To no one’s surprise, Donald Trump still refuses to concede that he lost the 2020 election even after a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 leading to his second impeachment. He and his supporters had already challenged the election results in scores of lawsuits, recounts and audits, and every examination revealed that the election was fair, legitimate and secure.
Trump lost and continues to lie about the election, but scores of failed lawsuits made his loss all the more certain. He incited a seditious mob to assault the Capitol and threaten Congress while it was sitting in joint session. We may expect that he’ll be holding rallies in the Mar-a-Lago parking lot when he’s in his 90s still claiming he was robbed.
Right now he is creating a Lost Cause mythology, and there will be folks who cling to it with religious devotion for a generation or more just as many have held onto the lies of the first Lost Cause movement after the Civil War.
It’s a pity for the folks who will burn out their spirits, minds, hearts, families and friends in fevered rants for the next few decades as they scramble to square their squandered faith with reality. It’s a crisis when cynical politicians exploit those folks for raw ambition.
This is not new or even rare. Most of us feel like we’ve been cheated somehow along the way and wonder what might have been. Most of us get on with it, evaluate the loss, reflect on its meaning, take stock of ourselves and move on to higher ground. But some of us wallow and haul our albatrosses around for the rest of our lives, blaming shadowy figures in the past for our demise, always angry, never conceding, never rising above and beyond the loss.
‘We Lost on a Technicality’
One of my best friends played high-school football at New Hope in Lowndes County. At church one Sunday morning after a big game, I asked him how they did.
“We lost on a technicality,” he said.
“What technicality?” I asked.
“We ran out of time.”
He was joking, and it was funny, because that’s not losing by technicality, that’s just losing. Maybe there were some bad calls, some dropped balls, some missed tackles, some wind or mud, but they lost. Thirty years later, he’s not wallowing over the loss; he’s not reliving the faded glory days of high school. He’s a wise, generous professional with a great family.
This is how we raise our children, or should. When we face losses, we have a few choices. We can nurse our bruises, consider what went wrong, learn some lessons, and live to fight another day. We work to get better next time. We pray and take the next hard step. Over time, we learn to take a long view, to mourn with those who mourn, to rejoice with those who rejoice. We reflect and work to get it better next time. We get wiser and stronger, and we contribute what we can to make the world a little bit better.
If the system is unfair, we go to work to fix it. If we don’t like the rules, we try to change them, but we don’t cheat to win. And if we don’t like the game at all, we find other roads to walk to ensure dignity, hope, faith, and love.
A More Tragic, Dangerous Path
But there’s another, more tragic, more dangerous path—the Lost Cause. The Lost Cause imbues the defeat as an existential catastrophe that exerts mastery over every other aspect of life and defines all future days with a bitter poison that spirals toward nihilism. The Lost Cause spears a life like a rusty meat-hook that drags down any hope, optimism or progress. The Lost Cause wants only to restore something irretrievable. It does not want to build anything new, only to slog forever through vengeful nostalgia. The Lost Cause is an addiction to past battles, the worst kind of hubris that cannot contemplate a universe without total vindication.
The more the Lost Causer suffers, the more he needs to justify the suffering because it surely can’t mean nothing. The Lost Causer interprets every setback, every defeat, as proof of his own righteousness, so all the incentives lead to more wallowing and rage. The bunker gets deeper, the explanations more obscure.
Eventually, to turn from the Lost Cause, to accept the loss, and to look into a brighter future becomes its own treachery, a betrayal of the suffering. The Lost Cause convinces its champion that the only right action is to look backward forever. The Lost Cause will have the high school kicker sit on the grass of a tumble down football field until he’s 50 years old mourning the loss of glory he never had, just because the clock ran out, scowling at everyone else who won’t give him his due.
Stephen D. Lee: ‘Our Motives Were Pure and Manly’
In 1902, Stephen D. Lee gave a long speech for Confederate Memorial Day in Columbus. He was a stalwart community leader before the Civil War, then a Confederate general, then later helped found and was the first president of Mississippi State University in nearby Starkville. I was in the last classes at S.D. Lee High School in Columbus, and most of the Lee references in Lowndes County are to S.D., not Robert E.
In his address, Lee offers a rigorous defense for the Confederacy, a studied, intellectual defiance. He begins by complaining that hardly anyone remembers the war because they’ve gotten too busy with their lives, and he laments that a generation of young folks has passed who don’t appreciate the “gigantic drama of a war.” (I found the speech in “A History of Columbus, Mississippi, During the 19th Century,” by William Lowndes Lipscomb published by the S.D. Lee Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1909.)
“So long as as this beautiful memorial custom is continued, it will teach the generations of the future the story of the matchless, unfading and undying honor which the Confederate soldier won,” Lee said. He commences his long apology for the war: “They should know that our motives were pure and manly, that in the great civil strife the South was guided and controlled by a sense of duty and actuated by patriotic spirit, and did not in a cowardly and base manner submit, while most constitutional rights were ignored and pledged guarantees trampled underfoot.”
