I’ll never understand why America came to view Gone With the Wind differently than Birth of a Nation.
The film Birth of a Nation promoted the message that African Americans were subhuman and incapable of being in government. It depicted the Ku Klux Klan as heroes and became a recruitment tool for the group. When it was released in 1915, it was a huge hit—at first. But then the civil rights side of the argument carried the point, and the film has been banned, its filmmaker discredited.
Gone With The Wind, mind you, has the same message, but it remains a classic. Is it because of Clark Gable’s crooked smile? Or Vivien Leigh’s gorgeous dresses?
It is not a coincidence that Gone With The Wind has the same message as Birth of a Nation—both were based on novelist Thomas Dixon Jr’s vision. Birth of a Nation was the movie version of his novel, The Clansmen. Historian Heather Cox Richardson explains that Gone With The Wind‘s author Margaret Mitchell was also enamored by Dixon’s novels. GWTW carried Dixon’s message: that white plantation owners were wronged by ending slavery, and that their former slaves should never have been allowed to vote.
The sentiments expressed by Mitchell in GWTW are no longer kosher to express freely. But when I recently read it, it was startling how many of those sentiments still do shine through among today’s MAGA Right. Granted, we are no longer fighting over slavery. Granted, Republicans and Democrats have more-or-less switched places. But if you leave out these historical specificities, and focus on just the attitudes Mitchell gives voice to, a lot of MAGA politics is suddenly explicable.
Why does the MAGA Right continue to believe that Trump won, despite all the audits and lawsuits proving the opposite? Why do they insist on seeing African Americans demanding justice as terrorists—and murderers such as Derek Chauvin and Kyle Rittenhouse as heroes? Why does right-wing rhetoric frame the Biden Presidency as a foreign occupation? Why do they constantly whip themselves up into a state of grievance? I would recommend reading GWTW to anyone wanting to understand these puzzles.
The novel begins a few days after Confederate forces have fired at Fort Sumter. Sixteen year old Scarlett O’Hara is at Tara, her father’s plantation in Clayton County, Georgia. Symbolism is heavy in the author’s mind as she describes the plantation as having “savagely red land” with “pleasant […] white houses”, and “sinister dark forests” just over the way that threaten to reclaim them.
Manliness and victimhood
Recently, Michael Anton, an essayist and national security official under Trump, fantasized about civil war between Texas and California, paragon states for Red and Blue America. In it, he said that he would bet on Texas—due to California’s “long experiment with postmodern deracination and anti-masculinity”.
He shares this fixation on masculinity with Scarlett’s compatriots. They, too, confused manliness for prowess in war.
In the first pages of the novel, young men of the County are itching for war to start. They have formed troops, outfitted by the wealthy plantation owners, that perform drills with horses and guns; brawling and drinking alongside.
Talk of Yankee cowardice thrills the guests at a County barbecue. “One Southerner can lick twenty Yankees,” they say. “Gentleman always fight better than rabble—we could lick them in a month!”
War-fever is so strong that the men whip themselves up into a lather about perceived insults by Lincoln. “Shouting about states’ rights” forms the main entertainment for the menfolk at the barbecue.
Staying angry is a way to keep war-fever going—much like a drunken brawler at a bar might pick a fight by saying a stranger looked at them wrong. This is how, as the author masterfully depicts, chest-thumping and outrage keep each other going in a spiraling cycle until war breaks out: Confederate aggression lubricated by stories of victimhood.
A similar set of trumped-up (forgive me) grievances fill the prime-time hours on Fox News today, from the “war on Christmas” to anger about mask mandates. Fox News has served as the engine of right-wing victimhood since the 1990s; as in GWTW, stories of victimhood only serve to lubricate their aggression.
The chest-thumping part of aggression is never very far under the surface. The MAGA Right even sees winning elections as a manly act. This is why they convinced themselves that Biden could not win from his basement, and that Trump, who they saw as the more masculine of the two, would beat him handily. This is why they reacted to the raw displays of emotion from US Capitol police at the January 6 hearing by essentially calling them pussies.
