Trump Appeals to Base by Celebrating the Nation’s Racist Past

When white supremacists get together, funerals follow. This painful pattern repeated itself in August 2017 when neo-Nazis and other white nationalists descended on Charlottesville, Va. to advance efforts to mainstream hate groups.

At the time, Charlottesville was in the throes of a heated public debate about removing a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the park outside the Albemarle County courthouse. The thought of taking down the monument upset promoters of the Lost Cause — a vision of the past which glorifies the Confederacy and romanticizes slavery — and gave white supremacists a publicly palatable excuse for gathering. They argued that they had to exercise their First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and assembly to defend Southern heritage.

Their actions during the August rally, however, exposed their real intention: they wanted to stamp out equality through intimidation and violence. They brutally attacked anti-racist counter-demonstrators, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, whose funeral followed four days later.

As events unfolded in Charlottesville, President Donald J. Trump read a prepared statement, ostensibly to help calm the situation. It was apparent, however, that his heart wasn’t in it. Making matters worse, he equivocated when it came to calling out those responsible for the violence that had erupted. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence,” he said, adding, “on many sides, on many sides.”

Trump’s ad-lib in the context of his refusal to denounce white supremacy drew immediate condemnation from across the political spectrum. “Mr. President — we must call evil by its name,” tweeted Senator Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican. “These were white supremacists, and this was domestic terrorism.”

But rather than offer a full-throated repudiation of racial hatred, Trump doubled down on his false equivalency. “I think there is blame on both sides,” he told reporters after a couple of days of silence. “You had some very bad people in that group,” referring to the violent white supremacists. “But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” Blaming the victims of racial terror for the violence that befell them was bad. But arguing that there were “very fine people” to be found among the perpetrators of such crimes was worse.

Rebukes came fast. Senator Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana, wrote, “This is simple: we must condemn and marginalize white supremacist groups, not encourage and embolden them.” Others moved to put as much distance as possible between themselves and Trump’s brand of racism, including corporate business leaders, who resigned en masse from two of the president’s economic advisory councils. But Trump’s base, which sociologist and freelance journalist Nicki Lisa Cole describes as “primarily white, older men with low levels of education and income [who] believe that immigrants and free trade deals have harmed their earning power [and] prefer an America in which white people are the majority,” remained supportive. For them, Trump’s embrace of the Lost Cause mattered more than anything else.

When pressed to explain his sympathetic view of the racists responsible for the violence in Charlottesville, Trump parroted the neo-Nazis’ cover story. “Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” he said. The president then took to Twitter. “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” he wrote. “[C]an’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also... the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”

Trump responded to criticism of his Charlottesville remarks by hiding behind Confederate statues because he knew his base strongly opposed getting rid of them. Just two years earlier, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled state legislature passed a law banning the removal of Confederate monuments from public property without the permission of a state-appointed historical commission.

Trump’s base wanted Confederate monuments to remain where they were because they viewed them as symbolic representations of the Lost Cause. But their wistful desire for a South that never existed did more than just reflect an obsession with nostalgia. It also erased a long history of racism.

White supremacy was the cornerstone of the Confederacy. Slaveholders such as Robert E. Lee understood this. So too did the generation of Confederate sympathizers who littered the southern landscape with Confederate monuments in the early 20th century. When North Carolina industrialist Julian Carr spoke at the dedication of a Confederate statue on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1913, he praised Confederates for taking up arms against this nation to preserve the “purest strain of the Anglo-Saxon.”

Trump’s base knew all about this heritage of hate. Some dismissed it as irrelevant while others spun it as a function of the times. And still others, like the white supremacists who invaded Charlottesville, reveled in it.

Trump also knew about this legacy and tradition, which is why he raised the issue of removing Confederate statues in the first place. He had ascended to the White House on the strength of racist appeals, pledging to ban Muslims from entering the country and promising to build a wall along the southern border to keep Mexicans out too. Now he railed against getting rid of Confederate monuments to activate the latent (and not so hidden) racism of his base; and, once again, his supporters backed him. His approval ratings had dropped precipitously immediately after Charlottesville, but they leveled off following his defense of the Lost Cause. Trump had offered his base a more publicly acceptable version of hate than the neo-Nazis, and they loved him for it.

White supremacy is the most effective political organizing tool in American history. It has advanced political careers and reshaped political parties from the nation’s founding through the present. Although new to politics, Trump was no novice to deploying white supremacy to raise his public profile. “Maybe hate is what we need if we’re gonna get something done,” he told CNN’s Larry King in a 1989 interview about the Central Park Five, a group of African American and Latino boys wrongfully accused and convicted of raping a white woman jogger in New York City’s Central Park.

Nearly 30 years after this interview, Trump assumed the role of Confederate-in-Chief to tap into the heritage of hate embodied in the Lost Cause, and his base rewarded him with their loyalty. Both consciously and unconsciously, they too believed that hate was needed to get something done.

About the Author

Hasan Kwame Jeffries is an associate professor in the Department of History at The Ohio State University. His teaching and research focus on 20th century African American history. He earned his BA from Morehouse College (1994) and PhD from Duke University (2002). He is the author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (NYU, 2009) and the editor of Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement (Wisconsin, 2019).