President Donald Trump has answered speculation about what he would do after his electoral defeat. His actions were his words of provocation. As pragmatist philosophers have pointed out, including William James, choices of words are important actions. Trump's script is akin to the story of the southern Lost Cause after the Civil War, when the defeated Confederacy turned military loss into cultural victory, as historian Karen Cox has observed.
The ridicule, fear, and anger circulating across the political spectrum are all valuable for Trump.
To the ridicule, he presents a stern face ready to wear this scorn with pride; and he presents supreme confidence despite limited evidence for electoral foul play and despite court decisions repeatedly denying his efforts to overturn the election.
He has been inviting fear—over whether he would actually leave the White House with ominous rumors of a possible coup now enacted. Trump's brash and elusive approaches resemble those of French President Charles de Gaulle and US President Richard Nixon who cultivated madmen reputations. They would each keep all around them guessing, so no one could tell what he might do.
The anger in Trump supporters has been useful in its focused energy, but even this could die away without a storyline, a cause to keep the pot boiling.
The efforts in Trump's lost cause after defeat in the 2020 election include a narrative already appealing to many of his supporters, in a region where he is very popular. In the eleven states of the former Confederacy, Trump won in a landslide. Compared to Joseph Biden's 7-million-vote margin nationally, Trump gained more than 3 million more votes than the former Vice President and a dominating 82% of the electoral vote in the south.
When the Confederates lost the Civil War, they left the battlefield and took to a contest for the hearts and minds of the American people. The Richmond journalist Edward Pollard, who coined the phrase "The Lost Cause" in a book of that name in 1867, called it "the War of Ideas." Fully conceding military defeat and the "restoration of the union," he presented a "Southern History… approved by the most distinguished Confederate leaders." Pollard called his work "a (severely just) account of the war" designed "to satisfy curiosity … and to form public opinion." And that it did, serving as the opening salvo on the culture front with Lost Cause stories, paintings, and prints, and later movies and political movements, most prominently Gone With the Wind (the novel of 1936 made into a movie in 1939) and southern resistance to integration in the 1950s and 1960s.
On the surface, the Lost Cause narrative presented the softer side of the Confederacy, with depictions of the genteel Old South before the war and the tactical brilliance of dashing Confederate commanders during the war. In addition to its sentimentality, this new regional identity constructed from the ruins of defeat an idealized social hierarchy, with southern gentlemen equally at home driving their slaves and riding their horses. The glove of gentility covered a stern fist of racial power, with African Americans bluntly and often brutally denied their rights.
Although Trump lacks military service, he presents himself with a similar mix of sentimentality and toughness. At rallies, he has a chummy rapport with his supporters while delivering blistering attacks on all who step between him and "making America great again." Trump's response to the election makes little sense unless considering his similar effort to wage culture war in the wake of defeat. With the insurrectionists on Capitol Hill lauded by many Americans while the rest of the country reels in horror, get ready for Lost Cause 2.0, Trump style.
Dateline: 1865. The straggling end of the war matched the bitterness of the conflict. Large Union armies pursued starving southern soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia until their surrender April 9 at Appomattox Courthouse in central Virginia. The Army of Tennessee, pursued further east, surrendered in North Carolina April 26. The Florida capital, Tallahassee, surrendered on May 10. Out west, slave owners in Texas kept news of Union victory and emancipation from their slaves until June 19, which began the Juneteenth tradition in celebration of African American liberation. Eighteen days after the December 6 ratification of the 13th Amendment formalizing the end of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan formed, on Christmas Eve, in backlash to their freedom. This secret society began as a repurposed cause for Confederate guerilla warfare. General Robert E. Lee spoke bluntly to his loyal troops, acknowledging that they were "compelled to yield" and now should "return to their homes." Trump was not as explicit, still not conceding even while asking his armed supporters to "Go home in peace," and offering a benediction for their cause, his cause: "We love you. You're very special." Even the stern speech of Marse Robert did not prevent the KKK from redirecting their militancy from battlefields to terrorist attacks on their enemies: freed slaves, Union soldiers, and politicians who supported them.
