The New Lost Cause Rhetoric

Photo Mike Theiler

Lillian Smith tells the story of her and one of her brothers playing in their house in Jasper, Florida. They ran around and in the attic they came across an old chest. Opening it, they stood aghast, staring at all of the money they had found. “We felt rich; richer than the Rockefeller children or any children,” Smith said in 1960, “We knew we could now buy anything we wanted.”

Smith and her brother went to the store asked the clerk for five pounds of candy. When her brother gave the clerk the money, he told them, “This money is worthless.” Smith and her brother pushed back, claiming the money had value because it was paper money. The clerk told them to burn the money, saying, “Don’t keep it around; it will mix you up; get you all mixed up about everything.”

The clerk gave the crying children some candy and told them to go home, but Smith continued, vehemently telling him that that he should accept their money because it was money. Finally, he told them, “Money is not money, sister, unless it is based on something real. This is Old Confederate money and there is not Confederacy. See? It has no value because there’s nothing back of it.”

On January 6, 2021, we saw the same thing, domestic terrorists trying to use a worthless currency when they attacked the Capitol. Whipped up by lies of a fraudulent election from the halls of government and the White House itself, they planned out their attack. What should have been a day of celebration for the election of the first Black Senator, Raphael Warnock, and the first Jewish Senator, John Ossoff, from Georgia and the ceremonial validating of the presidential election results, became a failed coup attempt that left five people dead.

Some adorned shirts emblazoned with “MAGA Civil War January 6, 2021” for the event, showing that the actions were not a spontaneous, spur of the moment romp around the nation’s capitol. Before the election, Trump constantly sold snake oil to his supporters, telling them lies about mail in and absentee voting. After November 3, he continued to sell a false bill of goods ratcheting up claims of election fraud, specifically in swing states that went for Joe Biden. However, no mention ever occurred regarding Republican officials who won elections in those same sates. Trump’s team filed 60 cases in court claiming fraud, they lost 59 of them. The only All of this led to Josh Hawley lead the charge to object to the electoral votes in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. Countless Republican members of Congress and the Senate signed on to Hawley’s false lost cause.

On the morning January 6, Trump held a rally in Washington DC, and he told those gathered, “We will never give up. We will never concede, it doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.” He told them to walk to the US Capitol and pressure the “weak Republicans” into joining the objections. Donald Trump, Jr. even told the crowd, “This isn’t the Republican Party anymore. This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party. Trump’s lawyer told them that there should be “trial by combat” to determine the outcome.

Trump, along with his countless sycophants, have morphed the Lost Cause mythology of the South into the Lost Cause mythology of Trump. As Karen Cox puts it, “Even if Mr. Trump were to remove himself from public life in the coming years, his lost cause and the myths he’s helped create about elections, voter fraud and fake news will likely continue, a cultural and political phenomenon that shows no sign of ending.”

The Trump flag, no matter what design, has become the new Confederate Battle Flag. It’s flapping in the wind behind the pickup truck screaming driving down the road serves to intimidate, just as the symbol of the defeated Confederacy does. In Bossier Parish in 1868, whites used violence to squash the vote for Ulysses S. Grant and Schuyler Colfax, leaving over 160 Black men, women, and children murdered. This violence escalated after the end of Reconstruction, an end that came about with the Compromise of 1877 and which led to increased racial violence and Jim Crow.

Smith notes that the day she went into the store to buy the candy was the day her education began. She then asks about the Southern politicians and says, “Well, they weren’t there that day and they have not learned this basic lesson. They are still going to buy a future for the South, and for our country, with currency that is worthless: with ideas that have no validity, opinions that are not based on facts, values that are not human and Earth-size. They keep flashing old bills around and they still believe they’ll get their bargain.”

Smith knew that the Lost Cause was nothing more than myth, but that myth, that snake oil peddled to the region, the nation, and the world infiltrated the very marrow of the populace and the cultural psyche. It became a salve for their psyches, a salve to comfort them from what they feared the most, the interracial coalitions and progress that threatened their positions. Instead of admitting defeat, looking in the mirror, and recognizing their own inner demons, those who lost the Civil War framed themselves as valiant soldiers and virile men who could whip anyone at any time in any place.

Likewise, the Trumpian Lost Cause exists on “ideas that have no validity, opinions that are not based on facts.” It serves as a salve, a numbing agent to take focus away from the ways that the powerful work to maintain their power by sowing divisions amongst those beneath their feet. The powerful don’t want coalitions of people joining together to fight for equity. To keep this from happening, they, as Lillian Smith and other point out, continuously cause people to “fall for the lies Mr. Rich White told Mr. Poor White long ago, to keep him satisfied with poverty and sharecropping.” The lies that told Mr. Poor White he is better than anyone else because he is white.

Lillian Smith understood the dangers of demagogues and their rhetoric. She said, “The Devil knows that if you want to destroy a man, all you need do is fill him with false hopes and false fears. These will blind him to his new direction and he will inevitably turn away from the future and destroy himself and those close to him.” It is the same with nations, Smith says. To destroy a nation, the Devil fills its people with those false hopes and false fears, taking them “straight to their appointment with Death” as they drag all of their allies down alongside them.

Instead of condemning the domestic terrorists, Trump continued to trot out the snake oil claiming he won due to a fraudulent election before telling those attacking the Capitol, “We love you, you’re very special. We’ve seen what happens, you see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel. But go home, and go home in peace.” Trump continued to erect the Trumpian Lost Cause, giving supporters false hope while also continuing to inject them with false fears. He placed the blame on others, not on his demagogic rhetoric, thus telling supporters to look outwards and to others for their pain, not within themselves or towards him. He salved them with the snake oil of the Trumpian Lost Cause.

Here, you will find reflections on African American, American, and Southern Literature, American popular culture and politics, and pedagogy.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store