David Blight, the prominent historian of the Civil War era, is meant to tell stories of the past, but we wound up focused much more on the present.
As the Trump administration concludes and Joe Biden inherits all that his predecessor has begot, the parallels to the end of the Civil War spider across our political landscape, particularly with respect to division and white grievance.
I took a class in college with Blight, about how we have processed and memorialized the Civil War; speaking again in the aftermath of the January 6th assault on the Capitol, our conversation necessarily veered toward unpacking that event, which felt like either a horrifying series finale or, worse, the overture to what comes next.
Blight is lanky and stentorian, pleasantly authoritative—think Phil Jackson combined, perhaps, with Lincoln himself. He recently wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times about the new Lost Cause that Trump has potentially inspired, a resurrection of the movement that refused to accept defeat after the Civil War. “What is the Trumpian claim of a stolen election,” he wrote, “but an elaborate fiction that fights to make the reality and truth of the unbelievers irrelevant?”
Blight is familiar with the power of American mythmaking. He grew up in Flint, Michigan. “The old saying that, if General Motors sneezed, the country got a cold—that was absolutely true,” he said. “And people believed it—it was the post-World War II boom that led the working class into the hope of being the middle class.” But as one-industry cities like Flint have sputtered, faltered, and then collapsed, it’s easy to see where resentment and anger have risen to replace that dream of economic mobility. “They don’t have futures that make sense.” And it’s not difficult to hold up that hurt alongside the attempts at denuding the South during Reconstruction and see the similarities.
THE BELIEVER: What would you call what happened at the Capitol on January 6th? I know different media outlets have called it an insurrection or a domestic terror attack or a mob.
DAVID BLIGHT: I’d actually call it a disunionist riot. I think these people—at least the bulk of them—and their sponsors in the Congress—are secessionists from within the government. I’m not just saying that because I’m a 19th century historian who studies the Civil War.
What we call it may only matter in a courtroom. But it surely was a riot and it surely is violence and from all the evidence I’ve been observing, we actually got very lucky.
I have a very good friend who’s actually my former student from back when I was a high school teacher. It’s Dan Kildee, who’s the senior Congressman from Michigan—he’s from Flint. The district goes all over the middle of Michigan. He sent me an email yesterday that said, “You don’t know how close this was.” He was in the balcony of the House. He was preparing to speak when the objection came to the Michigan electors. And he said he was keeping his distance because of Covid. But he says they were only minutes from the mob breaking in. And he heard the shot down on the main floor—the guy who shot the person through that window. He said they were pounding on all the doors around the balcony of the House and all the doors around the floor. He said it seemed any minute, they were gonna break through. And they were in this condition for more than a half hour.
For this half hour, they thought any minute, the mob was coming in with guns. I mean, imagine being a Congressperson, and here you are: you think you’re, what, about to be taken hostage, or shot by a mob inside the Capitol. He said he is still personally, physically reeling and recovering from this. He was so angry that this had happened, both at the police breakdown, but more importantly, at Republicans.
You have a right of revolution under natural rights doctrine, but you better be willing to take the consequences. You couldn’t invade the Kremlin without being shot, and you shouldn’t be able to invade the US Capitol without at least being arrested.
It does seem to me that if we take these people seriously, and now we have to—whether they’re the paramilitary types who were the vanguard of them, pushing into the Capitol, or they were just the people with their cameras who followed them in—they really don’t want to live in the same Union with what they perceive, through all of their conspiracies, as radicalism and liberalism and feminism and corruption and stealing the election and abortion advocates and all the rest of it. This mob knows what it hates.
So, I don’t know what to call it—call it a riot, call it whatever. A disunionist mob riot—how about that?
BLVR: What was interesting to me was to know that there were people inside the room they were trying to break into who were probably rooting for that mob to some degree.
DB: How do they face each other today? It’s a small miracle that something even worse hasn’t broken out among them.
BLVR: Well, when they reconvened later that night, there was nearly a fistfight…
DB: That’s right. Conor Lamb, the guy from Pennsylvania? Yeah, somebody was coming for him across the aisle, and in the only footage I saw, you could see Democrats getting up to go defend him, and I thought, “Oh my God, it’s 1856!”
BLVR: Were there southern politicians who acted as ‘secessionists from within’? You know, people who acted in Washington after the Civil War to try and make the Union fail?
DB: Well, no, I wouldn’t go that far, but what you did have after the war, was an incredible degree of ‘waving the bloody shirt.’ That’s where that term comes from, at least in our political life. A Republican northerner, Thaddeus Stevens, was brilliant at this. He would get up and say, “Until the blood is dried on your jacket and your shirt from killing my son” and so on and so forth, “I will not listen to the gentleman from” wherever.
There were northern Democrats who vehemently opposed the Reconstruction measures and did their best to obstruct them. Andrew Johnson issued fifteen vetoes between ’66 and ’68. That’s more vetoes than were issued by all the previous presidents before him combined. Now that’s obstruction. One of the reasons Andrew Johnson was impeached—there’s no question about it—was his obstructions to Reconstruction. Was that a crime? No. Was it an abuse of power? Some said absolutely, yes.
