Charles Booker and Senator Rand Paul

Booker, Trumpism, and neo-Confederate Rand Paul

Berry Craig
Berry Craig

The Civil War's outcome was still in doubt in July, 1864. But President Abraham Lincoln got some welcome news from the battlefield.

Gen. William T. Sherman's army had twice whipped Confederate forces on the outskirts of strategic Atlanta (which Sherman would capture in early September).

The Republican Party of "Lincoln and Liberty" led the Union to victory over the Confederacy, which had been founded on the twin pillars of slavery and white supremacy. The Republicans also championed constitutional amendments that ended slavery, made African Americans citizens, and extended the vote to Black men.

But 100 Julys after Sherman’s twin triumphs, the GOP started turning Confederate gray. That's according to Heather Cox Richardson’s book, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America.

“The moment in July 1964 when Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater took the stage at the Cow Palace outside San Francisco and beamed at the cheering Republicans who had just nominated him for president is iconic – but not for the reasons we remember,” the Boston College historian wrote.

“….It marked the resurrection of an old political movement by a modern political party. In Goldwater’s time, people claiming to be embattled holdouts defending American liberty called themselves ‘Movement Conservatives.’ A century before, their predecessors called themselves Confederates.”

Her book was published in 2020, before Biden beat Trump – and by the same electoral vote margin Trump notched over Hillary Clinton. But the book is still timely because we don't know if Trumpism is dying by degrees or gathering steam for a comeback in 2022 and 2024.

When Trump won in 2016, he tore away “whatever genteel veneer remained on Republican ideology” and avidly sought “the support of white supremacists,” Richardson wrote.

While he lost last year, Trump carried nine of the 11 former Confederate states. He claimed border states Missouri and Kentucky in blowouts. (More on Kentucky in a minute.)

Meanwhile, it’s no coincidence that some of the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol in Trump’s name last January 6 packed Confederate flags. Confederate flags still fly in tandem with Trump flags here and there in Kentucky and elsewhere in Trump country.

On vacation in the Smokies this summer, I spotted Confederate flags flanking the Swain County, N.C., Republican Party tent at Independence Day festivities in Bryson City, the county seat. (Though the vote was close in North Carolina, Trump rolled in Swain County.)

Trump won't be on the ballot next year, but a slew of his sycophants will. They include Republican Rand Paul, Kentucky's junior senator.

Rand Paul, neo-Confederate

Kentucky didn’t secede. But Paul sometimes sounds like he’s running for the Confederate Senate. (Kentucky had phony Confederate “senators” and “congressmen” via a bogus Confederate government, whose “capital” was Bowling Green, which happens to be Paul’s hometown.)

So far, three Democrats — Charles Booker, Ruth Gao, and Joshua Blanton Sr. — have tossed hats in the ring for their party's primary next May. Right now, Booker, a former state representative from Louisville, is the favorite to win and earn the right to take on Paul.  (The filing deadline isn't until January.)

Paul, it will be recalled, said he would have voted against the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. He defended one of his staffers who admired the Confederacy, sported a Confederate flag wrestling mask, and bragged that he toasted Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth's every May 10, Booth's birthday.

Paul also stalled a federal anti-lynching bill in the Senate. He made an “F” on the current NAACP Civil Rights Federal Legislative Report Card.

“I guess I should be surprised at the extent to which Paul is trying to marginalize Charles Booker in such starkly racist terms,” said Murray State University historian Brian Clardy. “But I’m not, and it’s going to get worse.”

Paul is white; Booker is African American. Paul called Booker his “racial left opponent.”

Paul, a hard-right, tea-party-tilting libertarian, evidently figures race-baiting will help him win a third term in 87.5-percent white, conservative, Bible Belt, mostly rural Kentucky. It helped do the trick for Trump, who pandered, non-stop nationwide, to racism — and sexism, misogyny, nativism, xenophobia, homophobia and religious bigotry — both times he ran.

Both times Trump won 118 of 120 Kentucky counties – all but Jefferson (Louisville) and Fayette (Lexington). (Sen. Mitch McConnell, who’s no slouch at dog-whistle politics, pocketed all but Jefferson, Fayette, and Franklin (Frankfort) counties last year. The NAACP also graded McConnell an "F.")

Confederate values spread to the Southwest and California

Richardson wrote that Southern notions of white supremacy spread westward after the Civil War and beyond. (Goldwater was from Arizona; Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were Californians.)

“Like the antebellum South, society in the West was hierarchical, according to race, class, and gender,” she wrote. White westerners “kept alive the same vision of the world that had inspired the Confederates.”

While the South loomed large in American society in the early 19th-century, the West did likewise in the late 20th-century, according to Richardson.

In the pre-Civil War South and post-war West, “rich men attempted to garner power through words and images that convinced American voters that extending the right of self-determination to people of color, women, and poor Americans would destroy it for white men.”

White southerners cried “states’ rights!”- meaning the right of states to enslave Black southerners.  White Westerners shouted for "individual liberty!” - meaning their freedom to kill native Americans, steal their land, and force them onto reservations.  

