In truth, civilizational defeat was intrinsic to the formation of America. Europeans did not “discover” terra incognita when they arrived on the shores of the western hemisphere in the late 15th century. Following first contact, three out of four Indigenous persons would be killed in the centuries-long gyre of white colonization. But this genocide was glossed over in tellings of the American story, and for over two hundred years most white Americans considered their worlds indestructible.
Except for white Southerners.
As the great historian (and UNC alum) C. Vann Woodward detailed in a rebuttal to Reinhold Niebhur’s essay “The Irony of American History,” the white South stood as an exception to Americans’ sense that they were a nation with a destiny, a nation that could not be cowed by any force. That cognizance of vulnerability was forged in fire during the Civil War and the ensuing destruction of the Southern slave society that has been documented most brilliantly by William Faulkner. White Southerners had seen their world collapse, and as a result they did not share in the naivete that allowed most white Americans to bestride the globe thinking they could do no wrong. Woodward called this “The Irony of Southern History.”
Southerners tried to throw off the burden of that irony by adopting what the Texas-born intellectual Michael Lind called a “jingoisitic hyper-Americanism.” The over-the-top nationalism and fervent support for military interventions one sees in the South represents not only an effort by the white South to reconcile itself with an American nation it rebelled against, but also an attempt to capture some of the magic that pervades the northern spirit. But this jingoism merely covered a more fundamental ethos in the white South. Where most Americans looked upon the world with a basic optimism, the white South has long born the burden of pessimism and defeat.
White Southerners’ lugubrious outlook takes forms as jaunty as “The South Will Rise Again” and as folksy as “Hell No I Ain’t Fergettin.” In the South, the past never ends. And this underlying bitterness has long been exploited by demagogues who tapped into the rage that lingers beneath the practiced gentility of post-Civil War Southern society. The north was hardly bereft of haters and rabblerousers–see Father Coughlin. But the South hosted most of the bombast and politicized anger in America until very recently. George Wallace, Theodore Bilbo, Jesse Helms, and the bloodthirsty “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman were representative. Meanwhile, the north gravitated toward optimistic leaders like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
The persistent and even pollyannaish mood in the north predominated for many decades–until it didn’t. What Fareed Zakaria described as a “bitter, pessimistic” style (which he attested he had never seen in America) had long operated in the South. But slowly boiling beneath the surface of conservative northern America was a sense of rage that bubbled over in the Donald Trump campaign. Trump won Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, the home of Ulysses S. Grant.
The forty-fifth president could not have won the industrial north without a spiteful mood among white voters that was ripe for exploitation. When northern factory workers first shifted to the GOP, they were christened “Reagan Democrats” after the famously sunny leader of the 1980’s conservative movement. But this trend reached its apogee because thousands of disaffected, culturally anxious northerners had in effect given up their faith in America.
Why? Well, red America saw the same civilizational defeats that have haunted the Southern pysche for a century and a half. Two failed wars, two financial crises, a devastating opioid epidemic, family breakdown and declining life expectancy wove together with one another to create a sense that the American empire had fallen. Along with these genuine calamities came changes in the face of America, a diversification that threatened the white supremacy atop which these voters had comfortably sat. And reacting to this existential shock, in the northern conservative mind the irony of Southern history took root. In cultural terms, the South had conquered the north.
Perhaps the Old South has risen to primacy and will never relinquish its dominance. But if we are to cleanse this irony from our population, it will not be by restoring a fatuous America greatness that has not existed, if it ever did, for decades during the Reagan era. Like the Old South and its slave economy, the American status quo with its inherent racism and inequity does not deserve to be sugarcoated or brought back at the expense of marginalized groups. The answer to the irony of Southern history is not resurrection. It is reconstruction.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.