How can we understand the ease with which Juneteenth became a federal holiday, without much resistance from the ever-obstructing GOP? In a recent essay in Harper’s, Matt Karp, a historian of slavery, diagnoses a few critical recent shifts in the political uses of history. Among these shifts Karp sees a withdrawal, on the right, from the Lost Cause. “American conservatives, traditionally attracted to history as an exercise in patrimonial devotion, have in the time of Trump abandoned many of their older pieties, instead oscillating between incoherence and outright nihilism,” Karp writes.
Good news, right? Not really. Karp argues that even as they pull back from using pro-Confederate rhetoric, Republican politicians are claiming the 19th century history of emancipation, seeing it as a good way to beef up their politics of nationalism. This is a move he argues liberals are ill-equipped to counter with their own vision of history.
Karp and I spoke recently about the fights over critical race theory and the 1619 Project and why he thinks the left should reclaim abolition and emancipation as a specifically progressive historical legacy. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rebecca Onion: What are your strongest points of argument for this idea that the Lost Cause is losing its political force on the right?
Matt Karp: In the essay, I make a simple comparison between how these politics have played out in 2020 or 2021 as opposed to 20 years ago, when, in the Bush administration, you had a number of Cabinet appointees who had controversies floating over their heads about their outright unambiguous statements of praise for the Confederacy. John Ashcroft, Gale Norton—Bush himself had essentially defended flying the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Capitol, on states’ rights grounds. These were not seen as radical outsiders seizing the mantle of the state. This was part of the natural order of things for the conservative wing of the Republican Party, to have these kinds of associations. Of course it made people mad, it wasn’t uncontested. Liberals tried to use it to paint John Ashcroft as beyond the pale. But Confederate iconography and historical memory of the war was something that was present in elite media and national politics—there was nothing like a unanimous need to condemn it.
Whereas now, if you look at the spasmodic invocations of the Confederacy that have popped up in Trump-land, they received enormous and rightly critical hostile coverage. But the amount of weight they seemed to carry in policy or politics has radically diminished. In fact, the Trump administration saw a massive retreat: In the last military bill, which Trump vetoed, but the Republican Party passed anyway, there was a provision to remove all the Confederate names from every military base. There was another bill to remove all the Confederate statues from Congress that garnered a huge chunk of Republican support!
Look at the history wars over teaching. The previous big kerfuffle about this was in the 1990s, in the Clinton administration, when you had Lynne Cheney leading the fight on the right against Clinton’s new national history standards, which had been compiled by a bunch of left-leaning professors. She was openly saying, We need to teach Robert E. Lee in the schools, we need to treat Robert E. Lee fairly, put him alongside the other great white men, and so on. And the whole context of the debate admitted the Confederacy as a thing we need to hold onto, part of our heritage.
And if you look at today’s debate on critical race theory, none of these state legislators seem to be demanding that we teach the Civil War as a tragic tale of accidental conflict between brothers. If anything, the Texas Republican Party was tweeting about Juneteenth! Sharing links about how the Republican Party freed the slaves. This is huge. A huge difference from how they would have treated any of these issues 30 years ago.
It’s ahistorical to pretend like there hasn’t been a massive movement in the discourse, at least among elected officials, at the media level, and in legislation. I don’t have a clear sense of popular spirit around the issue—I’m not talking about polls and I’m not saying there aren’t deep and broad pockets of pro-Confederate sympathy that exist. But institutionally—to me, the support is weaker.
Funny you should say that—I just listened to an episode of the podcast Time to Say Goodbye where they discuss your essay, and one of the hosts was saying that she read it, then drove on a highway in Oregon past a monument to Jefferson Davis. I think she was implying that she wasn’t so sure this part of your argument held. But it strikes me that if Republican legislators are voting for Juneteenth as a federal holiday, they might see something has changed among their voters, that we don’t see.
Exactly. I would trust a member of Congress to understand the pulse of his or her base in their districts. They’re like, Where is our bread buttered? Right now the live front here is with this critical race theory stuff. They’re going to the wall with this, clearly. But they’re not including Lost Cause politics, not insisting on memorialization, not doing the old “the South will rise again!” Strom Thurmond stuff.
I want to make it clear that I’m not feeling triumphalist about this. David Blight writes about the reconciliation trope becoming sort of the dominant mode of remembering the Civil War through the 20th century. This was the kind of Civil War memory that you see in Ken Burns’ famous documentary—the aged men in gray and men in blue, shaking hands at Gettysburg over the stone wall, in 1915.
This vote for Juneteenth is a real victory for another category of memory Blight identified, which is the emancipationist kind. Juneteenth is really our first Civil War holiday. We have Memorial Day for all the wars, but this is the first specific historical holiday for the Civil War. And it commemorates emancipation! It’s long overdue, of course—though it can’t address the real roots of inequality today, and I agree with all the left critiques on that. But if you’re just talking about the symbolism of it, the federal holiday is a defeat for reconciliation as mode of memory, and a triumph for emancipation.
