“People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why,” the president said. “People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”
The meanderings of history’s most unread president bring to mind remarks of one of it’s most well-read. At a 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Woodrow Wilson talked about “what those fifty years have meant…
What have they meant? They have meant peace and union and vigor, and the maturity and might of a great nation. How wholesome and healing the peace has been! We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valor, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and smiling into each other’s eyes. How complete the union has become and how dear to all of us, how unquestioned, how benign and majestic, as State after State has been added to this our great family of free men!
The “quarrel forgotten.”
Well, a candid remembrance of the quarrel — and its cause — would be impossible to reconcile with the gushing Wilsonian celebration of the “unquestioned” and “wholesome and healing” peace of a “benign” nation in 1913. As Wilson was speaking in Gettysburg, the former confederacy was a white supremacist dystopia of lynching, suppression of rights and liberties, forced labor … not just discrimination but brutally violent oppression, authorized by laws established by elected officials in “state after state” in “this our great family of free men.”
It was a national reconciliation based on white supremacy. Southern white supremacists lost the Civil War. But in the decades after Reconstruction was destroyed, they won the battle over the memory of the war. (There is of course lots to read about the national memory of the war; I’ve been cribbing mostly from David Blight’s Race and Remembrance.)
And collective national suppression of what caused the war would help assure that institutional racism would not be confined to the south.
It would also severely hinder the long-term development of U.S. prosperity. One still under-reported example: decades of discriminatory housing policies exacerbate the nation’s severe racial wealth gap to the present day.
And over time, white supremacists, perhaps emboldened by the success of their literal whitewashing, became more and more eager to discuss the war’s causes. Why, just a couple years ago, the Texas school board adopted state standards by which students are taught the war was caused by states’ rights, while slavery, as one Texas school board member infamously put it, was a “side issue.”
“…if you think about it,” Trump said. He didn’t. He hasn’t. But his musing shouldn’t be dismissed as just another example of that most enduring of all Trump brands, Trump Ignorance. Sure, he didn’t arrive at his vulgar analysis of historical causation as the result of study. Maybe it’s something Bannon told him.
But Trump, a scatterbrain, likely isn’t repeating something he has learned as much as he is reflecting something he’s absorbed, osmotic-like: a white supremacist historical narrative that is accepted as mainstream by millions of Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom, of course, would never call or even think of themselves as white supremacists.