Suppose the Confederacy had won the Civil War. It was certainly not a given that it would be defeated, and, looking at the country today, I think it may well be argued that the South was victorious after all, and that the true capital of these nominally United States is not Washington, D.C., or Richmond, but Charlottesville, Virginia, where neo-Nazi racists openly swaggered this summer with the barely-concealed approval of the president.
Consider this: the states divided as the Blue and Gray during the Civil War have now become blue states and red ones, pitted against each other politically, economically and culturally, and lacking only flags and cannons to be so militarily as well. The Republicans, who currently control all three branches of government, have, in the tax bill passed in December, systematically struck at blue states in forcing a huge levy of new taxes via the capping of longstanding deductions for state and local taxes in federal payments.
The national budget has for many years directed far more dollars from relatively prosperous states, especially in the old Union North, to relatively impecunious ones in the South; now, these former states are being penalized for providing better services and amenities for their citizens by the new federal tax code, and not by accident. States such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts gave their votes by large margins to Hillary Clinton in 2016, and, with California, they have been singled out for punishment for voting Democratic candidates. This is war.
In 2008, the United States elected its first African American president by a substantial margin. Instead of ushering in — or even modestly furthering — a post-racial society in which people would indeed be judged not by the color of their skins but by the content of their character, Barack Obama has been succeeded by the most unabashedly racist president since before the Civil War, a backlash that has called a century and a half of postbellum history into question and led to the most general assault on minority and immigrant populations since the lynch-law 1920s. State by state and citizen by citizen, our people have been set against each other.
In some respects, this debacle is worse than the Civil War itself. Then, republican sentiment abroad feared that the collapse of the Union might be fatal to the cause of free, representative government everywhere. Today, America’s international reputation lies in such tatters that autocracies such as China and Russia are held in higher esteem than we are.
In the single year of Donald Trump, the percentage of worldwide opinion that approves of the character and conduct of the United States has fallen from 48 percent to 30 percent. It is no longer the leader of what was once called, with as straight a face as possible, the Free World. It is no longer the leader of anything, but, for most of the globe, a rogue nation in the hands of a bumbling despot who could at any moment set the world ablaze. It is unlikely that it will recover its former reputation anytime soon, if ever.
The reasons for such a fall are many and complex, but it seems to me that we must go back to the original sin of American slavery to make proper sense of it. Abraham Lincoln said that a house divided against itself, half slave and half free, could not stand, yet it was just such a house that the Founding Fathers erected, and, as recent scholarship has shown, the slave interest intended from the first to play the dominant role in the young Republic, with considerable success.
The abject failure of post-Civil War Reconstruction left many of the essentials of slavery intact for another century in the form of Jim Crow, and the two major political parties by turns dependent on the votes of the former Confederate states for control of Congress to the present day. Lincoln wanted to act with malice toward none, but the failure to confront racism at the one moment when it could have been comprehensively challenged left us two nations under one flag. Perhaps by then it was already too late, the taint too deep, the damage too permanent, to be erased.
Another attempt was made in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. That left a society essentially as segregated as before, supplemented by mass incarceration and systematic voter suppression. From the perspective of 2018, it is not Donald Trump who appears as the aberration in our history. Rather, it is Barack Obama.
It is hard to enumerate the ways in which a single year of Donald Trump has shredded the fabric of American life. I have focused on race because it seems to me the ultimate issue for our country, and because the appalling wells of unfiltered racism that have burbled up from our simpleton president — a man wreaking daily havoc on us both because and in spite of his utter unfitness and incapacity — have reflected and licensed the worst in us.
We have reached the point where a Roy Moore, on public record as wishing that the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution — the ones abolishing slavery itself, granting citizen rights to African-Americans and equal protection under the law — had never been adopted, could come within an ace of being elected to the United States Senate. Trump himself has, in passing, pined for the era of slavery if not directly for slavery itself, as a golden age of American life. Moore has simply gone him one worse by suggesting that the slaves should never have been freed at all.
It has proved incredibly easy to tear down the common decency on which all our lives depend. If Trump were gone tomorrow, his legacy of hate would take decades to undo, and never be fully expunged. That is the ultimate triumph of the Confederacy, which we tolerated in essence before it became political reality, and which with all it represented poisons us still.
No nation is without blemish, and some bear far worse; think of Germany. We must live with who we are and what we have been, and move forward. Lincoln was right that we must avoid malice, and not hate even the hateful. We must not tolerate them either, though. We have come to this point over a long road, with a deeply inequitable polity grown dysfunctional long before Trump and his would-be handlers arrived to exploit it. We are enduring now what is worst in us. We need to show again what can be best.