President Trump is making plain the degree to which the country remains divided by the American Civil War. His threat to veto the $718bn Defence Bill if it renames military bases called after Confederate generals harks back to 1861. His stand highlights the bizarre way that the US military has named its biggest bases, like Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Hood in Texas, after Confederate generals like Braxton Bragg and John Hood who fought a war to destroy the US.
Critics suggest derisively that this tradition of naming military installations after defeated enemies should mean that future bases will include at least one named after Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda, and another after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isis, both killed by US soldiers.
The fury generated by the dispute over the renaming of the bases and the removal of the statues of Confederate commanders underlines the contemporary relevance of the outcome of the civil war. A tweet by Trump gives a clue as to why this should be the case a century and a half after the Confederate surrender. “It was sad,” Trump wrote, “to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”
But which “history and culture” is Trump talking about? The US has two sources of political culture: one derives from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and a popular revolution against a distant imperial power, the other flows from the slave states with their vastly different tradition. Much of what non-Americans find peculiar and contradictory about the US stems from the uneasy cohabitation of these two cultures, whose democratic and authoritarian strands alternately repel each other and blend together. Americans are often in denial about this tainted legacy, preferring to see their past through the lens of the intentions of the founding fathers and the struggles of the frontier, playing down the civil war over slavery that left 750,000 dead.
The version of culture and history that Trump defends is that of the American South and is primarily to do with contemporary relations between black and white. Most of the statues to Confederate war commanders were erected long after the war and unblushingly asserted white supremacy. Memphis, Tennessee, for instance, until recently boasted a statue erected in 1905 to the Confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest, a plantation owner, slave trader and Confederate commander whose troops massacred some 300 black Union army soldiers who surrendered at Fort Pillow in 1864. He later became the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan. As recently as 1998, another statue to Forrest was erected in Nashville, Tennessee.
The reason that the “cultural wars” resonate so strongly in the US is that they have their roots in a real war and have little to do with quaint military nostalgia, like people in England who dress up as 17th-century Cavaliers and Roundheads to restage civil war battles. The real message those statues carried was that the south might have lost the civil war and slavery might have been abolished, but black people would still be segregated, discriminated against and denied civil rights.
Trump’s racism is blatant and unconcealed, but the culture he is pledged to defend encompasses far more than racial division. It includes a whole set of fiercely defended attitudes to women, gun ownership, abortion, evangelical Christianity, paramilitary policing, crime and punishment, affirmative action, and the role of government in society. This matters because of a surprising development in the US since the de jure granting of civil rights to Black Americans in the 1960s. This was seen by many as the moment that the US put the past behind it and the toxic traditions of the Old South would disappear into history. But no such thing happened. On the contrary, the counter-reaction to civil rights was in many respects more powerful and influential than the original movement that had tried to break the racist status quo.
This counter-reaction was so strong that the south was able to expand its culture in the broadest sense to the north and west, far beyond the boundaries of the old Confederacy. As Godfrey Hodgson wrote at the turn of the century in his prophetic book More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century, it had been “assumed that the South would become more like the rest of the country, [but] in politics and in many aspects of culture, the rest of the country has come to resemble the South”.
This “southernization” explains many strange aspects of American culture that appear inexplicable, such as the way in which attitudes over everything from gun ownership to abortion have become a mark of identity. It also explains a lot about Trump’s rise to power, which caught most Americans, including many of his supporters and almost all non-Americans, by surprise. He is occasionally referred to as “the last Confederate president”, which is over-simple; but the description does point the way towards the identity of his base, whose loyalty is so impervious to his failures.
The beliefs and values that mutated out of the defeated Confederacy produced a distinct variant of American nationalism. It combined with right-wing conservatism in the rest of the country to produce a winning political formula used by Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. A Democratic president like Bill Clinton seemed to be an exception to this, but in many respects his record only confirmed the trend. In 1996, Peter Applebome, The New York Times correspondent in Atlanta, wrote a book called Dixie Rising: How the South is Shaping American Values, Politics and Culture. In a passage quoted by Hodgson, he says, “Bill Clinton is coming out for school prayer along with sweeping Republican legislation shredding welfare” and “the Supreme Court is acting as if [the Confederate president] Jefferson Davis were chief justice”.
The title of Applebome’s book explains its theme. He concludes that “to understand America you have to understand the South”.
The same is true of Trump and Trumpism. Southern political culture, which has percolated to all parts of the US, is his political base, which explains why the fate of the statues and the renaming of military bases matters so much to him.
Patrick Cockburn is an award-winning Independent columnist who specializes in analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East. He has been with The Independent since 1990. In 2014 he forecast the rise of Isis. He also did graduate work at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queens University Belfast and has written about the effects of the Troubles on Irish and British policy in light of his experience.