The Civil War then and now: The Lost Cause, true believers, and January 6, 2021


Samuel Damren

This is the third commentary in a four-part series on “The Civil War, Then and Now.” The previous two commentaries examined the falsehoods underlying The Lost Cause, the methods utilized by its propogandists, and their parallels to the politics of Donald Trump. This commentary examines the symbiotic relationship between Trump’s “hard core” base, as a group, and the mindset of Donald Trump, the person.

When Trump won the 2016 election, the then Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, read several books on narcissism to help him figure out what makes Trump tick. It’s the smart thing for anyone dealing with a potential ally, adversary, or a difficult someone with whom you have to work. Ryan read the wrong books.

Narcissism is only one component of Donald Trump’s behavior. A far more comprehensive inventory of the characteristics that make Trump tick is found in the 20 items on Professor Robert Hare’s checklist of psychopathy developed after decades of clinical studies. Whether he has strong psychopathic tendencies or is a full-blown psychopath, Trump fits the profile under the checklist.

Experts on psychopathy note that persons fitting the profile share one quality: they don’t believe rules, norms, or laws apply to them. It’s not that they aren’t aware of the rules, can’t understand them or can’t obey them. Rather, that from their perspective, rules are for other people, not them. This trait is strongly evidenced in Trump’s behavior from the beginning and throughout his presidency.

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was the first senior member of the Trump team angrily dismissed from service, said that he repeatedly had to point out legal restrictions to Trump:
“I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it,” Tillerson told Trump. “It violates the law. It violates a treaty.”

Later reflecting on the reasons why their relationship deteriorated so quickly, Tillerson observed “we did not have a common value system.”

The list of senior advisers who were dismissed or resigned for similar reasons goes on and on. But if those advisers, and so many others, balk at this aspect of Trump’s mindset: that rules, norms and laws apply to other people but not to him; then, the question becomes why this mindset has such appeal to Trump’s hard-core supporters. To answer that question, one must look at the psychological make-up of this group.

“The True Believer,” written by Eric Hoffer in 1951, is a classic study of mass movements, political and otherwise. Hoffer saw that successful mass movements find their “strength” from followers’ rejection of a present world in which “their lives are irredeemably spoiled” combined with a leader’s vision and promise of a future that restores followers to their rightful place in the world.

The myth of The Lost Cause fits this profile. The sentiments underlying the myth of The Lost Cause resonate and find obvious expression in Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign. A brief history that builds on the first two commentaries in this series describes this evolution.

The Lost Cause began as the propaganda support for a resistance movement to confront and sabotage Reconstruction after the Civil War. The social structure of the antebellum South was “irredeemably spoiled” by emancipation. Former Confederates knew that the lawful enslavement of Africans could never return as a mainstay of that social and economic structure, but that did not mean that they accepted other changes, particularly the enfranchisement of people of color and their participation in the democratic process.

For close to a century after the failure of Reconstruction, through the virulence of the KKK, Jim Crow, and the lawful segregation of the races, white politicians continued to dominate Southern political institutions. As a result, the conflict between a democratic process that might threaten white rule by electing persons of color to dominate political power was never a reality.

During this same period extending to the present day, the big tent of white racism expanded in geographic reach outside the South. It also expanded in scope to include immigrants of color — Mexicans, Asians, Filipinos, Central and South Americans, Arabs — as well as non-Christian religious sects, including atheists, Jews, and Muslims.

But beginning in the 1950s, the “long arc of justice” started to bend. It began with the Civil Rights movement, which effectively exposed violent white rule in the South. Slowly, across only other regions of the country at first, people of color and others were permitted to compete for jobs previously reserved for WASPs. Northern and Western coastal cities then began to see an uptick in political participation by non-whites. At the turn of the 21st Century, diversity of workforce and in education was more and more promoted by leading corporations and institutions of higher education.

All the while, the white population of America started to recede in numbers compared to growing populations of non-whites.

To the alarm of heirs of The Lost Cause and other proponents of perpetual white rule, these changes suggested that their American political reality might be at a tipping point. This concern was punctuated by the election of President Barack Obama. To many Americans, Obama’s election was the long-awaited realization of laws implementing the proposition that all men are created equal. It was, however, a proposition that proponents of The Lost Cause had never accepted and a series of laws that their heirs had resisted since the beginning of Reconstruction.

Donald Trump appealed to the sentiments of The Lost Cause. But he did more than that. Beginning with his campaign promises of the Muslim Ban, the Wall that Mexico Would Pay For, and initiatives to erase Obama’s presidency, the MAGA campaign was explicit in the message that norms, laws, and treaties in these arenas were not going impede the Trump presidency in the slightest. At the junction of the refusal of present-day heirs of The Lost Cause to accept equality of the races and MAGA’s vision and promise of a new future, Trump and his prospective hard-core supporters bonded.

After his successful election in 2016, Trump made good on promises to erase the Obama presidency as much as possible. His bond with hard-core supporters became even stronger.

Trump never dreamed that the Coronavirus would threaten his prospects for re-election. It did because his reaction to it placed in dramatic relief his psychopathic traits. As his polling numbers fell, Trump reacted in predictable fashion. He lied, manipulated facts, showed no remorse or empathy for victims and their families, disclaimed responsibility, and looked for scapegoats at home and abroad.

All traits on Professor Hare’s checklist for psychopathy.

As his polling numbers continued to drop, Trump became desperate.

The politics of Donald Trump have well-worn “tells.” His most repeated “tell” is projection. One always knows Trump is up to something when he accuses an adversary — without proof — of some sort of improper or criminal activity. What you know is that Trump’s accusation against his adversary is exactly what Trump will soon be doing himself. As a result, the minute that he began the drumbeat of “Stop the Steal,” everyone was on alert that Trump planned to steal an election that he could not win at the ballot box.

When he lost on November 3, that is exactly what he tried to do.

He filed more than 60 lawsuits contesting the results based on fraud. There were no facts to support the claims. Based on unadjudicated allegations of fraud or similar misconduct, he demanded that officials who had purely ministerial functions refuse to certify election results. They did not. He arm-twisted Republican legislators in key states to overturn the outcomes of elections based on the same set of lies. They did not. He pushed top DOJ officials to open investigations of his false claims. They responded that they would resign en masse. Irrespective, Trump threatened the Secretary of State of Georgia with criminal investigation if he failed to “find” 11,000 additional Trump votes that did not exist.

The Secretary refused and taped the conversation.

Despite these setbacks, Trump’s hard-core followers did not waiver in their support for the soon to be former president. Eric Hoffer would not be surprised.

Seventy years ago, he wrote about this circumstance saying that the “unequalled fortitude” followers of mass movements have  in their cause and leader is best demonstrated by the true believer’s “ability to shut his eyes and stop his ears to facts.” Hoffer warned that mass movements often “can proceed recklessly with the present,” including “with the health, welfare and lives of its followers.”

On January 6, Donald Trump incited his hard-core supporters to stop Congress from certifying the results of the Electoral College through a violent attack on the Capitol. People died and people were forever harmed. The insurrection did not succeed.

In the aftermath, as arrests and prosecutions of Trump supporters who took part in the violence mount, Trump’s true believers are coming face to face with the fact that while Donald Trump may believe that norms and laws do not apply to him, their reality is far different and that norms and laws do apply to them.

I am an unlikely commentator to cite Rex Tillerson with approval, but I endorse without qualification his concern that “when we go wobbly on the truth, we go wobbly on America.”

The fourth and final commentary in this series will examine the “what ifs” of January 6 and the “what’s next” among the growing number of states enacting voter suppression laws designed to restrict non-white voting in future elections.

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