How the Trump Insurrection Echoes Confederate Treason

By Paul Thomas Zenki

They say history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Well, on January 6th, 2021, Trump and his insurrectionists were singing Dixie loud and clear.

Old times there, it seems, are indeed not forgotten.

It’s one thing to remember past evils so as not to repeat them. It’s quite another to give them CPR. And make no mistake, the parallels between the Trump insurrection and the Confederate rebellion are real, disturbing, and ongoing.

Race baiting

The most obvious Trumpist echo of the Confederacy is tolerance or, depending on who you are, outright cheering for white supremacy, repackaged today as “white nationalism” and “the alt-right”. While enslaving black people has never been on the Trump agenda per se, racist scapegoating takes up a lot of space in Trumpism’s bag of tricks.

Trump himself is a notorious bigot, with examples too numerous to list here, from his dogged pursuit of “birtherism” — the conspiracy theory holding that Barak Obama is not a native-born American — to his infamous presidential campaign announcement dredging up musty fears among Anglos that Mexican immigrants are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.” (Are we just gonna stand around while white female virtue is threatened? Well are we?!) Yet much more dangerous than one bigot’s beliefs in particular, even if that bigot sits in the Oval Office, is how white supremacy has normalized within the Republican Party, to the degree that in January of 2019 Iowa representative Steve King appeared genuinely perplexed that anyone might find reasons to object to it: “White nationalist, white supremacist… how did that language become offensive?”

Well, Steve, if you have to ask ….

So it’s really no surprise that the January 6th mob included the likes of Robert Keith Packer who donned his very best “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie for the event, and Kevin Seefried who paraded around the Capitol with a rebel flag over his shoulder. “We love you,” Trump told them after catching their performance on TV, “you’re very special… Go home in peace.”

Losing control of the agitprop

So, what were Kevin and Bobby and all their fellow door-smashing, cop-beating, noose-raising, Pelosi-hunting travelers doing there in the first place? Well, in the immortal and slightly bothered words of Elizabeth from Knoxville, “We’re storming the Capitol — it’s a revolution.”

Now there’s a widespread myth among Confederate apologists, who love to put the spotlight on the common soldier so as to keep it off certain other involved parties, that the average rebel was a brave and valiant salt-o’-the-earth type who got dragged into the war by circumstance, having no dog in the fight himself. But the fact is, secession was impelled by popular furor.

Legally, it would have taken a federal constitutional amendment to force slavery out of the states that wanted it, which is why two Union states, Kentucky and Delaware, retained the practice throughout the Civil War and beyond, until ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December of 1865. What Southern political leaders and plantation owners wanted wasn’t protection of slavery where it existed — they already had that — but expansion of slavery into the western territories, the former in order to secure a majority voting bloc against the North as new states joined the union so as to pass legislation favorable to themselves, and the latter to increase their family land holdings rather than dividing them up among inheriting offspring.

But it’s harder to get the common folk to rally around such goals than it is to tell them they’re in imminent danger. And so it was, the specter of abolition got trotted out at every stump speech and whistle stop in Dixie. Any day now, if the Southern people were to let their guard down, Northern abolitionists would destroy the Southern economy, erase the Southern way of life, and put the white man on the level of the Negro. Yankees were just evil that way.

Abraham Lincoln, of the anti-expansionists Republican Party, was the target of particularly virulent vilification. Should Lincoln secure the White House, the Southern voter was assured, doom was mere footsteps behind, as unavoidable as night following day. When the ballots were counted and the devil Lincoln had prevailed, secession fever swept the South like wildfire. Pro-secession radicals seized the opportunity to raise their profile, as pro-union moderates were either sidelined or, like future Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens, opted to convert to the cause. When the smoke had cleared, eleven states had abandoned the union to form their own nation, ostensibly founded on the “corner-stone” of white supremacy and race-based chattel slavery.

Got déjà vu yet?

Starting with Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz and their infamous 1990 candidate training manual Language: A Key Method of Control — which specified terms such as “liberal”, “sick”, “welfare”, “fail”, and “traitors” to describe Democrats and their policies, and contrasting terms such as “family”, “liberty”, “freedom”, “strength”, and “hard work” to describe Republicans and their platform — the GOP has increasingly relied on fear-based agitprop to motivate their voter base. With the aid of Fox News television, Clear Channel radio, and American Media publishing, they crafted a right-wing thought ecosystem from which their audience need never emerge, where climate change was a hoax, Democrats were communists, and “gun grabbers” were constantly plotting to disarm conservative patriots and impose upon them a UN-enforced global dystopia. Democrats are just evil that way.

