- - Wednesday, January 20, 2021

“Democracy has prevailed,” declared Joseph R. Biden Jr. in his inaugural address on a bright Washington afternoon.

Indeed, Americans who were elated to see Donald Trump exit the White House must have felt as if rays of sunshine bathed their faces when Mr. Biden swore the oath of office. For millions of the former president’s devoted supporters, the day was as disappointing as it was celebratory for Democrats.

Hoping to put the zero-sum political rancor of the Trump presidency in the past, the new president called for an end to America’s “uncivil war.”

“Disagreement must not lead to disunion. And I pledge this to you: I will be a president for all Americans. And I promise you, I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did,” Mr. Biden said.

It seems certain, however, that we will continue to talk and think about Mr. Trump, at least in the short term. For starters, his impeachment trial is coming soon in the Senate. Moreover, the reality TV entertainer turned populist politician was, love or loathe him, a consequential president whose impact will ripple through politics as Mr. Biden attempts to establish his own style of leadership.

How long what is already called Trumpism remains a force in American politics may depend on the strength of the Trump narrative of a stolen election, as historian David Blight explained in a New York Times editorial.

In this view, Trumpism is not a laundry list of policies or a governing philosophy. It is a story. And the Trump story upon which the former president’s future political fortunes may depend is: the election was stolen in a massive defrauding of the vote count, stolen from patriotic Americans who were already denigrated by the Washington establishment and condescending, powerful elites.

In assessing the potential lifespan and potency of the Trumpist story, Blight pointed to a nineteenth-century narrative that was also based on fantasy rather than reality.

The Lost Cause, invented by the survivors of the Confederacy, was the prevailing myth of the post-Civil War United States. It had an enormous, multi-generational effect on society as it redefined the cause of secession while turning the attempted dismembering of the United States into a noble cause.

Blight’s point is if the myth of a stolen election endures, it would also have a corrosive influence on the country’s efforts to recover a modicum of political civility and cooperation.
In Episode 2 of History As It Happens, Civil War-era scholar Edward Ayers, president emeritus of the University of Richmond, said whether Trumpism survives as a narrative depends on an array of factors.

“President Trump had been laying the groundwork for this since his own election (in 2016) in which he declared, even though he won, the election had been rigged,” Ayers said. “I would point out that the scales of the Confederacy and of Trumpism are of entirely different orders of magnitude. But… the parallels are certainly there.

“Nothing endures like a story,” said Ayers, comparing the significant numbers of Americans who believe Trump really won the 2020 election to the persistence of the myth that the South seceded and fought the Civil War over states’ rights.

“No historian has said that for generations and yet it endures,” the 2004 Bancroft Prize-winning scholar said. 

At this early stage, Trumpism has not accrued the monuments, statues, and literature that turned the Lost Cause story into Americans’ mistaken memory of the Civil War, but the comparison should focus our minds on the power of narrative in politics, especially in a post-truth United States.

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