In fact, no one is talking about ripping the nation apart, although Trump was doing an impressively good job of that.
Unlike the Confederacy’s generals and politicians, for example, Washington and Jefferson didn’t take up arms against the United States government and its people.
Statues that glorify Confederate leaders are themselves an attempt to distort history. Most Confederate monuments were built decades after the war by supporters of “the Lost Cause,” a post-war movement to recast secession as a heroic struggle by slave states against impossible odds — while minimizing the central role of slavery as the war’s main cause.
President Trump knows something about distorting history. He launched his political career, let us not forget, by peddling bogus theories about President Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
He also was not known to have cared much about preserving Confederate statues until a few days after a rally by white supremacists and neo-Nazis in support of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee turned violent in Charlottesville, Va.
Suddenly, the Donald found a new way to pander to his mostly white political base. By fanning suspicions and resentments over how disrespected and dispossessed they are amid changing economic and cultural tides, Trump was willing to turn his historical “party of Abraham Lincoln” into the party of the Confederacy.
The issue of which statues should stand or go should be left up to local governments, not Washington. On issues this sensitive, the closer decision-makers live to the communities effected by the decision, the better.
Statues and other war memorabilia don’t have to be destroyed, in my view, just moved. I think a good model is Memento Park, an open-air museum to which enormous statues of Lenin, Marx and other memorabilia from Hungary’s communist period are displayed in a pleasant, scenic and non-threatening environment.
We also need to distinguish and give even more attention to Confederate monuments that truly are aimed at memorializing history, not distorting it. My favorite example is the only Confederate memorial in Chicago, a 30-foot-high marker in the city’s Oak Woods cemetery on the mass grave of more than 4,000 Confederate soldiers who died at Camp Douglas, a prisoner-of-war camp on the city’s South Side lakefront.
I hadn’t heard about Camp Douglas until my conservative column-writing colleague Patrick Buchanan told me about an ancestor of his who died as a prisoner there. Suddenly, despite our political differences, I felt more connected to Buchanan as a fellow product of American history, for better or worse.
The best history lessons are those that remind us Americans not only of our differences but also of what we share in common.