Opinion: Embracing the myth of Donald Trump’s martyrdom

Cars and trucks with signs in support of President Donald Trump circle the state Capitol in Atlanta on Saturday, November 14, 2020. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Cars and trucks with signs in support of President Donald Trump circle the state Capitol in Atlanta on Saturday, November 14, 2020. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The email arrived mid-week with an irresistible offer directed only at “top patriots.” For just a few dollars and a great deal of personal data, I could purchase a set of highly valued Christmas wrapping paper emblazoned with the name of President Donald Trump.

I was advised to act fast: “Once our stock is gone, the Official Trump Christmas Wrapping Paper will be gone FOREVER.”

It was a small admission that Christmas 2020 will have something that Christmas 2021 won’t.

Yet at the same time, wrapping paper in the color of a MAGA hat and laced with the words “Merry” and “Trump” and “winning” might also allow a true Trump believer to — ever so politely — deliver a message to heretical friends and relatives. It’s the same message that once served as a motto for generations of white Southerners: “Fergit, hell!”

At some point, the calendar will require Republicans to admit that President Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection to Democrat Joe Biden. Maybe that dam breaks when the electoral college issues its verdict on Dec. 14. Or on Jan. 20, when Biden steps onto the scaffolding outside the U.S. Capitol to take the oath of office.

But it is also clear that for some time to come, any Republican with ambition will be required to embrace the myth that Trump was robbed. That the 45th president was the victim of a plot concocted by a cabal — according to Rudy Giuliani — of election officials, judges and thousands of other actors in counties and states across the country.

GOP candidates won’t actually be required to believe this fiction. But they will need to mouth it as the price of membership in the club that is now the Republican party.

This week, a Monmouth University poll found that Trump has already persuaded more than three-quarters of his supporters that fraud was involved in the Nov. 3 election.

But that is a mere statistic. The real proof is in the instant vilification of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and the security guards now assigned to protect this Republican, his staff and his family — simply because he preferred to rely on honor and arithmetic rather than Twitter folklore.

Raffensperger Republicans now know the value of staying mute.

The proof can also be found in the unwillingness of U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, both dependent upon Trump’s good graces and facing Jan. 5 runoffs, to stand and defend their demand that Raffensperger resign.

It can be found in the wariness of Gov. Brian Kemp, who is up for reelection in 2022. And in the silence of those Republicans eying a run for president in 2024 — if Trump or his eldest son decline the contest.

All will be shackled, and yet perhaps also united, by Trump’s reinvention of himself as a martyred president who has suffered as no president ever has — with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln. Bruised and wounded, Trump will no longer be president on Jan. 21, but he will be in command of his Republican party.

We in the South are familiar with political structures built upon mythic foundations. In fact, you might say that Trump is in the process of creating the Lost Cause 2.0.

The original Lost Cause was the vast, all-encompassing lie that white Southerners told themselves about the Civil War. That it was about states’ rights and tariffs. Slavery was an incidental factor and, all-in-all, an institution that benefitted all parties involved — and so was worthy of extension under other names after 1865. Confederate soldiers were gallant knights cut down by a soulless, industrial North.

The Lost Cause became a civic religion. It is what was carved into the face of Stone Mountain, and it’s still with us.

Historic parallels are never exact. I ran the thought that Trump is establishing a sequel to the Lost Cause by historian Kevin Levin. He’s the author of the book, published just last year, that busted the myth of Confederate soldiers who were also Black.

To be honest, Levin was skeptical. “The Lost Cause emerged organically throughout different parts of the South for a whole host of reasons. What we’re looking at here is a string of lies that has been embraced, as far as I can tell, by the [Trump] diehards,” he said. “It’s not something that I see right now as a belief that’s widely held.”

But that is the view from Massachusetts, where Levin lives. In Georgia and the rest of the South, I argued, the myth of Trump’s martyrdom has the potential to stick.

I might have made some progress. “If it’s working to keep the faithful unified, if it’s popular enough to keep people rallied around the cause. If you think of the Lost Cause as a kind of political solidarity, I guess it holds water,” Levin said.

The Lost Cause 2.0 could also merge with the older version.

During his presidency, Trump has repeatedly tapped into the language of the Lost Cause. “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” Trump tweeted in 2017, days after a Charlottesville, Va., rally of far-right protesters turned violent. They had gathered to protect a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Also consider the defense bill now before Congress. It contains language to require the renaming of military bases that bear the names of Confederate generals — such as Fort Benning near Columbus and Fort Gordon near Augusta.

Trump has threatened to veto the bill if the clause isn’t removed.

One other thought from Levin: The original Lost Cause, in addition to cleansing Southern motives for the rebellion, also served as an ideological bulwark against the encroachment of Northern industrialists upon a defeated, poverty-stricken South. It was protection against “something external that came down here and ruined our peaceful civilization,” Levin said.

Rather like Andrew Yang, he added, warming to the thought.

Yang is the former Democratic presidential candidate who has promised to temporarily move to Georgia to rally the troops for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, the Democratic candidates in the Jan. 5 runoffs for Senate.

Yet if the Lost Cause 2.0 is to be more than a short-lived package of grievances aired by a defeated president, it will have to survive beyond Trump himself. Who picks up the torch and how far they get with it will matter — whether carried by U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, or Donald Trump Jr.

Just pray that no one in the Georgia General Assembly pitches the idea of carving Trump’s visage into the side of Stone Mountain. That rock has problems enough.