From the party of Lincoln to the party of Trumpism

When the Republicans founded their party in the 1850s, they said that slavery was evil and un-Christian. They argued that, at the very least, Uncle Sam had the power to limit slavery's spread into the federal territories out West. Abolitionist Republicans believed that the federal government could — and should — end slavery immediately.

"The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities," Lincoln said. President Franklin D. Roosevelt used that Lincolnism to build support for his sweeping anti-Depression New Deal program.

Though the New Deal was hugely popular, Movement Conservatives slamming it as "socialistic." Sound familiar?

They argued that "people should be free to operate however they wished, without interference from government bureaucrats and regulations," Richardson wrote. "They hated that the government had taken on popular projects since the 1930s. Highways, dams, power plants, schools, hospitals and social welfare legislation cost tax dollars.

"This, they warned, amounted to a redistribution of wealth from hardworking white men to the poor, often poor people of color. Such a dangerous trend toward activist government had to be stopped before it destroyed the liberty on which America was based."

Such is the warp and weave of Trumpism.

Wrote Richardson: “The Movement Conservatives who had taken over the Republican Party to enact their vision, slashing regulations and taxes on the wealthy, establishing government policies to benefit party leaders and people with money, and arranging public policy to remand the real majority of Americans to positions in which they could never rise” made the Trump era look “a lot like…1860.”

The Confederate con lives on in today's Republican party

The slaveholder-Confederates conned poor whites into believing that their skin hue alone made them superior to Blacks and that the abolitionist movement up North threatened their white privilege, too.

It was a zero-sum grift. The slavocracy and its allies in politics, the press, and the pulpit told less well-heeled whites that anything that lifted up Blacks, inherently pulled whites down. Poorer whites, most of them, believed their "betters" and dreamed of becoming rich slaveholders.  

"Planters staved off popular distrust of their growing power by insisting that those who opposed them were trying to make black people free,” Richardson wrote. “To secure voters who were increasingly dissatisfied with their own economic opportunities, slave owners steadily dehumanized black Americans and ratcheted up their appeals to white supremacy.”

Trump and the Trumpians are doing likewise, Clardy said.

“Does anybody honestly think Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul and members of the conservative Republican aristocracy give a rip about the average American, white or Black?” Clardy added.

The Republicans are continuing the scam concocted by the Southern planter aristocracy and carried forward by rich Western ranchers and mine owners, Clardy said. "Instead of addressing policies that benefit people across the social and economic gamut, they use these hot button issues to rile up working class whites – issues like school choice, the Second Amendment, family values, abortion — that’s code — and now Critical Race Theory, that’s a big one, that’s the big bogeyman now.”

Said Clardy: "While the Republicans tell working class whites that these dark folks over here are threatening your way of life so you’ve got to keep us in power, they're picking their pockets and convincing them to vote against their own self-interest.”

LBJ, a Texan who knew the South well, famously said, "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."

Can Booker overcome both Trumpism and the neo-Confederate Paul?

Kentucky is hardly a wealthy state. But Trump won more than 62 percent of the vote both times he ran. He won several rural counties by 80 percent or more.

No matter, Booker's Hood to the Holler website says he aims to "break new ground and form new coalitions for economic and racial justice, climate justice and more – even in the most unlikely of places."

If Booker, a liberal even by national standards, is the Democratic nominee, Republican Red Kentucky would seem among “the most unlikely of places” for a Democratic pickup a year from November.

No matter the outcome, a Booker v. Paul matchup would provide Kentuckians the most dramatic choice between political candidates since August, 1861. That's when voters went to the polls to elect a new legislature that would decide if the Bluegrass State would stick with the Union or join what South Carolina, the first state to secede, praised as "a Confederacy of Slaveholding States."

The Union Party won big over the States Rights or secessionist party. Though divided in sentiment, Kentucky remained loyal to the Stars and Stripes. A whole lot more Kentucky men donned Yankee blue than rebel gray.

But right now, it looks like the neo-Confederate Paul is the clear, if not prohibitive, favorite over Booker or whoever else might get the Democratic nod.

Booker must know the steep odds against him. But he seems undaunted. "We fight for power to heal, transform, and build communities rooted in love and justice, rather than hate," says his "Hood to the Holler" website. "It’s not gonna get better unless we fight for it," says a new Booker for Senate fundraising email.

Booker has come out swinging. After Paul called Booker his "racial left opponent," in an email, the Democrat sent an email to his supporters, which included a copy of the email.

"Rand Paul is saying the quiet part out loud about how he feels seeing an opponent like me enter the race,” Booker said. "It’s clear that their plan is to weaponize hate. They want to hurt our chances of winning by smearing our campaign’s vision as radical.”

Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., had an answer for demagogues like Paul when they trot out the "radical" smear. "What is right has always been called radical by those with a stake in things that are wrong," said the decorated veteran World War II bomber pilot when he ran for president 1972.

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Commentary

Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)


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