A Confederate Tradition: The insurrectionists of January 6 also believed they were defending America
Trump’s Big Lie has a number of elements that echo the argument behind the organization of the Confederacy in 1861. Like the Confederates, the Big Lie inspired followers by calling for them not to destroy America, but to defend it.
The insurrectionists of January 6, and those who continue to insist the election was stolen, do not think of themselves as domestic terrorists, but as patriots in the mold of Samuel Adams.
“Today is 1776,” Representative Lauren Boebert (R-CO) tweeted on January 6.
The Confederates, too, believed they were defending America. In February 1861, even before Republican President Abraham Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861, lawmakers for the Confederate States of America wrote their own constitution.
It was remarkably similar to the United States Constitution — copied from it verbatim, in fact —e xcept for three key changes that they believed made the original constitution better: they defended state’s rights, denied that the government could promote internal improvements, and prohibited any law that denied or impaired “the right of property in negro slaves.”
Confederate leaders convinced ordinary White men in the southern states that defending the expansion of human enslavement would be defending the nation against the “radicals” who valued the principles of equality outlined in the Declaration of independence. On the basis of that powerful patriotism, they took their states out of the Union shortly after Lincoln was elected president, hurrying to secede while tempers were hot.
But, once they declared an insurrection, they found it hard to keep up enthusiasm for it. Confederate leaders approved the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 in part because interest in creating a new nation was fading. The new nation that had seemed exciting and inspiring in the holiday gatherings after the election seemed a little silly in the spring, when attention turned to planting.
Sparking a crisis made sure that southern Whites did not abandon the Confederacy. And, once the war had begun, White southerners were committed. Wars are far easier to start than to stop.
Trump’s insurrection seems to be facing the same waning enthusiasm that Confederate leaders faced. On June 26, at his first large rally since January 6, Trump spoke at Wellington, Ohio, about 35 miles west of Cleveland. While attendees responded to his complaints about the election, many left early.
Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “there’s a growing recognition that this is a bit like [professional wrestling]. That it’s entertaining, but it’s not real. And I know people want to say, yeah, they believe in the ‘Big Lie’ in some cases, but I think people recognize that it’s a lot of show and bombast. But it’s going nowhere. The election is over. It was fair….let’s move on.”
Rather than inspiring continued resistance, Trump increasingly looks like President Richard M. Nixon, whose support eroded as more and more sordid information about his White House came to light. Exposés of the Trump White House recently have shown his cavalier approach to the pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 Americans, and his willingness to employ force against peaceful protesters in summer 2020.
The ground seems to be giving way under the Big Lie. Recently the Republican-led Michigan Senate Oversight Committee threw out claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election and reiterated that President Joe Biden won fairly. A Georgia judge threw out most of the lawsuit calling for another inspection of ballots from Fulton County. And a New York court suspended Trump’s lawyer Rudy Guiliani from practicing law after it concluded that Giuliani made “demonstrably false and misleading statements to courts, lawmakers and the public at large in his capacity as lawyer for former President Donald J. Trump and the Trump campaign in connection with Trump’s failed effort at reelection in 2020.”
As the idea that the January 6 insurrectionists were not terrorists but patriots has become more and more far-fetched, the radical right has become more and more outrageous. For example, a contributor to the right-wing conspiracy network OAN repeated the lie that “voter fraud” undermined the 2020 election, and then suggested that those “involved in these efforts to undermine the election” deserve “execution.”
Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced that the House will be organizing a select committee to investigate the January 6 insurrection, and trials for the January 6 insurrectionists will be starting soon. Those trials will likely highlight the belief of the rioters that they were following the lead of then-president Trump to protect the country. Rather than looking like heroic patriots, they increasingly look like dupes.
Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics