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'Lost Cause:' The slavery mythology Republicans are using to gaslight voters

Confederate flags SC
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The irony is that while the Confederacy lost the war, its supporters won the battle to tell the story of history.

(CNN) -- Editor’s Note: Karen Finney is a CNN political commentator. She was senior spokesperson and senior advisor to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.

I am the great-great-great-great niece of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. My maternal grandmother Mildred Lee was named after her grandmother, a beloved niece of the general who was also named Mildred Lee.

I am also the great-great-great granddaughter of a freed slave from Virginia whose name I will probably never know.

Walking through the door of my grandmother’s home in North Carolina, it was impossible to miss a portrait of Lee proudly displayed on the wall. At meal times, during what occasionally felt like indoctrination, she would admiringly describe our famous ancestor, “the General,” as a benevolent slave owner and noble warrior.

As she explained it, Lee valiantly fought an unjust “War of Northern Aggression” in defense of “states’ rights,” often referred to as “The Lost Cause.” The South had been defeated, my grandmother insisted, only because the Northern army had more resources and slavery really wasn’t so bad.

There was no room in her worldview for my lived experience as her biracial granddaughter or the very different reality experienced on the other side of the color line by my father’s family in Virginia which had endured the horrors of slavery, segregation and racial violence.

When challenged, my grandmother, a former university librarian, would cite historical literature to bolster her points. But “history,” as with any story or account, can differ based on who writes it.

The work to preserve and promote “Lost Cause” lies included efforts by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to ensure that textbooks were used to educate millions of public school children from the 1870’s, well into the 1990’s. These lies even appear in textbooks and curriculums used in some areas of the country today. They also worked to install Confederate monuments throughout the country to promote white supremacy and myths about General Lee.

It has been jarring to see the perpetuation of this dangerous mythology during the 2024 presidential campaign. It speaks to our unresolved national complex around slavery, the war fought to end it, the Jim Crow era and issues like systemic racism that we continue to grapple with. The myth of the Lost Cause hasn’t been defeated. It became such a pervasive ideology and intertwined with a sense of identity, that it essentially became a civic religion.

During his recent speech at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, President Biden eloquently spoke to the dangers of Trump’s attempt — just like Civil War apologists — to “turn a loss into a lie.” In gaslighting remarks that sounded a lot like my grandmother’s, former President Donald Trump recently invoked the Civil War at a campaign rally in Iowa, suggesting that it could have been avoided through “negotiation,” and that Abraham Lincoln should have done more to avoid bloodshed.

Echoes of Lost Cause mythology have also been invoked throughout the primary by Trump’s leading opponents, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Early on in his campaign, DeSantis actually centered his presidential effort around an “anti-woke” agenda that among other things, literally rewrote history in children’s textbooks, replacing a modern truth-based telling, to a Lost Cause explanation of chattel slavery as possibly having an educational benefit to enslaved people.

And in a blatant attempt to appeal to Trump voters, DeSantis invoked graphic Reconstruction-era language on the third anniversary of the January 6 attack on the Capitol telling Fox News that while the rampage shouldn’t have happened, in his view it’s not a reason “to wave the bloody shirt and try to impugn tens of millions of Americans.” As the Florida Governor likely knows, “waving the bloody shirt” is a pejorative expression coined during post-Civil War political campaigns to criticize or shame candidates who invoked the atrocities of the Civil War and supported Reconstruction.

Then there’s Nikki Haley. In her ongoing attempt to walk the line between appealing to Trump’s MAGA base and a more centrist appeal to moderate and independent voters, she has yet to come up with an answer about the cause of the Civil War without invoking Lost Cause talking points. Beyond absurdly omitting slavery as the root cause of the War, she made matters worse while trying to clean up her comments during a recent CNN Town Hall, saying she just assumed that slavery was a “given” since all children learn about it in school in the South.

Then in an interview with Fox News this week, Haley again struggled to walk that line when asked if America is a racist country. In her response she declared that “We (America) have never been a racist country.” Her comments continue the gaslighting about the centrality of White supremacist beliefs about slavery, the creation of the Lost Cause lies, and our country’s ongoing struggle with racism and bigotry.

Haley is the former governor of South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, and she successfully navigated the politics of removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds. Like my grandmother and Gov. DeSantis, she knows full well that the version of history printed in textbooks matters greatly.

Against this backdrop, the US Supreme Court will soon decide whether, based on the third clause of the 14th Amendment which banned former Confederate leaders who fought against the United States to preserve slavery and a Lost Cause way of life, former president Trump can be barred from the ballot in a number of states. It has been compelled to answer this question as those states have deemed him ineligible due to his role in the January 6 insurrection and his efforts to remain in power after losing the 2020 election.

Just as the Supreme Court was announcing that it would take up the case, the former president informed Illinois that he would not sign a McCarthy-era pledge to not engage in insurrection against the United States, despite having signed it both in 2016 and 2020.

In short, it was defeated and discredited, but Lost Cause mythology nevertheless lives on. As writer Clint Smith eloquently explained, in a piece for The Atlantic, it became a dangerous civic religion for generations of its followers. As he and many other writers explain, the irony is that while the Confederacy lost the war, its supporters won the battle to tell the story of our history. The lies on which it was based rationalized the South’s crushing defeat, stoked its grievances against the North as well as fears about the cultural, social and industrial changes that were occurring across the country.

In parts of the country, progress made during Reconstruction was reversed, replaced by Jim Crow and the birth of violent extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan in a dramatic attempt to kill the movement for equal rights and force America backwards.

It was easy not to indulge my grandmother Mildred Lee in her promotion of Lost Cause mythology. It may also seem easy to dismiss the divisive, false alternative realities that so many Republican candidates appear eager to embrace. But as we’ve learned both from history and the last few years, counterfeit narratives cannot be indulged or ignored — not in our society, not in the history we teach in schools and not in a presidential campaign.

In this era that many historians have called a “Third Reconstruction” — following the progress of the immediate post-Civil War period and the Civil Rights era — we cannot allow painful truth or hard-earned gains for social, cultural, racial and gender justice to be erased.

And we must not elect a president who is unwilling or unable to face the full truth about how we got here. Doing so would pose a grave danger to America’s ongoing journey toward the beautiful ideals enshrined in our Constitution and the success of our democracy.

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