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Opinion | Trump’s New Civil Religion

The civil components of the Lost Cause were combined with Christian mythology. The South played the part of Christ in the Christian drama — crucified, yet unrisen. The saints in this Lost Cause theology were the heroes of the Confederacy — most notably Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. A scholar of Southern religion, Paul Harvey, put it this way: “Key to this mythology was the exalting of southern war heroes as Christian evangelical gentlemen. Evangelists of the New South era immortalized the Christian heroism of the Confederate leaders and soldiers and dovetailed them into revivals of the era.” No matter one’s denominational affiliation, it offered a story and a set of high holy days every white Southerner could celebrate.

The Lost Cause is an example of how collective memory works. Collective memory is not concerned with historical accuracy; its preoccupation with the past is based on a desire to mobilize a vision for the present and create a prospect for the future. Heather Cox Richardson argues persuasively in her recent book “How the South Won the Civil War” that even though the Union defeated the Confederacy on the battlefield, the South won the war by creating a Southern identity that led to the emergence and re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan and the institution of Jim Crow laws, and then spread west to provide fuel for the Chinese Exclusion Act and acts of violence against Native Americans — all on the basis of resentment, myth and symbol, rather than facts or truth.

Make America Great Again is a politics of grievance complete with its own myths and symbols. Mr. Trump’s rallies have been the ritual locus of his brand of nationalism. They create a collective effervescence in attendees that leaves them seething at their political enemies and ready to follow the president down any authoritarian road he takes them. Moreover, Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry have shown that Mr. Trump’s religious support comes from Christian nationalists who believe the United States was built for and by white Christians.

Like the Lost Cause, MAGAism is buttressed by religious narratives and imagery, and its gospel is spread through houses of worship every Sunday. For some evangelicals, Mr. Trump is a divinely ordained savior uniquely able to save the nation from ruin at the hands of godless socialists, Black Lives Matter activists and antifa. So it’s no surprise that as insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, they waved a mix of Confederate, Christian and Trump flags.

MAGAism also has an eschatology based on conspiracy. As Marc-André Argentino, who studies QAnon, told me by email, for many Trump supporters, including growing numbers of white evangelicals, Jan. 6 figures as “the start of the long awaited period of tribulation that will announce the arrival of the promised golden age.” In other words, Jan. 6 is both a beginning point and a sign of the end, a rebirth for the dangerous delusions of extremists who see violence as an appropriate means for finishing what they started in order to usher in a new world.

The lasting legacy of the Jan. 6 insurrection is the myth and symbol of Mr. Trump’s lost cause. He has successfully nurtured a feeling in the 74 million Americans who voted for him that they can trust neither their government nor the electoral process. By encouraging them to question the validity of votes in some of the Blackest cities in the country, such as Detroit, and stoking anger that such constituencies would have the power to swing an election, he convinced them that the process is rigged, thus giving his supporters the moral high ground. This creates the foundation for a collective memory based on a separate national identity held together by the tragic stealing of his presidency and the evil of his opponents.

The Lost Cause provides a blueprint for winning the war, even though Mr. Trump has lost this election. After Mr. Biden’s inauguration, if prominent Republican figures encourage their followers to accept the results, but not defeat; if they pick up Mr. Trump’s leadership mantle by fostering resentment and the desire for revenge through their Twitter feeds; if they perpetually call into question the legitimacy of the U.S. government through an army of evangelical pastors less concerned with reality than with disseminating the myths and symbols of Make America Great Again as a vehicle for Christian nationalism, it’s not hard to see how they will become heirs of the Lost Cause. That should frighten us all.

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