With Lincoln assassinated on April 15th of 1865 and many in his Republican Party ready to bring transformative changes to southern society, the prostrate movement for the defeated Confederacy was ripe for new ways to understand their bleak situation. Pollard told the story of the south with the now-familiar theory that, within the national union, "each state retains its sovereignty." And he simply assumed African American status as chattel. He coldly called emancipation "spoliation" with the people freed cited as "property taken away," mere dollars lost to white southerners. In the last weeks of the war, the desperate Confederacy even started to enlist slaves as soldiers. In a backhanded acknowledgement of African American humanity, Pollard observed with yawning and painful understatement, "whites had much greater interest in the issue …compared to Negro troops."
Pollard's explanation for Confederate defeat provided an outline for Trump's post-election efforts. Pollard downplayed the larger armies and greater resources of the north. Instead, the south lost because of "mal-administration" and "the general demoralization of the people." Pollard's points anticipate the narrative of Trump's response to the November 2020 results.
Lost Cause 2.0, Chapter 1, Blame Disastrous Mal-Administration: In the 2020 election, although the massive voting apparatus worked remarkably well, even with the pandemic raging, there were a few mistakes. Their rarity has not been Trump's focus. Attention on problems is the Lost Cause strategy, even after the problems have been corrected or shown to be exaggerated, even by Trump supporters. For example, a handful of early voting ballots in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, less than ten in each state, were indeed discarded without counting. When informed that the few found in a Wisconsin river were blank, without any voter choice, Trump used these examples and others as reason to call voting systems "a whole big scam," and he continued in the same vein after the election, including with unsubstantiated claims that in Georgia, "ballots were dropped mysteriously, … dead people voted, … and 3,000 pounds of ballots … [were] shredded." His most ardent supporters maintain his cause; the videos by the president's attorney, "Rudy Giuliani's Common Sense," display presumed evidence of fraud by election workers. The comment of Maricopa, Arizona, Board of Supervisors Chairman Clint Hickman, a Republican, has been typical of the national response: the charges are a "slap in the face" to elections officials.
Lost Cause 2.0, Chapter 2, After the Contest, Boost the Morale of Supporters: David Brooks has already predicted that the 45th President will become a "national narrator," with his same message of nationalism and populist outrage against elites. And because people are reliably human, Trump will be able to pick out problems, all carefully selected to encourage neglect or ridicule of potential progress his opponents might make in race relations, environmental problems, distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, efforts for peace, and other ways to deal with our considerable problems. As James observed, the great power of the human mind is "the art of knowing what to overlook" in order to keep focused on particular purposes.
Trump can offer a sly version of this human ability to focus attention. His decisive purpose will be to spin a narrative about the Tough Guy Camelot of his years in office, at least the first three-and-a-half years before the "Chinese virus" set the US on is heels. The coast could then be clear to present the pandemic demoralizing the people who took a wrong turn in electing Joe "Bidden," as one Trump supporter calls the next president, in prediction that he will do the bidding of progressive "socialist" Democrats. With that lost cause narrative, Trump has already expressed his readiness to run for president again, and he has rehearsed his slogan, "Make American Great Again Again."
The south lost the Civil War but won the peace. In a similar way, Trump declared, "I don't think about losing." In fact, after the near loss in 2016, as with the actual loss in 2020, he added, "it isn't losing" because with his ability to command public attention, "we've totally won." Trump also shares with the Lost Cause narrative selections from events to present them in the most favorable light. Pollard and his followers broadcast the fake news of the nineteenth century, but with selections from experience telling likely stories for those eager to explain the carnage of Civil War and justify its losses.
Trump also tells likely stories for those seeking to understand their cultural losses. For many feeling displaced by structural changes in the economy and by changes to improve race relations and reduce environmental destruction, Trump was not only persuasive; his blunt talk registered like a rifle shot. While his talents for connecting with many out of power has been impressive, his policies have brought them, at most, short-term benefits. Immigration restrictions and dismantled regulations have done little to address long-term dilemmas for his largest group of supporters.
The original Lost Cause offers lessons for Trump supporters. Violent curbs on African American rights did little to uplift white southerners grieving their loss. If Trump continues his own Lost Cause appeals, he can only offer his followers similar limited gains. He may continue to make bold claims, but supporters and detractors alike can devote less attention to Citizen Trump and more attention to the structural problems that enabled him to gain a hearing.
Paul J. Croce is Professor of History and Director of American Studies at Stetson University, author of Young William James Thinking (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), and recent past president of the William James Society. He writes for the Public Classroom and his recent essays have appeared in Civil American, History News Network, the Huffington Post, Origins, Public Seminar, and the Washington Post.