What history can teach us about some GOP leaders' January 6 denialism

What history can teach us about some GOP leaders' January 6 denialism

Tuesday’s public hearing investigating the January 6, 2021, insurrection examined efforts to gather a mob on the mall prior to the deadly siege of the US Capitol – efforts that included a massive disinformation campaign that told Donald Trump’s followers that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen from them.

Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who helped lead the seventh hearing, snapped into focus the dangers of the January 6 attack by referencing the violence of the 19th century.

“In 1837, a racist mob in Alton, Illinois, broke into the offices of an abolitionist newspaper and killed its editor, Elijah Lovejoy,” Raskin said.

He then described Abraham Lincoln’s reaction to the murder. Lincoln was a member of the Illinois state legislature at the time.

“If racist mobs are encouraged by politicians to rampage and terrorize, Lincoln said, they’ll violate the rights of other citizens and quickly destroy the bonds of social trust necessary for democracy to work,” Raskin said. “Mobs and demagogues will put us on a path to political tyranny.”

Even one-and-half years after the breach, some GOP leaders continue to spread the lie that the 2020 contest was stolen. Consider Michigan Republican gubernatorial hopeful Ryan Kelley, who just days before the seventh hearing mischaracterized the riot, which he was involved in, as a “First Amendment activity.”

“We were there protesting the government because we don’t like the results of the 2020 election,” Kelley said during a Republican candidates debate last Wednesday. “The 2020 election in the state of Michigan was fraudulent, and it was stolen from President Trump.”

The testimony of a former Oath Keeper also was illuminating.

Jason Van Tatenhove, a former spokesperson for the Oath Keepers, told the committee on Tuesday that the group is a dangerous militia fueled by violence.

“I spent a few years with the Oath Keepers, and I can tell you that they may not like to call themselves a militia, but they are,” he said.

Leaders of the Oath Keepers have been charged with seditious conspiracy for their alleged actions on January 6.

“I think we saw a glimpse of what the vision of the Oath Keepers is on January 6,” Van Tatenhove said. “It doesn’t necessarily include the rule of law. It includes violence. It includes trying to get their way through lies, through deceit, through intimidation and through the perpetration of violence.”

When asked why he broke away from the group, Van Tatenhove said that at one point, Oath Keepers started claiming that the Holocaust never happened.

“That was it for me. I just could not abide,” he said.

The ongoing attempt to distort the assault on multiracial democracy – to sand the jagged edges so that what remains is a gleaming tale about patriots – has reminded some scholars of the leviathan disinformation campaign that began during the Reconstruction era. Southern apologists sought to spin the Confederacy’s war to preserve human bondage as a principled defense of states’ rights.

To better understand the echoes between this history and our present day, I spoke with Sarah Churchwell, the Chair of Public Understanding of the Humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She’s also the author of the new book, “The Wrath to Come: ‘Gone with the Wind’ and the Lies America Tells,” a creative and powerful blend of cultural analysis and history.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

In your new book, you look at how the US’ histories of mythmaking can help explain contemporary politics, including some Republican leaders’ responses to the January 6 hearings. In particular, you examine Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, “Gone with the Wind.” How can this decades-old story help us understand what’s going on today?

“Gone With the Wind” offers us a relatively compact and contained history of the Civil War and Reconstruction – except backwards and wrong. If you unpack it, it gives us a way into the real history and also gives us the story of the mythologies that built up around that history.

Most important to me, what it adds to our understanding are the emotions that drove that mythmaking and the collective psychology of US society that made “Gone with the Wind” this incredibly popular version of it. So, it gives us the investment in the rewriting of history and an understanding for why that happened, how it happened and what kinds of emotions it reveals about White America and its myths about itself.

What I argue in the book is that “Gone with the Wind” captures the invention of the myth of White victimhood in the US. It imprints it. I trace the emergence of that story about White victimhood and that reversal that said that the real victims of the Civil War and Reconstruction were not Black Americans but in fact White Americans.

