The public clash over Confederate monuments today underscores why so many right wingers embrace Rebel icons. For many on the Right, the Confederacy embodies conservatism’s core tenant that privilege for the minority rests on dominating the majority. Rights for me, but not for thee.
The Confederate experiment
White supremacy underpinned every aspect of the Confederate nation. As a result, the Confederate States of America unequivocally protected racial slavery. The Mississippi Secession Ordinance made the latter point clear. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,” it stated, “a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.” Thus, the Confederacy was the logical end-point for 19th-century reactionaries. During the secession crisis, they said the quiet parts out loud.
Conservatives of the time like the southern journalist J.D.B. DeBow emphasized the Confederacy’s reactionary bonafides. “We are not revolutionists,” he wrote, “We are upholding the true doctrines of the…Constitution. We are conservative.” Conservatives believe that the ruling class naturally has more rights than the lower orders. Since they insist that the rabble aren’t “fit” to rule, the Confederacy’s legacy appeals to modern right-wingers who feel besieged by the new equality.
The legacy of Confederate monuments
Many right wingers see Confederate monuments as symbols of a bygone era of “natural” inequality. These statues aren’t really monuments to the Confederacy, per say. Rather, they’re monuments to a time when a ruling white ethnic group dominated American society. Both the Alt-Right and much of the “mainstream” Right view the Confederacy as a halcyon era of racial and class hierarchy in American history.
Reactionary whites erected most Confederate statues long after the Civil War and with little intent to honor the war dead. They erected them as symbols of Jim Crow segregation in the 1900s, and then as icons of “massive resistance” to black Civil Rights in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments act as a collective thread of white supremacy that connects the legacy of the proslavery Confederacy to the segregation and lynching of Jim Crow, the fire hoses of the Civil Rights backlash, and the modern era of white nationalism, 8chan, & the Trump-led GOP.
When today’s reactionaries defend Confederate monuments, they’re really protesting the addition of diversity to the collective American story. The modern Right’s cultural targets are people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community. Not coincidentally, these are the same groups over whom the ruling white power structure has traditionally lorded. The Right views the expansion of rights for others as an implicit attack on their right to rule OVER those others. In the Right’s eyes, removing Confederate monuments is tantamount to tearing down their hierarchical, patriarchal vision of society.
Thus, the Alt-Right marched in defense of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In addition, the modern Republican Party traffics in white identity politics and identifies the Confederacy as a “patriotic” conservative revolution while also claiming to be the party of Abraham Lincoln and Civil Rights. Such claims are the equivalent of dropping an atomic bomb on Cognitive Dissonance. In the Right’s hive mind, however, such logical inconsistencies in the service of hierarchy make perfect sense.
As Frederick Douglass said in 1857, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” It seems like the reactionaries are gaining ground, but their vitriol speaks to the precarious state of their cultural power. Tear it down.