On Sept. 18 Donald Trump supporters once again descended on the nation's capital — albeit this time in far smaller numbers — for "Justice for J6," a gathering in support of those facing criminal charges for their participation in the Jan. 6 insurrection. About 450 people assembled and police arrested four individuals.
Though a relatively quiet event, the falsehoods animating the demonstration — that the 2020 election was rigged and that the insurrection was a nonviolent protest — continue to permeate GOP politics. In a recent CNN poll, 59% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said, "'believing that Donald Trump won the 2020 election' was very or somewhat important to what being a Republican meant to them."
Yet, the true picture of Jan. 6 is far darker: the event marked the first time the Capitol Building has been invaded by armed enemies since 1814 and the first time in all of American history that the peaceful transfer of executive power has been violently disrupted. Five people were killed in the attack and four Capitol Police officers have since taken their own lives. All without a single shred of evidence to support the claims driving this violence.
Tellingly, one insurgent carried a Confederate flag into the building — a symbolic breach that did not even occur during the Civil War. "A new 'lost cause' had stormed into the U.S. Capitol flying the flag of the original Confederate Lost Cause," observed historian David Blight. Indeed, in the wake of Jan. 6, it seems as though Trump and his supporters are intent on following in the footsteps of the Confederates who lost the Civil War, but largely won the battle to construct a false version of history better suited to their purposes.
Immediately following the Confederate States of America's defeat, former political and military leaders gave speeches and wrote memoirs that told a false, more flattering narrative of the conflict. Rather than waging a war to protect the institution of slavery, Confederates explained that they had been defending states' rights from a tyrannical federal government and had fought a defensive war against an invading Northern army. Being outgunned and outmanned, their chances had been doomed from the start — but they had fought honorably in defense of their homeland and there was no shame in eventually capitulating.
And so, the myth of the Lost Cause was born.
This purposeful rewriting of recent history drove a political, economic and cultural movement that used a nostalgic yearning for the Old South to create as close to a slave society as was possible after the 13th Amendment banned the practice of slavery. The Lost Cause and its glorification of white dominance justified the re-empowerment of Confederate leaders. Alexander Stephens, for instance, the former vice president of the Confederacy, received a presidential pardon from Andrew Johnson just a few months after the war's end and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
It also legitimized white supremacist policies and violence, reversing the civil rights gains African Americans achieved during the initial phases of Reconstruction. Indeed, at the same time as Lost Cause proponents were articulating their version of history, they were also disenfranchising Black voters, instigating sharecropping and the convict lease system, erecting Jim Crow segregation and unleashing a campaign of white supremacist violence that raped, maimed and killed thousands of people. The two enterprises went hand in hand. "The success of the teachings of the Lost Cause led to the nation's abandoning even its halfhearted effort to protect African Americans and bring them into the United States as equal citizens," writes Historian Alan T. Nolan.
Even after the wartime generation had passed, artists, filmmakers, novelists, historians and politicians continued to espouse the Lost Cause narrative, insisting that the Confederacy had fought for a righteous cause and the fallen had died honorable deaths. Perhaps most tellingly, the early 1900s witnessed a boom in the erection of Confederate statues and monuments — vastly exceeding those raised during the postwar decades.
Of course, we need not search too far for evidence of the Lost Cause's cultural and ideological purchase in our own time. The rebel flag is still displayed proudly everywhere from buildings to bumper stickers. Schools and streets bear the names of Confederate leaders. And Americans have fought violently, occasionally with fatal results, to defend Confederate monuments.
The consequences are profound. The Lost Cause has entrenched a deep denial of the horrors of slavery into a large segment of American society and accordingly hamstrung efforts to address the roots of racial injustice and reckon with the wide-ranging destruction forged by white supremacy. One need only look to the recent right-wing hysteria over critical race theory and school curriculums for evidence that the Lost Cause continues to pervade and pervert important conversations about racism in America.
So far, the Jan. 6 lost cause has not achieved anywhere near this level of impact. But there are alarming trend lines.
The effort to shape the narrative around the insurrection began even before the siege itself had ended. In a video asking the rioters to go home, Trump doubled down on his baseless claims of a stolen election — claims he continues to repeat nine months later. Some Republican senators, like Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), maintained their groundless objections to certifying the election mere hours after hiding in their offices from the mob.
And in the days and months that followed, Republicans have worked tirelessly to reshape the violent, anti-democratic invasion into a peaceful protest. "There was no insurrection and to call it an insurrection, in my opinion, is a boldfaced lie," Republican Rep. Andrew S. Clyde of Georgia told a House Oversight Committee. "If you didn't know that TV footage was a video from January the sixth, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit." Some have gone so far as to describe those in custody as "political prisoners."
A majority of Republican senators then successfully blocked the formation of an independent commission to investigate the insurrection. Some of their counterparts in the House opposed a measure to award Congressional Gold Medals to the officers on duty on Jan. 6. Even those Republicans who denounced the insurrection are still minimizing the event and its implications. "You know, I condemned the breach. I condemned the violence," said Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, "but to say there were thousands of armed insurrectionists breaching the Capitol intent on overthrowing the government is just simply false narrative . . . By and large, it was a peaceful protest."
These efforts have successfully shaped public opinion on the right. A recent poll revealed that over half of Trump supporters describe the events of Jan. 6 as "defending freedom" or "patriotism." Nearly 80% of Republicans believe that the election was fraudulent. And Republicans have attempted to undermine other elections with false accusations of fraud, sometimes before the elections even occur, as was the case with the recent California recall.
True, they have not overthrown any elections or secured the removal of charges for any insurgents. And they receive significant pushback. But it is still early days in the battle over Jan. 6's memory. The 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential election will probably see even more baseless accusations of fraud. If the Republicans win back control of Congress, many question whether a Democratic presidential candidate even stands a chance of being certified the victor, regardless of how many more electoral votes they may win.
The struggle over Civil War memory reminds us of the injustices that run rampant when we allow the losers to rewrite history. Trump supporters may lack the "coherent ideology" and "geographical monopoly" of the Confederates, notes historian Caroline Janney, but "their arguments are animated by some of the same tactics that allowed the Lost Cause to thrive for more than 150 years."
We can't afford to let Jan. 6 become the new Lost Cause.
Shira Lurie is an assistant professor of U.S. history at Saint Mary's University.