I trace that story and the reestablishment of White innocence, because that’s the driving emotion behind the Lost Cause, behind the writing and the rewriting of slavery and Reconstruction and Jim Crow that everything the US does is innocent and righteous, and therefore nobody was wrong in this version of the Civil War, and certainly no White people were.

That emotion also is clearly driving some responses to January 6, for example. We’re getting denialism, a refusal to admit that you could be in the wrong and a willingness to rewrite history to make sure that you don’t ever have to confront the possibility that you could be in the wrong.

What history can teach us about some GOP leaders' January 6 denialism
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What history can teach us about some GOP leaders' January 6 denialism
Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in the 1939 film adaptation of "Gone with the Wind" - Everett Collection
What does “Gone with the Wind” tell us about the connection between mythmaking and misdirection?

Mythmaking is a kind of misdirection. Mythmaking is misinformation. And it’s disinformation, because it’s deliberately deceitful, which is to point at something else and to say, “No, that’s the reality.” It serves the double purpose of convincing you of a lie but also distracting your attention from the truth.

In terms of how we see some of the same mechanisms play out during the hearings, it’s partly this desire for unity at all costs, without thinking about the victims as individuals or groups. There’s also the fact that this desire for unity at all costs does seem in the US always to be racially inflected. There’s no way to get around that. We keep fracturing over questions of racial justice and equality and White supremacism and then pretending that that’s not what we’re fracturing over.

So, the reconciliation is always superficial and fake because we won’t admit what the real problem is, or at least only some of us will say, “We think that this is the problem.”

Scholars increasingly warn about the potential for fresh political violence in the US. What would civil war here look like today?

I think that there’s a strong case to be made that civil war in the US looks like what we’re looking at. It’s an undeclared war. We had an insurrection at the Capitol, and we’ve also learned that the (then-)President wanted to lead an armed militia. He wanted to ride at the front of his army to overtake the Capitol.

We’ve also got armed militias roaming the streets. We have skirmishes that are White supremacist. When there were skirmishes in Bloody Kansas (in the 1850s), those were the early battles that became the Civil War, the battles that lit the spark. And of course, Fort Sumter said officially that it was war. But we don’t really declare wars anymore. It’s actually very, very rare. We just go to war.

And this is being fought in the way that a 21st century war is fought – with disinformation in a disorganized rather than an organized manner, because we don’t have armies mustering on battlefields. We live in a world where wars are not admitted to be wars. But we’re looking at armed militias. We saw it in what I think of as the summer of Trumpism, in uprisings after George Floyd’s murder. We saw it in Trump’s response. We saw it in the militarized police in the streets of Portland. We saw it in all the militarized police violence against Black Americans, and that’s obviously ongoing.

We’re regularly seeing carnage and saying that we’re not in a state of war.

Maybe we’re not. Maybe it’s the preamble to war, and it’s Bloody Kansas. But we’re certainly seeing battles, and militarized ones.

It’s worth pointing out that at the end of “Gone with the Wind,” Scarlett O’Hara is still living in a world of, as you put it, “resistance and delusion, not reunion and forgiveness.” There are those famous closing lines: “Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him (Rhett Butler) back. After all, tomorrow is another day.” What lesson does this insistence on fantasy have for our times?

Well, there is a fantasy, but there’s also a reality that we can recognize in her ending. It’s the most famously sad ending in a romance that I can think of, except maybe apart from “Romeo Juliet.” It’s an iconically sad ending. And yet, you could also argue that there’s a happy ending there, because Scarlett gets what she wants most, which is Tara (the O’Haras’ cotton plantation). She gets to reclaim Tara. And that’s why “I’ll go home to Tara” is such an important line. That’s the real last line. The loss of Rhett, that symbolic division, is less important to the story and to the protagonist than her retention of power. That’s the happy ending. That’s the saving grace, as far as she’s concerned.

What is the lesson? It tells us that the emotional resonance of this story is that retaining power through property is more important than trying to reunify over division, that we’ll take the division if we can reclaim the power and the property.

Brandon Tensley