President Donald Trump is fighting to retain people’s right to fly the Confederate battle flag — but many of his own supporters and government have already turned in their swords.
Public polling shows a majority of Americans — including those in the South — now view the Confederate flag as a symbol of racism. Corporate institutions, such as NASCAR, have banned it. Republican leaders, some of them close Trump allies, are behind movements to take it down. Mississippi took the Confederate symbol out of its state flag. On Fox News, Trump’s favorite pundits are talking more about statues than flags. And Trump’s own Defense Department on Friday revealed a policy that effectively bars the flag from military properties.
Even Trump himself in 2015 told reporters that it was time to move the Confederate flag from state capitols to museums.
Yet 2020 Trump has barreled ahead, repeatedly defending the flag as a “freedom of speech” issue, and comparing it this week to “Black Lives Matter” signage. For Trump, the stance is part of a broader strategy to inflame the culture wars around so-called cancel culture, which has enraged conservatives who lament everything from the reimagining of corporate logos, to the vandalization of historical statues, to the censoring of “Golden Girls” episodes because the main characters wore mud masks.
It doesn’t seem, however, that the Confederate flag is anywhere near the top of the list for Trump allies warning of the left’s attempts to erase American culture. Few of Trump’s most avid boosters were even willing to talk about the issue.
“It seems that people have developed the political courage to stand up against him, but [Trump] does stand alone in this,” said Lecia Brooks, chief of staff of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that monitors hate groups.
“I don’t think most conservatives outside of the South have any great love for the Confederate flag,” added one communications strategist who works with conservative activists. “It’s more of a stand you take because if you give an inch, the feeling is they take a mile.”
In the past few weeks, as part of a raging nationwide debate over racism in America, private companies, political figures and government institutions have been revisiting the ways they discuss and represent Black Americans. Some of the resulting changes — Aunt Jemima rebranding its syrup, the Washington football team ditching the “Redskins” moniker — have provoked backlash in conservative circles. But many have coalesced around the opinion that the Confederate flag is a clear symbol of racial divide: it is, after all, the flag of those who fought a losing war against America to uphold slavery.
According to a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday, the majority of Americans, 56 percent, responded that they viewed the Confederate flag as a symbol of racism, compared to 35 percent who view it as a symbol of Southern heritage. Even those in Southern states aren’t as hot on the Confederacy these days — 55 percent of respondents from the South saw the flag as a racist symbol, while 35 percent did not.
Responding to these shifting attitudes, several high-profile institutions with traditionally conservative bases have found ways to remove the Confederate flag from their premises, from outright bans at NASCAR, in the Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy, to the state of Mississippi, which voted to remove the Confederate flag from its state flag back in June. On Friday, the Pentagon released a policy limiting the type of flags flown on Defense Department properties that effectively barred the Confederate flag, though did not single it out specifically — a needle-threading effort widely seen as a way to avoid Trump’s ire.
“We’ve seen tremendous shift in public opinion since the murder of [George] Floyd, and most thinking people can recognize and understand that symbols of the Confederacy are symbols of white supremacy,” said the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Brooks, referencing the recent killing at the hands of Minneapolis police that sparked nationwide protests. “If we hope to make a shift in our country and bring the country together, we have to kind of recognize these symbols and reckon with our past and move forward.”
Trump, Brooks added, does not seem interested in that: “His playbook is to divide, not to bring together.”
Indeed, Trump himself has been increasingly vocal in his defense of the flag.
“I know people that like the Confederate flag and they’re not thinking about slavery,” he told CBS on Tuesday, adding that liberal cancel culture had pushed NASCAR to make the decision to ban Confederate flags from its races. “You go to NASCAR. You had those flags all over the place. They stopped it. I just think it’s freedom of speech, whether it’s Confederate flags or Black Lives Matter or anything else you want to talk about. It’s freedom of speech.”
Trump himself, however, doesn’t have a long history of touting love for the Confederate flag. In 2015, Trump said he thought then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley should remove the flag from the state capitol and put it in a museum. But with his reelection on the line, Trump is recontextualizing his view on the flag in a culture war-friendly manner, hoping to speak to his Republican base.
While the majority of Americans now see the Confederate flag as a racist symbol, 74 percent of Republicans view the flag as representing Southern heritage, according to the Quinnipiac poll, while only 16 percent see it as racist.
Seth Mandel, the executive editor of the right-leaning Washington Examiner magazine, said the flag itself isn’t the problem Trump is trying to highlight.
“Conservatives don’t care about the flag but they care about, say, the slippery slope they might fear about the flag leading to statues leading to other stuff, and his talk of the flag is really meant to remind them of the other stuff, not the flag itself,” he said.
Some Republicans have tried to strike a balance between eliminating Confederate symbology and resisting the forces of “cancel culture,” such as Madison Cawthorn, a 24-year-old who won a Republican congressional primary in North Carolina last month and told Buzzfeed that he viewed Confederate statues as an affront to the U.S.
“These people seceded from our country,” he said. “They declared war on the United States. I don’t necessarily want to have hero worship for them.”
More likely, a Trump-friendly conservative is more likely to be vocal about everything else being “canceled” these days, from statues of various figures, ranging from former presidents to the Little Mermaid, being defaced and torn down by protesters, to outrage at The New York Times for publishing certain conservative viewpoints, to activists looking to cancel The Star-Spangled Banner as the national anthem, even pointing out that progressives have started going to war against center-left public figures for fretting about freedom of speech — but not the Confederate flag itself.
“It’s the same with Goya,” said Mandel, referring to Trump’s recent Oval Office endorsement of the canned-foods company, giving a thumbs-up next to an array of budget-friendly beans spread across the Resolute Desk after liberal activists called for boycotts following the Goya CEO praise for Trump. “He doesn’t care about beans, he cares about cancel culture because his base does.”
“The key here is that Trump is finding ways to signal that cancel culture is not just bad but raging and aiming mostly at conservatives,” he added. “That’s more or less true, even if using Goya as an example isn’t.”