In case you, like me, had better things to do over the Independence Day weekend than to watch President Trump’s two big speeches, the caterwauling of the commentators has by now caught you up on the gist of his remarks. At Mount Rushmore last Friday and then at the White House on July 4, the president struck a defensive tone. Focusing his attention on those who would recraft American history, he described a new culture war—one based not on abortion and sexuality but on statues, military bases, and arguments over the legacy of America’s founding and the Civil War.
No doubt some of the concern on the part of President Trump, his campaign, and his supporters is sincere. Today’s iconoclastic impulse is troubling; if statutes are to come down, it should be done through public deliberation, not mob action. Still there is a cynicism at work in Trump’s comments. Many Americans fear that removing some historical reminders is a step toward the radical rejection of American history and exceptionalism, and Trump is clearly trying to lean into those fears.
But Trump’s argument sets a trap for his opponents. And it’s a trap that Senator Tammy Duckworth walked right into.
Duckworth is a first-term U.S. senator from Illinois, having been elected in 2016 after serving two terms in the House of Representatives. During the Obama administration she was an assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs, a job she took after having directed the Illinois state veterans department. For more than two decades she served in the U.S. Army; a combat helicopter pilot, she was badly injured in Iraq in 2004 and both her legs were amputated. In recent weeks, speculation has mounted that Joe Biden might select her as a running mate.
In a Sunday-morning interview with CNN last weekend, Senator Duckworth was asked about the concern that George Washington or Thomas Jefferson might be canceled. This should have been an easy question for her; it could even have been a Sister Souljah moment. But Duckworth’s response was, well, awkward:
Duckworth caught, and is continuing to catch, criticism for the interview. Provocateurs on the right have accused her of wanting to cancel George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, although a fair viewing of the interview shows no such thing. Duckworth clearly wandered into the politically correct trap that Trump laid for his opponents when she said on the Washington question that we should “listen to everybody” before going on to note that Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech was given on land stolen from Native Americans and to criticize the president for defending Confederates that she called “dead traitors.” She clearly wanted to pivot away from the culture war question to focus on the Trump administration’s flaws, but failed to do so. It was a murky interview that must be regarded as an unforced error—and one that could damage Duckworth’s standing in the veepstakes.
Still, Duckworth might have been able to move on—until Tucker Carlson stepped into the fray on Monday night. In a meandering rant that was only slightly more coherent that the president’s Mount Rushmore speech, Carlson argued that the left actively hates America and is unfit to govern before zeroing in on Duckworth, arguing that her military service is no shield from criticism and that she is a deeply unserious and silly person who actually hates America.
It’s hard to know where to begin with Carlson’s rants, but suffice to say it will be hard for anyone who agrees with him to credibly accuse anyone else of having Trump Derangement Syndrome; this was derangement of a different order.
Carlson says Duckworth is unserious—and, granted, her call for a “national dialogue” in which “we should listen to everybody” is worthy of an eye roll. But Carlson cannot bring himself simply to correct Duckworth, and perhaps call out her better angels. Instead, he’s content to hurl insults. It is obviously true that Tammy Duckworth’s service to her country in both the military and the Senate do not validate all she says and does. Yet Carlson would ignore these things altogether, and describes Duckworth in grossly disrespectful terms (“coward,” “fraud,” “moron”). This behavior is offensive.
And it is dehumanizing: Viewers who take Carlson to heart no longer see Duckworth as a fellow American but instead as an avatar—a serious but not literal figure who represents all that the viewer himself hates about his own country: “I can’t believe any American would believe that!”
As for Carlson, his unhinged argument betrays a cynicism that can’t be masked by a sharp navy blazer or Mercer oxford shirt. This is not serious commentary about pressing issues; it’s mad uncle rambling with a well-coiffed hairdo.
Though much of the criticism of Duckworth is unfair and even intentionally misleading, the controversy highlights the need for greater restraint in our public discourse. America is living through an intense partisan moment. But the public discourse runs the risk of overheating. The extent to which words like “traitor” and “treason” are bandied about is a problem. The questioning of the patriotism of fellow citizens with whom we disagree is not only uncivil, it is dangerous.
Make no mistake: The secession of the Southern states in 1860 and 1861 was an act of treason. Lincoln saw it as such; Grant did, too. Whether one views the Civil War as a tragic mistake or act of outright betrayal on the part of Southern leaders, it is impossible to ignore that the military and political leaders of the Confederacy betrayed their oaths to the United States Constitution. While we can be grateful that the nation reconciled as it did in the latter part of the nineteenth century, we must further reckon with the cost of that reconciliation: Much of the magnanimity took place on the backs of former slaves and their descendants, to the shame of both North and South. The Confederate statues that dot so much of the South were often commissioned and installed to mark the end of Reconstruction and the return of white rule in the old Confederacy. They are not simple memorials to the dead, they were dedicated to the toxic notion of white supremacy.
