- When Donald Trump defends the use of Confederate names and symbols, he’s furthering an argument that has been made since the antebellum period – the argument that the United States of American belongs to white Americans.
- Ideally, the United States of America is comprised of not just people who were born here, but people of all races who believe in democracy, egalitarianism and the rule of law. But we’ve never perfected that.
- Trump isn’t as strict about who owns America as the southern planters were, but since he started running for the presidency in 2015 he has made it clear that he thinks this country belongs to his supporters first – especially white supporters – and undesirable immigrants last.
- Like the southern slavocracts before him, Trump will lose this argument.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
When President Donald Trump tells us he does not want to change the names of US military bases named after Confederate military leaders, or that he wants Confederate monuments left alone, he’s telling you who owns this country – white Americans.
And when he does so while the country is still reeling from his attempt to unleash the US military on anti-racist protesters, he’s forcing us to reckon with the inextricable link between American racism and American fascism.
No, the Civil War was not fought over tariffs, and it isn’t correct to say it started over states rights either.
The Confederates were fascists who used racism as the ideology that organised their authoritarian society. Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis and the entire Confederacy were fighting to preserve a social structure that left Black Americans out of citizenry and firmly established white property holding men on top.
They believed the country belonged to these white, landowning men, and that they were the only ones entitled to govern or profit from it. They also believed that those men should preserve it with violence if necessary. To build this slavocracy they became traitors to our homeland.
As one southern planter so perversely put it on the eve of secession, “give us slavery or give us death.“
In 1857 the Athens Southern Watchmen, a prominent pro-secession political journal, laid it out more eloquently. It repudiated the egalitarianism of Thomas Jefferson saying that he had lead our country astray with his talk of “vulgar democracy.” It mused that it was absurd to think the “pauper and the landholder are alike competent to manage the affairs of a country.” This is why, in the election of 1860, non-property holding men in South Carolina were disenfranchised, and only the planter aristocrats in the Electoral College cast their votes.
These were the first steps of American fascism and it has taken us years to even begin to accept it.
1865 and 2015
Since the Civil War, white supremacists have used the Confederate flag to mean what it has always meant – that America belongs to white people. This isn’t a Southern thing anymore either, whether it’s flown in Louisiana or rural Maine, it means the same thing.
Since the Civil War that belief that America is a country for whites has created laws and institutions that violate the precepts of our democracy. It has spurred acts of terrorism, and forced us to fight with one another to overcome our twin legacy of racism and fascism. It’s our demon.
Since he came down the escalator of Trump Tower in 2015, Trump has been making a similar argument about who this country belongs to. His idea is not as strict as the definition used by southern planters, but it still picks and chooses who does and does not belong here based on race.
Trump tried to ban immigration from majority-Muslim countries, called African countries shit holes, started building a wall on the Southern border to keep Mexican and other Central American refugees out of the country, and called a white supremacist mob that marched on Charlottesville in 2017 “very fine people.”
In other words, that mob was comprised of the people to whom America belongs, and shit hole nations are not. So much for the words carved on the State of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
In Trump’s quest to delineate who owns America he has run afoul of the rule of law and common decency. And he has shown that he is willing to tolerate an alarming amount of violence from his side and the state.
His allies have proposed the extremely fascist notion of unleashing America’s combat troops on its own people to quell protests that are demanding this country recognise the citizenship and humanity of Black Americans. This country’s racism and the fascism, as ever, cannot be disconnected.
Thankfully there are many Americans willing to accept the gravity of American history and its place in our current moment. NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag. The Army says it’s open to renaming military bases which were named after (“undistinguished, if not incompetent”) Confederate generals during the Jim Crow era – a time when the messaging from white southerners to black southerners about who owns what couldn’t have been more clear.
Trump can try to stand his ground in this argument over who owns America, but that won’t stop it from shifting under his feet.