It’s not surprising that Lee felt compelled to justify the Confederacy. He helped lead it, and he was presiding over the decoration of a military cemetery. But he was setting a trap: to question or criticize the Confederacy is to dishonor the dead. To admit that the pillars of the Confederacy were anything less than righteous—slavery and white supremacy—means that the dead did not die for something noble. To admit that starting a war (which he does not admit) upon less than just reasons is to admit that those boys died for less than nothing.
To leave the Lost Cause behind with anything less than defiance suggests that the Confederacy was broken, impoverished, humiliated and defeated because it deserved to be. To admit that the South is greater and more complex than the sum of the Confederacy means that the Confederate project itself was a failure. And if your daddy’s great-granddaddy died in the war, abandoning the pillars and symbols of the Confederacy means you’re indicting your own family.
A Bargain: Defiance for Vindication
To avoid those painful pills, the Lost Cause offers a bargain: defiance for vindication. But it’s a con. Rather than grappling with the loss, healing, growing and building, the Lost Cause keeps the fetid wound open and bleeding. To move on will mean that the fight is over, but refusing to admit the fight is over means never healing, never moving toward new horizons. The Lost Cause means perpetual nostalgia, forever fury, compound fractures that can never ever heal.
Lee had nothing new to celebrate in 1902, on the brink of the long, violent nightmare of Jim Crow. He could only tell the story of the glorious, lost cause over and over, and he embraced and instilled a set of revisionist ideas that still shackle the South. There will be those who would read this essay and condemn my criticism because it judges and doubts the wisdom and righteousness of a respected leader who was only trying to honor the dead and comfort families, but that shows how deep the teeth of the trap dig into our ankles a century later.
Those Lost Cause shackles insist that the South can never be rid of the Confederacy. The South could not rise again because the Confederate Lost Cause insists that it cannot ever surrender the Civil War. For example, the State of Mississippi did not ratify the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery until 1995; to ratify it would mean that the Reconstruction Congress that passed it was legitimate.
Trump’s Logic Leads Some to Justify Horrors
There is nothing new under the sun, so here comes the Lost Cause of Donald Trump—with magnitudes less integrity and principle than even Stephen D. Lee. Trump’s Lost Cause creates its own brutal trap for those who will not acknowledge that he lost a standard, legal, legitimate election. Honorable American politicians concede their losses and get ready to run again. Political parties evaluate their races and campaign for the next one. Good citizens who disagree with each other try to persuade, then they vote. Good losers aren’t happy about losing, but because they share a devotion to the community, they concede and move forward instead of burning everything down in a frenzied tantrum.
But the Trump Lost Cause tantrum perpetuates a logic that will lead some to justify horrors. It will create a cycle for sycophants to defy the rule of law and constitutional governance. It will drive some further into dark, fascist nationalism, because to concede that he lost an election will mean that their world view has not prevailed. To admit that Joe Biden is a legitimate president becomes a betrayal of the man to whom they’ve pledged themselves, to admit that they’ve been fooled.
Instead of trying to win more elections like law-abiding Americans, if they believe Trump’s lies and delusions, some will abandon the American experiment for an alternative world where Trumpism dominates all its political rivals and dissidents by violence and unquestioning devotion. The Trump Lost Cause will insist that they never move on from the rage of 2020.
The Confederate Lost Cause led straight to the night-riding Klan, mass murders, lynching terrorism and virulent, blood-thirsty segregation. The unwitting logic of S.D. Lee’s Lost Cause spun out to justify atrocities throughout an unreconstructed, oppressive, violent South. On Jan. 6, Trump stoked his organized followers to a flailing, violent, ill-conceived insurrection that resulted in death and a shock to our government. The government recovered, but it was only a taste of what Lost Cause madness can do.
The Lost Cause of Donald Trump is in its infancy, and it does not have to outlive the Trump presidency. The question now is whether the United States will allow it to coalesce into a reactionary, violent, white nationalist, Trumpist party, willing to wreck everything in a will to power, or whether it’ll exhaust itself with boat rallies, internet bluster or random statues of Trump by interstate exits.
The United States has survived worse, but the danger of a Lost Cause is its metastasis and a catastrophic drag on our culture. Our Republic depends on losing candidates accepting losses with honor when the clock runs out, but that means the Republic’s principles must be more valuable than preserving raw power. If the loser flails with frantic hysterics forever after the game is over, no one can move on to better things.
The Lost Causer will only ever fight the old war, so he will rob himself and everyone around him of any future joy or justice. The Lost Causer ends up hating everyone. The rest of us must insist on life, the rule of law, and the Republic’s higher virtues, not fealty to a sore loser.
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