising at this point that Richardson heard echoes of Stephen Douglas in yesterday’s Senate proceedings.
When I was a schoolboy in central Virginia in the sixties and seventies, I would often hear schoolmates repeating the old slogan, “Save your Confederate money, boys, the South will rise again!” This was usually said in a joking manner. Nobody cringed, and nobody objected, and I don’t think it was always said entirely in jest.
These were days when the news was full of federal judges ordering desegregation, and then when it didn’t happen, ordering busing to make it happen, and of massive white resentment against such federal orders. I remember my grandfather, who had grown up rough and rural in the aughts and teens, joking that he’d like to be sitting up in a tree with his shotgun when Judge (Robert) Mehrige (of the federal district court in Richmond) walked by so he could pepper his toes with birdshot. Hahaha, we laughed. We didn’t think Poppa would never shoot a federal judge, not even his toes. He was just entertaining us.
But in truth the Confederate South never died. It was just beaten back and receded into hidden regions, like Voldemort in the First Wizarding War, or Sauron after Mirkwood, but it never disappeared as completely as they. The monuments that were erected throughout the South in the 1920s were its avatars, and the Death Eaters who donned Klan robes were its servants (there were still cross-burnings on front lawns near us when I was a kid in the sixties, and somebody tied up Judge Mehrige’s dog and shot it, and somebody burned down his mother-in-law’s cottage) until it was verbally summoned forth by Nixon’s Southern Strategy and then came roaring back nationwide, under another name, in the Trumpist Devolution.
Maybe Nixon didn’t fully realize what dark spirit he was calling up, or maybe he did. Not that he would have cared. If he isn’t rolling in his grave as McConnell tries to finish what he started, perhaps his Quaker mama is. Mother of Nixon, pray for us sinners in the hour of our national apostasy.
Meanwhile, in my home church in Virginia, the beloved old long-retired pastor who often fills the pulpit reads the scripture lesson, gazes out on the diminished but still all-white crowd of faithful disciples who have funded missionaries in Africa but have never shown the slightest interest in saving or communing with the souls of the sixty percent, now, of their own neighbors who are black—let them find their way to the separate but equal black churches, if they want Jesus!—and solemnly warns them, with quavering voice, nearly in tears, to beware the creeping evils of critical race theory (of which he has no more glimmer of understanding than he has of string theory or the general theory of relativity) and of Black Lives Matter. Of course he also warns them to beware the homosexual agenda.
But he does not warn them against those who join house to house and field to field and trample the poor and the fatherless, or those who call unclean what (Moses called unclean but) God has (now) called clean, or those who sow lies and resentment and division and anger, or those who introduce national flags and nationalist rhetoric into houses of Christian worship, or bend the knee of their heart before gilded eagles. He does not warn them against the insidious enticements of the resurgent Confederacy, that archetypal American perversion of gospel and law into a God-claiming regime of perpetual white supremacy.
The Confederacy is resurgent. And of course, like every other religious and political illness in the West since the fourth century, it claims to be Christian, and the masses of its adherents (if not its puppetmasters) firmly believe it to be so.