Two weeks ago, an avowed white supremacist named Dylann Roof entered a historic African American church in Charleston, South Carolina and shot nine members dead during Bible study. He told his victims he was doing it because they were black. He said, "You rape our women, and you're taking over the country. And you have to go." He said he wanted to start a race war.
Naturally, Fox News promptly dismissed racism as the cause and spun it as an assault on religion. The Neo-Nazi site Stormfront made the same suggestion. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum wondered "What other rationale could there be?" besides a hatred of faith? Another presidential aspirant, Jeb Bush, said he did not know what was on the shooter's mind. And yet another GOP hopeful, Rick Perry, thought it must have been drugs.
In the wake of the tragedy, the state lowered most official flags to half mast. All except one: the Confederate battle flag flying in front of the statehouse. By state law, that would take a vote of the legislature with a two thirds majority. It reignited the Confederate flag controversy nation-wide.
Normally, I would approach a story like this historically. It's what I do and I like to think I have a gift for explaining history. Most bloggers go right to the politics because they are predominantly political junkies whereas I am more of a history geek, albeit a particularly political history geek.
I am going to check that habit today because there are a lot of excellent very historically-grounded articles out there on the topic. One is Ta-Nehisi Coates' post "What This Cruel War Was Over." It points out that the South's plantation aristocrats had no problem saying they were seceding over slavery. Trying to emulate Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, each Confederate state wrote their own list of grievances which historians collectively call the Articles of Secession. These documents repeatedly cite their fiery desire to defend slavery. Another important article is Doug Muder's "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party," which looks at what really motivates the political right. Although it was posted almost a year ago and therefore not about the shooting or the current flag discussion, it remains relevant and explains much.
There are many helpful articles out there, but between these two, you pretty much have the gist of it.
But the political fallout has been particularly interesting to watch thus far. It was both surprising and bracing to witness most of the GOP presidential hopefuls call for the flag to be removed. Granted, some were braver than others, but the general consensus was encouraging. Republican governors throughout the South climbed on the bandwagon. Even Glenn Beck said flying the Confederate flag "makes no sense." Had the GOP evolved beyond using the infamous Southern Strategy of speaking in racist code talk, as some have argued?
Well, not quite. Other Republican pundits circled the wagons to keep the South from bolting from the party. Rush Limbaugh said removing the flag was about "destroying the South" and warned that banning the American flag would be next. The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol also rode to the defense of Dixie's honor. "The Left's 21st century agenda: expunging every trace of respect, recognition or acknowledgment of Americans who fought for the Confederacy." Bill O'Reilly likewise said that the Confederate battle flag represents bravery to many people - as if the same thing could not be said for the Nazi swastika or any other symbol of oppression that had ever had an army behind it. It was an absurd evasion because a flag, by definition, represents a particular side or cause and not how well people fought for it. And, of course, Ann Coulter trotted out her long discredited argument that liberals are the real racists since Democrats were the party of the Confederacy and Jim Crow - again ignoring that the two major parties had traded regional bases after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Then, Rush Limbaugh made the same argument.
As I wrote in my book, "You cannot be the party of Lincoln after embracing Jefferson Davis." They have long enjoyed having it both ways. Looks like they can't now. Will they be forced to choose? How will it shake out? Will it turn brother against brother? Will Reagan's Eleventh Commandment be broken? Maybe repeatedly? I am hoping for an overt party schism in the GOP, but that probably will not happen. More likely, it will only depress GOP turn out as the candidates disappoint the fringe.
Of course, as far as the electoral college goes, low turn out might not matter. The GOP will still hold most of the South. South Carolina's black population is significant and the shooting might be enough to boost turnout there, but the rest of the South is pretty locked in.
Or I might be wrong and we will be treated to the spectacle of these Tea Party darlings getting called RINOs ("Republicans In Name Only") by their former foot soldiers. One can only hope.
But far more important than this armchair election analysis is the struggle going on in the Republican Party. You can say that the flag is simply a symbolic issue, but symbols are important. The killer, Dylann Roof, certainly thought so. He could not get enough of the Confederate flag, to say nothing of the flags of other white supremacist regimes like white Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa. Like the Confederacy, white nationalists romanticize these governments as noble lost causes. It is important that conservatives confront the connection and the history with it. Otherwise, the result will be more Dylann Roofs.