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Trump's 'Lost Cause,' a Kind of Gangster Cult, Won't Go Away

Lost cause narratives sometimes have been powerful enough to build or destroy political regimes. They can advance a politics of grievance.

History shows that fascists get more extreme with time. Anywhere they have come to power, they have done so through an electoral system, with support from a significant segment of voters, in alliance with conventional conservatives.

There have been numerous lost causes in modern history, usually following defeats in war, where the vanquished glorify their loss as a source of pride and shared animosity toward the victors. Three big lost causes have plagued world and American history. Following their bloody defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the French exhibited an intergenerational cultural need to avenge the loss. Then, following Germany’s defeat in World War I, the Nazis gained traction by blaming Jews and leftists, who were depicted as “poisons” in the blood of the body politic. And then, of course, there was the American South after the Civil War, when the narrative of the Confederate “lost cause” yielded a potent brew of twisted history and white supremacist ideology.

Lost cause narratives sometimes have been powerful enough to build or destroy political regimes, shape national and ethnic identities, and fill landscapes with monuments. They work primarily as powerful new founding myths, always advancing a politics of grievance that turns into retribution, and sometimes victory. Immediately after the military surrender in 1865, forms of the Confederate “lost cause” took root in a Southern society marked by physical destruction, the psychological trauma of defeat, resistance to the victors’ policy of Reconstruction, racial violence and — with time — carefully constructed sentimentalism.

Specifically, the Confederate “lost cause” claimed that Southern soldiers had shown unfailing valor, and that the South hadn’t really lost, but merely succumbed to superior numbers and resources. Southern white women allegedly supported the cause to the bitter end and helped preserve the “truthful” memory; the Confederacy’s enslaved Black population supposedly remained loyal to their owners; and, finally, the Confederates had never really fought for slavery but rather for “home,” national sovereignty and states’ rights.

To be sustained as public propaganda, lost causes need a pure narrative with clearly identified villains and heroes. Sometimes, they are havens of sick souls; other times, they are the means to power for a disciplined political movement. Trump’s “lost cause,” now newly virulent as he campaigns for a second term despite multiple indictments, draws on a menu of grievances among the disaffected, energizing those who believe that a “diversity”-obsessed multicultural America has veered out of control, especially in relation to immigration at the Mexican border.

It might sound like just another outlandish remark from Donald Trump, Republican presidential front-runner, but it’s easy for politicians to mislead when so many people want to be misled.