So the politics was extremely embittered in the early Reconstruction years, and even after. Look, when a country has an all-out civil war, you don’t just put it back together easily. In fact, it’s a miracle that a union was restored at all in some ways. Of course, the great tragedy of that reunion is that it came about with the Reconstruction process ultimately defeated.
The political violence of Reconstruction is still the worst political violence we’ve ever seen in this country. In some regions and areas, it was rampant. I mean, people were just killed at the polls, at times. Let’s pray that none of this reaches that stage, but it does seem as though some of the most radical people in this right wing movement right now—I hate to say it, but they seem to want blood. I mean, that’s sobering, to say the least, that they were pounding on the Speaker’s office door with her staff cowered under tables—I mean, if they got in… I don’t know, half of them might not’ve known what to do, but it doesn’t take many to engage in brutal mob violence.
BLVR: In thinking about Biden’s capacity to meet this moment, was there a person who would have been an ideal president to lead the country at the end of the Civil War, in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination? Clearly, it wasn’t Johnson.
DB: If you’d wanted a smoother Reconstruction, the best thing would’ve been to have a living Lincoln. You know, maybe someone like William Pitt Fessenden of Maine, who was a famous moderate Republican, who nevertheless supported most of the Reconstruction measures.
On the other hand, Reconstruction needed to be radical and it might have lasted even longer if it’d been more radical. By that I mean, if enforcement of it had been more complete or stiffer. I don’t think I can come up with the ideal Republican of that time.
And Andrew Johnson wasn’t a Republican! This is one of the true what-ifs or weird aspects of the Civil War era or the Reconstruction era: why did Lincoln put Andrew Johnson on the ticket in 1864? And why isn’t Lincoln held responsible for that? Well, he should be, but my understanding of that is that in those days, a candidate didn’t necessarily personally pick the running mate. The party did.
Now, his vice-president in his first term had been Hannibal Hamlin of Maine. And Hamlin was a good, moderate, anti-slavery New Englander, but he was deemed not very useful on the ticket. But the party thought, “Hey—border-state, southern, Confederate-state Senator who did not leave the Union”: Andrew Johnson. See, this is the paradox about Andrew Johnson. He was a virulent states rightist, a virulent white supremacist, racist to the core, but he was Unionist. He was against secession. He stayed in the Union. The idea was that you put this border state Unionist on the ticket and you never know—it leads to more votes in the border states. It leads to the spirit of reunion. And no one expected presidents to be shot, to be honest. Presidents had died in office, but before Lincoln, there had never been a presidential assassination. So they didn’t think about it that much. But Johnson was a disaster in that role, and if you wanted a more pliable Republican, there just wasn’t any way to get it without Johnson being put out of the way, which is another one of the reasons why he was impeached.
BLVR: Did the media play a role in how the narrative of Reconstruction was framed?
DB: What comes to mind for me about the media is the way in which the South was now portrayed. I’ll give you two examples. Right after the war, northern newspapers sent correspondents on travels across the South. For instance, John Trowbridge, who was a famous writer/poet, did a tour of many months of the South—a tour of battlefields, which were still pretty horrible places, full of bones and the wreckage of war.
The second thing that comes to mind is the way in which violence was reported. For example, in 1866, two major riots happened in southern cities—one in New Orleans, and one in Memphis: huge, horrible riots, forty-some people killed in one city, thirty-some killed in the other, almost all Black. These were massacres of Black communities and neighborhoods. The reporting of those had a tremendous impact in the summer of ’66 on northern opinion, because the Republicans, then, were gearing up to oppose Andrew Johnson’s attempts at Reconstruction, and were gearing up now with the first Civil Rights Act, the Fourteenth Amendment they had passed. And Johnson’s party, which was really the old Democrats, got hammered in the fall elections of 1866.
BLVR: So Johnson’s no hero of the Confederacy. Was there a cult of personality around Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis like there is around Trump?
DB: Around Lee, it was virtually sainthood. Lee died in 1870; he only lives five years after the war. So he doesn’t even live long enough to dissuade all that monument-building about him, and all the heroism and the halos around him as the perfect American Christian soldier. Although make no mistake: Robert E. Lee fought for a slave-holding society. He was a southern nationalist to the core. That’s one of the myths about Lee, that he didn’t really mean it, or something.
The better comparison might be Trump to Jefferson Davis because they’re elected politicians. After the war, he was a villain among a lot of ex-Confederates. Of course, they were suffering to overcome the trauma of destruction and defeat and depression—the economy was a total mess in the South—and then comes Black suffrage and so on. But with time, Davis became more and more heroic. He doesn’t die until the 1880s. He lives long enough to write a 1300-page memoir, one of the longest and most turgid things you will ever want to read—and a ferocious defense of southern secession and a ferocious argument that the South never fought for slavery. It’s amazing to read.