The right’s support for Juneteenth signifies that they are investing more energy in claiming credit for emancipation. Rather than downplaying or diminishing or cynically undermining, decentering the importance of slavery altogether, they’re saying, Yes, it was terrible—and we fixed it.
It gave me a chill to read your piece and realize how this connects to Dinesh D’Souza’s ridiculous argument that the Democratic Party of today is the same party that enslaved people and created the KKK, while the Republican Party is the party of liberation. This idea is so ahistorical and preposterous—obviously, Democrats and Republicans are not the same as they were in the 19th century—that I always perceived it as so marginal as to be not even worthy of contention. But here we are, with not the specifics of it but the general idea seeping out into the mainstream.
It’s fascinating the extent to which D’Souza and Dennis Prager and these other people that push this do accept the story of emancipation. The substance of the story that’s being taught, that liberals want to teach, that’s being taught in most places now—they accept the story, and they just switch the white hat, switch out the labels on the uniforms.
This fuses with a nationalistic politics. I think the retreat from the Lost Cause has also meant a kind of raising of new citadels around the idea of the nation. People on the right seem to be sort of sacrificing the Confederacy, to some extent, because it doesn’t do the work they want it to do. What does work is laying claim to the nation at the heart of the idea of America. Not in the old-school “the founders were geniuses and set aside universal freedom from everyone” Lynne Cheney kind of a way, but in a new school way that just says, “America, fuck yes!”
This is a different thing from the regionalism of the Lost Cause. I think it’s interesting that this nationalism has in many cases not even taken the point of view of reconciliation, but is deeply invested in unionist symbols. Tucker Carlson had a whole segment defending Ulysses S. Grant. It’s a rally point for them right now—the idea they’re going after Grant and Lincoln. It’s like how, in previous years, they kind of laid claim to a certain version of Martin Luther King. They’re not interested in tying themselves to the mast of the Confederacy. They’re claiming everything else for themselves.
I think you’re onto something here. The conversations around anti-CRT bills emphasize the right’s desire to have kids coming out of class feeling positive emotions about the United States. The Lost Cause and the Civil War don’t really fit. There’s defeat and tragedy there.
Right! The MAGA energy is about winning and feeling good. And in that sense, the Union victory is something to feel good about.
I honestly think Donald Trump sometimes talked about the war because he’s just an older guy who watched Ken Burns once, or Gettysburg or Gods and Generals, one of the 1990s reconciliation-themed movies—and as you remember, he used to love to tell us about things he watched on TV. So he would sprinkle some of these things into his speeches where he would talk about how Lee was a great general, and it got picked up by the press like he was setting up a Lost Cause shrine in the White House. But if you look at some of these younger guys, Stephen Miller, Tucker Carlson, Christopher Rufo, whoever these ideologists are, as far as I can tell they’re not really interested in this sentimentalism over the Confederacy. They would much rather play the strong card: America’s great because we destroyed slavery.
Right! This reminds me of the memes right-wingers will make to denigrate millennials and zoomers, where they juxtapose pictures of soldiers leaving the landing craft at D-Day with images of young Americans doing something they think of as soft, like watching Netflix or whatever. They want to remember the part where we did a big, gigantic thing, not the failure of the Confederacy.
Right! Like: We beat them. We beat Nazism, we beat communism, we beat slavery.
Previous generations of people involved in left-wing politics—Eugene Debs, the American Communist Party in the 1930s, which used Lincoln on its posters—laid claim to the legacy of emancipation and the Civil War as a progressive or left-wing triumph. And I think a retreat from that has opened up space, in a sense, for the right to take it and make it a national triumph rather than a victory for social justice.
In my essay, I wrote about the 1619 Project and argued that the emphasis in that project isn’t really on change and transformation and progress, but rather on the continuity of oppression. The way the history spins and spins, but doesn’t move. I don’t want to homogenize or oversimplify things, because I think within centrist liberalism there are many currents, and it’s not the case exactly that the Obama-ish vision of the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice is completely gone, the way it feels when reading the 1619 Project. I’m sure Joe Biden hits those notes. I think with a lot of liberal voters over 50, that idea that we are doing two steps forward, one step back toward progress still resonates. But for younger people, the 1619 Project’s vision of history as continuity has gotten stronger. History as a weight, rather than a place to witness progress, to draw on to use to aspire to future progress.
I don’t think you need to draw on the image of the past as an uninterrupted series of progressive victories to inspire future politics. I don’t think you need to believe in the teleological movement of history. But I think the alternative that’s on offer right now—the biblical and biological metaphors of “original sin” and “America’s DNA” to be found in the 1619 Project—doesn’t really present any sort of political roads forward, or a way to contest what the right is doing.
I don’t want to say the right has completely laid claim to Lincoln. I don’t think we’re there yet—I hope we’re not there! But it’s not impossible to imagine getting to a place like that, given where things are moving now. And so, I think it’s part of our job in this moment to imagine what a progressive view of history would look like that’s not dependent on teleology, but also isn’t totally captive to continuity and origins. And it’s not easy. But we have to believe we can.