Inevitably, the conspiracy-drenched Republican narrative took on a life of its own and in 2016 it ran out from under its handlers in the form of a Donald Trump presidency in which “alternative facts” formed the entire fabric of a right-wing virtual reality where actors stage phony school shootings, Joe Biden manipulates the space-time continuum by axing a prosecutor investigating his son’s business associations years before he forms them, and a global pandemic is actually a media stunt intended to besmirch the American president. GOP leaders unwilling to relocate to the carnival show were hounded as traitors, although there turned out to be no shortage of Alexander Stephenses among the ranks of former never-Trumper Republicans. Perhaps the most outlandish of the sideshow freaks would be contortionist Mitch McConnel, who insisted that Trump’s second impeachment trial for inciting insurrection could not be held before the inauguration, then voted to acquit on the (utterly spurious) grounds that it was illegal to hold the trial after the inauguration as he’d demanded, excoriated Trump for being guilty as all hell of an offense that would disqualify him from future office, then folded his spine backward and enthusiastically pledged his support should Trump once more gain the party nomination for president.

Assured by his previous impeachment non-trial that Republicans would let him off the hook no matter what he got up to, Don Trump had nothing to lose by committing completely to the Big Lie of a “stolen” election and rampant voter fraud. He and his surrogates beat the drums of patriotic zeal while beating the bushes of Trump Nation to flush out the most ardently committed and profoundly deluded of his flock. Convinced that the Constitution had been abrogated — or at least, in some cases, willing to play along with the notion — a ragtag militia of neo-Nazis, firearm fetishists, and aggrieved realtors and dentists congregated in DC, their conspiratorial core fully prepped to disrupt the election certification at the Capitol, capture the traitors within, perhaps summarily execute them (a rebel can dream!), and part the seas for the true president, Donald J. Trump, who would stride triumphantly to the dais and institute martial law until this whole damn thing could be sorted out once and for all.

Opting out of law and order

What kept the golpecito at the Capitol from becoming another Fort Sumter was that today’s US military leadership is staunchly loyal to the Constitution, for which we all should be eternally grateful. But make no mistake, we’re not out of the woods yet. Not by a long shot.

One cannot hold another person in bondage, much less an entire race of people, without suffering a chronic corruption of the soul. What sparked the armed conflict at Fort Sumter was the Confederate insistence that secession converted US federal lands, goods, and other property to Confederate property, without need for compensation. Having convinced themselves that black persons had no rights they need respect, or even recognize, it was a short leap to convincing themselves that no one who opposed their intentions, whatever they may be, mattered in any substantive way. If unprecedented slaughter was needed to secure their interests and their “property”, so be it.

Lies, too, corrupt the soul. And today’s American Republican Party stands entirely upon a foundation of lies. So it is not surprising that they, too, have ceased to care about anybody but themselves. One only has to look at the deadly cynicism with which they have handled the coronavirus pandemic, their encouragement (passive or active) of the Big Lie of election fraud, and the way they are now providing cover for the outright treason of January 6th.

Currently, Republicans across the country are busily erecting barriers to the polls against groups of people who tend to vote for Democrats, and even passing laws which would give GOP-controlled state legislatures the power to step in and take over the elections process in areas where the vote doesn’t go their way. Meanwhile, in DC, Republican lawmakers are doing their damnedest to prevent federal legislation which would protect the right to vote. Because they no longer care about democracy. It has become inconvenient. As has the law.

At this point, all bets are off. Whatever the GOP can do to remain in power, we should assume they will do. Legal or not. Trump and his posse tore down the last barrier for them, proving that no amount of lying or criminal behavior, no matter how obvious, would turn their supporters against them. And if anyone has a problem with that, well, they know where the door is.

At this point, we’re dealing with a group who has looked the other way as their leader caused the needless deaths of perhaps half a million Americans through his action and inaction, as members of their party spread Kremlin-based propaganda destabilizing American democracy, as their party platform was discarded for a pledge of loyalty to a narcissistic demagogue, and as that demagogue stirred up a band of rebels and attempted a coup. They have passed through the gauntlet, and in the process have surrendered too much of their own souls to let go of what they have left, their utter commitment to Republican power at any cost. Nothing else matters. Not democracy, not American lives, certainly not the truth.

Once again, we face the very real question of whether or not government of the people, by the people, and for the people can endure.

Header image by Tyler Merbler, 6 January 2020 (public domain)

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Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.