A recent series of tweets by Anne Twitty, a historian at the University of Mississippi, highlights the degree to which so many monuments were dedicated to the Confederate dead on the understanding that they were not just defenders of Southern independence or the inheritors of 1776, but also defenders of white supremacy.
Moreover, military bases and high schools throughout the South were named for Confederates as a means of salving Confederate wounds, in the former case, and thumbing one’s nose at integration, in the latter case, a rather nasty means of reminding both black soldiers and black students of who was in charge: the descendants of men dedicated their lives and honor to a rebellion and culture that gladly enslaved their forebears.
With that in view, America is due for a reckoning. Something in the last few years has conjured up so many angry Southern ghosts—not of, say, Southern literature or music, but of crass rebellion and antagonism. If these honorifics—the statues, army bases, and high schools—give life to the legacy and reputation of the Confederacy as an idea and an institution, then all other virtues, real or imagined, take a secondary role, and the names and images must go.
Let’s return to the far-too-casual throwing around of such terms as “treason” and “traitor” and “betrayal.” As already noted, those within the Union regarded secession as betrayal, but the degree to which the South thought of itself as committing treason is a bit more murky. This is partly due to the South’s particular view of the Constitution and the terms under which the original colonies came into the Union. But more importantly, it is the South’s honor culture—what Walker Percy identified as Stoic more than Christian—where today’s trouble lies. There is a desire to find decency and goodness in one’s ancestors, and because of that, it may be wise to reframe this debate.
Critics of President Trump rightly note that he and many in the GOP are defending titles and iconography that honor the losing side of a war that ended a century and a half ago. By this point in time, they argue, no one should feel the need to honor John Bell Hood and Robert E. Lee, and certainly not Jefferson Davis and Braxton Bragg. That is very much true.
Still, the critics would be more effective if their forceful and correct criticisms were delivered in a more measured way. It does not help their cause to make inflammatory accusations that the president and his supporters, because they don’t want statues torn down by mobs, are somehow refusing to disavow the traitors and racists who tore apart the country. The critics would be much more effective if they instead said something like: For America to be the nation it desires to be, we should remove these vestiges of the Confederacy from places of public honor.
There is another reason to exercise caution. Public rhetoric puts words and ideas into spaces that are potentially occupied by other, less restrained voices. It wouldn’t be fair to say that all conservative ideas and politics of the last sixty years were moving towards Trumpism. But there is no denying that the easygoing jingoism of talk radio (“You’re a great American, my friend”—Sean Hannity to every caller) and the culture-war antagonism towards latte-swilling, Volvo-driving effete liberals hit a fever pitch during the Obama years and found its voice in the crass language of Trump, Steve Bannon, and Stephen Miller.
To take just one example, Geoffrey Kabaservice’s New York Times review of a new book on Newt Gingrich reveals the degree to which Gingrich’s language reshaped the nature of political debate in the country. Careless language blurs the line between fantasy and reality, and softens the edges between motives.
Returning to Senator Duckworth, her use of one little word—“traitor”—caught her in the president’s snare. Powerful words have a multitude of effects. The ease with which a politician may label historical figures racists and traitors belies the ease with which all historical figures become racists and traitors without a properly nuanced perspective. Other arguments may be less sexy at first glance, but they are more responsible in the long view, and they are the arguments we should embrace.
There is a crisis of citizenship and historical knowledge in our country. Both the 1619 Project and the dubiously historical bestsellers of Bill O’Reilly and Brian Kilmeade present a picture of America that avoids the deep complexity of the past and therefore fails to cultivate the perspective necessary for thoughtful, engaged citizenship. President Trump may be thoughtlessly stoking populist grievances, but many of his prominent fellow travelers, from Miller and Bannon to Senators Cotton and Hawley, understand the nature of these arguments. Those in the opposition who seek to create an America more properly committed to the notions of liberty enshrined in the Declaration should avoid the temptation of cheap antagonism.
We are indeed in a clarifying moment. The time has come for the thoughtful removal of public displays of indisputably racist iconography. Any supposed decency in the Confederacy that might have been preserved has been squandered by those who proudly wave a flag devoid of any honorable meaning, who traffic in hate, resentment, and conspiracies. We should not taunt these citizens or their ancestors; we should pity them. History, if not Providence itself, has rendered a judgment upon the Confederacy, and we should call our fellow countrymen onward, “with malice towards none, and charity for all…” as we “strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”