One hundred and fifty years after the emergence of the Confederate Lost Cause ideology, a new Lost Cause invaded the U.S. Capitol with the incitement of the president of the United States. Waving American, Confederate, Gadsden and, especially, Trump flags, Donald Trump’s loyalists desecrated the greatest symbolic edifice of America.
Trumpism has already become a lethal Lost Cause. It does not quite have martyrs and a cult of the fallen in which to root its hopes and dreams. But it does have a self-destructive cult leader about to leave power in a defeat that has been transformed into a narrative of betrayal, resistance and a promise of political revitalization.
The important Lost Causes in history have all been at heart compelling stories about noble defeats that were, with time, forged into political movements of renewal: the French after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the profound need for national revanche; Germany after the Great War and its “stab in the back” theory that led over the 1920s to the rise of the nationalism and racism of the Nazis; and the white South after our Civil War. All Lost Causes find their lifeblood in lies, big and small, lies born of beliefs in search of a history that can be forged into a story and mobilize masses of people to act politically, violently, and in the name of ideology.
The story demands a religious loyalty. It must be protected, reinforced, practiced in ritual and infused with symbols. What is the Trumpian claim of a stolen election but an elaborate fiction that fights to make the reality and truth of the unbelievers irrelevant. Some myths are benign as cultural markers; but others are rooted in big lies so strong as engines of resentment that they can fill parade grounds and endless political rallies, or motivate the storming of the U.S. Capitol in a quixotic attempt to overthrow an election.
Mr. Trump’s Lost Cause takes its fuel from conspiratorial myths of all kinds, rehearsed for years on Trump media and social media platforms. Its guiding theories include: Christianity under duress and attack; large corrupt cities full of Black and brown people manipulated by liberal elites; Barack Obama as alien; a socialist movement determined to tax you into subservience to “big government”; liberal media out to crush family and conservative values; universities and schools teaching the young a history that hates America; resentment of nonwhite immigrants who threaten a particular national vision; and whatever hideous new version of a civil religion QAnon represents.
An effective, enduring Lost Cause story needs to know clearly what it hates, has to attain widespread control of its own communication and needs institutional rooting, and it must explain almost everything. It converts loss and longstanding grievance into community, and promises of victory on altars of strife.