Editors’ Note: VoxFairfax previously commented on other aspects of the lost cause: http://wp.me/p9DCF-1Aq. History may now have begun to record a final epitaph.
At the tail end of 2015, just before leaving office, Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, issued an order for the removal of four Confederate monuments in the Big Easy. In preparation for his decision, Landrieu gathered some information, including a document from the National Register of Historic Places which, in part, read:
The Cult of the Lost Cause had its roots in the Southern search for justification and the need to find a substitute for victory in the Civil War. In attempting to deal with defeat, Southerners created an image of the war as a great heroic epic. A major theme of the Cult of the Lost Cause was the clash of two civilizations, one inferior to the other…. Like tragic heroes, Southerners had waged a noble but doomed struggle to preserve their superior civilization. There was an element of chivalry in the way the South had fought.
Chivalry, literally, represents the heroic meme of warrior horsemen (from the French, where cheval means horse). That image was reproduced hundreds of times as a model for the installation of Confederate monuments in southern US states. Nor was it an accident that many were situated in front of or on the grounds of county courthouses. What better location to express that justice was not blindfolded but available to all who entered the courthouse? However, the symbolism did not stop there, as the monuments were but a single expression, particularly in the early 1900s, of a far broader scheme of racial repression often characterized as Jim Crow.
And the cult ideology was not limited to race. The Lost Cause themes also evolved into a major element in defining gender roles in terms of preserving family honor and chivalrous traditions, such as the trope of the “damsel in distress.” It also inspired the shaping of religious attitudes as it found refuge, solace, and encouragement in rural churches and parishes.
One of the most powerful of Lost Cause expressions was the Ku Klux Klan. These knights errant (or chevaliers) were guided by a founding document:
This Order is an institution of Chivalry, Humanity, Justice, and Patriotism; embodying in its genius and principles all that is chivalric in conduct, noble in sentiment, generous in manhood, and patriotic in purpose.
–The Constitution of the Ku Klux Klan
In some respects, the contemporary partisan civil dialogue and electoral division are redolent of the Lost Cause. Whether this new era also assumes a cultish character remains to be seen. It has often been the subject of commentary that the unmitigated adulation of Donald Trump and his tenure in office coalesced into a cult-like mentality among supporters that, at once, was inexplicable and forgiving of transgressions that would topple any lesser campaign or elected official.
It has often been the subject of commentary that the unmitigated adulation of Donald Trump and his tenure in office coalesced into a cult-like mentality among supporters that, at once, was inexplicable and forgiving of transgressions that would topple any lesser campaign or elected official.
In 1891, Leon Gautier, a French historian, enumerated a set of ten commandments that bear some remarkably familiar notions for a cult cause (paraphrased):
- Be faithful to religion
- Defend religion
- Respect all weaknesses and defend them
- Love the nation of birth
- Never recoil before an enemy
- Conduct war against infidels without mercy
- Perform official duties faithfully and profitably
- Never lie and remain loyal to one’s word
- Be generous and give to everyone
- Be omnipresent to champion the right and good against evil
Each of these commands bears an uncanny analogous principle annunciated along the course of the past four years, many in tweets, others by acolytes. The messaging has been exhaustively analyzed for its truth content as social media has propelled the words around the millions of followers.
The fervor of these missionary statements has not been lost on the millions of voters who journeyed to the ballot box on November 3. In fact, the messianic content was offered by a woman in Mason, Texas, in an interview with The New York Times (November 15) who, following President-Elect Biden’s appeal for cessation of civil hostilities, said, “My Democratic friends think Biden is going to heal everything and unify everyone. They are deceived.”
The response from another Mason resident was politically more acute: “Everything I worked for, Biden wants to give to the immigrants to help them live, when they don’t do nothing but sit on their butts.” Beliefs and opinions such as these, subscribed to by many, are hallmarks of hardened political attitudes unlikely to soften in any short period of time.
“Everything I worked for, Biden wants to give to the immigrants to help them live, when they don’t do nothing but sit on their butts.” Beliefs and opinions such as these, subscribed to by many, are hallmarks of hardened political attitudes unlikely to soften in any short period of time.
Historians and time will determine whether this recent national administration achieved a cult status. It’s entirely another matter whether the cause itself softens and, ultimately, becomes “lost.” The heart and soul of the GOP is a major question in this equation, as well as the persistence of the presence of the incumbent president in the political futures of the party and elected officials.
There is little chivalry remaining in the politisphere or in political campaigning. Without heroics or romance, political contests and conflict are bare-knuckle, with control over the will of the Round Table and the serfs of the realm as the stakes. The fierceness of that conflict is witnessed by the refusal of the current monarch to relinquish the throne following his defeat in battle. Chivalry in the US is no longer relevant, if it ever was.
Another signal in this regard is the two runoff races for the US Senate in Georgia, which promise to be an inflection point for the nation. As a matter of political power, should the voters of the Peach State send Democrats to Congress, control of the votes in that chamber will rest with the tie-breaker to be cast by the Democratic vice president. Georgia is surely on the mind of the DNC.