Both Biden and Trump speeches make the stakes clear: 2024 is a battle over white supremacy

There is a reason why Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis pander to racists with false histories of the Civil War

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published January 10, 2024 6:00AM (EST)

Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Speaking from the pulpit of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on Monday, President Joe Biden did not hold back from using the phrase "white supremacy" or emphasizing its impact on American history. 

"It’s a poison," Biden declared of white supremacy. "Throughout our history, it’s ripped this nation apart. This has no place in America. Not today, tomorrow, or ever." 

The church is famously the site of a horrific hate crime, the massacre of nine parshioners at the hands of Dylann Roof, a neo-Nazi who was radicalized online. But Biden expanded the scope, connecting Roof's violent assault to Donald Trump, the MAGA war on democracy, and the efforts to rewrite history to be more flattering to far-right views. 

"They tried to steal an election. Now they’re trying to steal history, telling us that violent mob was, and I quote, 'a peaceful protest,'” Biden said. He linked this to the long history of racists trying to rewrite the history of the Civil War with "a self-serving lie that the Civil War was not about slavery but about states’ rights." 

A couple of years ago, perhaps, Republicans would have taken umbrage at the suggestion that their leadership shares views with a murderous neo-Nazi. But when I looked around at the conservative response, there appeared to be little interest in denying it. There were some weak efforts at deflection by yelling their conspiracy theories about Biden, but even such chronically dishonest people couldn't muster the energy to pretend Trump and his minions aren't racist. 

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After all, Trump and other Republican leaders are increasingly brazen about echoing racist rhetoric, as well as defending white supremacists and their lies. It's not just that Trump has taken to using Hitler-esque rhetoric accusing immigrants of "poisoning the blood of our country." He also went out of his way to regurgitate the Lost Cause myth that the Confederates were innocent victims of the North's aggression. 

His campaign believes there's a political opportunity in relitigating whether that whole "ending slavery" thing was a good idea. 

Claiming, no doubt falsely, that he was "reading something" about the Civil War, Trump said, "See, there was something I think could have been negotiated, to be honest with you. I think you could have negotiated that." He went on to suggest Abraham Lincoln allowed the war to happen so that he would be famous. "Abraham Lincoln, of course, if he negotiated it, you probably wouldn’t even know who Abraham Lincoln was."

The press dutifully reached out to historians, who debunked this lie, pointing out the many efforts over the years to compromise in order to avoid war, all of which failed. (If Trump was as "fascinated" by the Civil War as he claims, for instance, he would know that there was something called the "Missouri Compromise" that preceded it.) No news that Trump is a liar. But what caught my attention about this clip was how obvious it is that Trump was finding any excuse he could to bring the Civil War up. This feels less like his usual incoherent rambling and more a direct attempt to turn the topic to demonizing Lincoln and the entire abolitionist movement. It suggests his campaign believes there's a political opportunity in relitigating whether that whole "ending slavery" thing was a good idea. 

Trump's comments follow an incident where former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina didn't say the word "slavery" when she was asked at a New Hampshire campaign event about the cause of the Civil War. Her answer was much uglier than reported, echoing the deeply racist arguments of slaveholders: "Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life. They don’t need to tell you what you can and can’t do. They don’t need to be a part of your life. They need to make sure that you have freedom."

As Heather "Digby" Parton pointed out at Salon, this argument assumes "freedom" means the right to own other people. The press falsely portrayed Haley's later comments, when she said it was "a given that everybody associates the civil war with slavery," as a "backtrack." But it really wasn't. She didn't recant her insinuation that banning slavery was an affront to white people's "freedom." 

The whole thing got a lot of negative press for Haley from the mainstream media, but there's no reason to think it hurt her with the GOP base. If anything, it probably boosted her a little with a crowd that otherwise views her (incorrectly) as a moderate squish. Certainly, Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., pushing Lost Cause myths on Florida public school students didn't hurt him with the MAGA base. (His poll collapse is due more to his inability to convince them he's more exciting than Trump.)

So it's unsurprising Trump decided to get in on this Lost Cause action. It's crucial to understand that, as Holocaust denialism is always cover for anti-semitism, the Lost Cause is always about defense of white supremacy. Otherwise, there's no need to lie about the cause of the Civil War. 

This is happening alongside more aggressive apologetics for white supremacists on the right. For instance, the "great replacement" conspiracy theory that comes directly out of neo-Nazi rhetoric is being rapidly mainstreamed by leading GOP figures. Donald Trump Jr. called it the "great replacement reality." Popular podcast host Charlie Kirk recently went on a rant about how "they're trying to replace us demographically," and "trying to make the country less white." Fox News host Greg Gutfeld argued that military programs to root out white supremacists "marginalize the efficiency, the deadliness, and readiness and the confidence of our military." (Needless to say, the opposite is true: It is bad for the morale of most soldiers, and not just non-white soldiers, to have to work with neo-Nazis.) 

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There will be a lot of hand-waving and gaslighting over this, but Biden is right: The presidential race this year will be a referendum on white supremacy. Democrats stand against it and Trump-supporting Republicans are getting increasingly bold about how they're fine with it. That's why Biden was right to draw a direct line between the Lost Cause and the rising trend of Republicans spreading conspiracy theories about January 6. It's not just that both are historical revisionism through outright lying. It's that the lies serve the cause of white supremacy. 

The media doesn't talk about this aspect of January 6 much, preferring to focus on Trump's ego and the cult-like hold he has over his followers. But the racism on display that day — from rioters using the N-word to waving the Confederate flag — wasn't incidental. As political scientist Anthony DiMaggio has argued, "white supremacist politics were a significant factor in the Jan. 6 insurrection." Research backs this up, showing major overlap between people who support the January 6 insurrectionists and people who espouse white supremacist ideas. 

Which, frankly, is a more rational explanation than that Trump has some Svengali-style hold on his followers. They worship Trump for the same reason they worship Robert E. Lee: Not because of any intrinsically appealing qualities to either man, but because both are avatars for white supremacy. It's why Trump supporters were willing to risk arrest in order to overturn an election, but have mostly ignored his unsubtle pleas to riot to prevent criminal indictments. They are in this to maintain a racialized hierarchy in the U.S., and not because they just really like a man who smells like a butt.

Of course, as anyone who — unlike Trump — has actually read a history book can tell you, white supremacy and violence have always gone hand-in-hand. From the Civil War to lynchings to hate crimes like Roof's, white supremacy breeds paranoia that is used to justify violent lashing out. Sure enough, as the racist rhetoric on the right heats up, so does the violence. As the Washington Post documented Tuesday, there's been a surge of violent incidents and threats aimed at lawmakers and judges viewed as obstacles to Trump regaining power. Some, such as a fake call to sent the SWAT team to the home of Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing Trump's trial for his crimes of January 6, should be viewed as attempted murder. 

This all suggests another reason Trump and his toadies are turning up the volume on racist raging: To get their followers in a more violent mindset. Trump is already starting to sow conspiracy theories, claiming the election will be stolen from him. The point of all this, of course, is to make another January 6 happen, in case he loses, and hope this time it works. But it's not enough to tell lies and rely on the loyalty of his supporters to get it done. He needs to underscore what they're getting out of it. And what they're getting is Trump's promise of white supremacy. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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