And he becomes this hero because he was arrested. He was in prison for two years, down in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and he was never formally indicted. Hence, in the spring—April, of 1867—two years after the end of the War, two years after he was captured, he is released on bail. And the bail was paid by wealthy northerners in an act of reconciliation. Cornelius Vanderbilt was one of them. Horace Greeley was another. They paid his bail, and he was just released. The will—the spirit to indict him for treason just kind of ran out.
So then he became not the Jefferson Davis who had had to surrender, and had led the South down the primrose path to destruction. He now became the victimized Davis. And later on, by the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he toured the South with his daughter, Winnie Davis, who was known as The Daughter of the Confederacy. Now, she was not happy about it. She got sick of this, and after her Dad died, she moved to New York, and she married a Yankee businessman.
BLVR: This has lots of touchpoints with Trump’s possible post-presidency.
DB: They both have pretty daughters. Ivanka could be the Queen of the Trump Lost Cause in a way. She has the chops for that.
Now, the Confederate Lost Cause was a set of beliefs in search of a history. And many of those beliefs were big and small lies, just like Trumpism is full of big and small lies—many of them quite big. Will Trump become this kind of cult figure over time? Possibly. He hasn’t been jailed yet. Let’s remember here, he’s got all kinds of legal problems. There are gonna be some Biden administration people talking to federal prosecutors and prosecutors in New York: Don’t make a martyr out of this character.
On the other hand, how do you not hold him accountable? It’s a tough, tough call. Because if he gets imprisoned for two years? Let’s say he lives long enough to spend two, three years in jail? And he’s released in older age? God only knows what kind of a cult figure he could become, especially if a cluster of people, at least several million people, hold on to these ideas of a stolen election, these ideas that he was going to make America again the white paradise of the 1950s.
One of the greatest achievements of Trumpism, if you can call it that, is the rendering of evidence, facts, and truth irrelevant. In journalism, in the academy and universities like where I work, we live by this. We actually think we’re here to try and find some truth once in a while, and use evidence. We believe in facts, we believe in science, we believe in research. What we’re learning is that there’s millions of people in this country who not only don’t believe in that—they simply operate on a set of chosen beliefs and nothing else—and that’s dangerous. We just found that out last week.
BLVR: I had a history teacher in high school, Mr. Bohi, who always said, “What is thought is often more important than what is.” So I’m wondering if it’s necessary to overcome that imagined victory narrative of losers. Do we have an obligation to acknowledge the humanity of Trump supporters instead of just dwelling on disproving the lies they’ve been telling themselves?
DB: My own personal answer, from my own perspective, from years and years of studying historical memory, is yes. Do we have to respect the mob who attacked the Capitol? No, we need to prosecute them. The law sometimes is the vengeance of society. And these people—as many as can be found and convicted—need to spend pieces of their lives in jail.
But the run-of-the-mill Trump voter, even the believers in some of the craziest conspiracies across the land—yeah. It’s a terrible mistake to just dismiss them as rural idiots or stupid or “uneducated.” A lot of them are not uneducated. I have cousins in Michigan who are Trump voters. There is a lot of terrible economic anxiety in this country. I know right now it’s not popular to say anything about economic anxiety, but my God. What did we just learn from this election? 72 million people voted for Trump. They’re not all out of their minds. They’re not. Millions of them are not out of their minds.
I’m not speaking for Trump voters—but that admiration for the businessman who was a tycoon, who could kick ass, who would do whatever it takes to win this business deal and that business deal. He was going to shake it up, remember that? All the talk about how he’d be the tough businessman who’d just break up American bureaucracy. It’s sad—it’s actually tragic—that so many people bought into that particular part of the myth, that a plutocrat who is utterly shameless, has absolutely no moral core, doesn’t even know the basics of the US Constitution, knows nothing about American history—they thought that would make a good president.
This former college roommate of mine, he started sending me all these online jokes about the road to socialism: this’ll lead you to socialism, that’ll lead you to socialism. This is what goes on in the right-wing Internet sphere. And I wrote back to him at once—this is just a week ago—and I said, “Buddy, we had more socialism in 1967 when your parents paid $250 a semester for you to go to Michigan State.” There was some socialism. That state university was really cheap because of taxation. Are you against that, too? Now, it costs thousands to go to a great Big Ten university for one semester.
But I didn’t get anywhere. Trump supporters like him, they kept voting for him because they said, “Look, he’s a despicable human being, but I like that tax break, I probably like the border wall. You know, there are probably too many Black women running things in this country. I won’t say it out loud, but I’m bothered by that.”
BLVR: “Look at how many Black women are on the Supreme Court and in the Senate and running Fortune 500 companies!”
DB: If Trump had any real political skill, that was his political skill: pushing the buttons of aggrieved white Americans. That was his populism. His populism was white nationalism. And he could push those buttons. You don’t have to be a reader or a thinker or an intellectual to do that. Trump grew up doing that, using grievance—against banks, against other real estate kings, against the cultural brokers of Manhattan, and then against newspaper editors. I mean, he’s been doing that most of his life. This time, he applied it to politics. He’s also a showman, let’s face it. The Trump presidency was a show. It was a really bad show, but it worked.