Honor and lies
In Scarlett’s Georgia, truth has become tribal, and even lies can be patriotic. Captain Rhett Butler, a cynical blockade-runner, finds this out the hard way.
At the barbecue where guests are awash in triumphalism about impending war, Butler warns that the South has no hope of seceding. Although they are drunk on the mythology of “King Cotton”, they have no factories, no immigrants to enlist, no way to sell their cotton across Yankee blockades.
“I have seen many things that you all have not seen. The thousands of immigrants who’d be glad to fight for the Yankees for food and a few dollars, the factories, the foundries, the shipyards, the iron and coal mines–all the things we haven’t got. Why, all we have is cotton and slaves and arrogance. They’d lick us in a month.”– Captain Rhett Butler, Gone With The Wind
The County folk are insulted by Butler’s words—more so because they are true. “He thinks the boys are a passel of fools,” Scarlett thinks. Others call him an arrogant devil.
As the war proceeds, he is proven right. Families lose their sons; women sacrifice their family jewels; soldiers return broken from the war. The privation only makes their patriotism grow stronger, as now the Cause has been fed with the blood of young men.
Unfazed, Rhett Butler says that their blood no more sanctifies the war than a train running over someone would sanctify the railroad company.
The worthies of the town are in no mood to weigh truth or falsehood when it comes to such disloyal sentiments. Their identities are wrapped up in the Cause. Some fight on the battlefield, while others fight on the field of narrative—that is their contribution to the war effort. Thus, it is not about truth or falsehood, but about whether Butler is joining the war effort on the field of narrative.
Butler is labeled a traitor and a viper and banished from polite society.
In much the same way, faithfulness to the MAGA narrative is strictly enforced today. People who buck the narrative are called “cucks” and “RINOs” and wagons circle around them. Truth or falsehood rarely enter into it, the point is for their compatriots to join battle on the field of narrative.
Bucking the MAGA narrative is exactly why Liz Cheney was ousted from her leadership position back in May; but she is only the most recent in the long line of ostracized Never-Trumpers. The fury with which any conservative who doesn’t kowtow to Trump is shunned is the same fury with which Rhett Butler was shunned in the story.
Some remarkable passages in GWTW describe vigilante justice against Blacks in the South, that became organized into the Ku Klux Klan.
The war is over; the young hotbloods of prior chapters—Scarlett’s childhood friend Tony Fontaine among them—have returned home, demoralized. The Yankees have begun the process known as Reconstruction, which was an attempt to secure the freed slaves’ status by giving them voting rights and permitting them to hold elected office.
But the Confederates, though defeated, have not accepted that their former slaves should be given a say in their society. They see the state of Georgia as “theirs” and the Yankees as an occupying army. To Scarlett,
Reconstruction [felt] as if the house were ringed about by naked savages, squatting in breech clouts. […] The negroes were on top and behind them were the Yankee bayonets.
“It isn’t to be borne!” Tony Fontaine says. He has just killed a man, and is on the run from Yankee forces. Scarlett and her husband see Tony’s actions as entirely justified: the man he has killed was a Yankee who stirred up the freed slaves by telling them they had the right to vote—the gall—and that they had the right to white women.
One of those “stirred up” freed slaves has said something lascivious to a woman named Sally, Tony Fontaine’s sister-in-law. Frightened, Sally screams, and Fontaine vows to avenge her.
Scarlett describes her fear crossing a shanty town of freed slaves, the poorest of the poor, that has sprung up near her home in Atlanta. In her words, “shootings and cuttings went on here with such regularity that the authorities seldom troubled to investigate and generally left the Shantytowners to settle their own dark affairs.”
Scarlett fears being raped and killed by the newly “stirred-up” freed slaves; while her protectors, the menfolk of the County, the ex-Confederate soldiers who are her childhood friends, are hunted and hung for the crime of protecting her. In the midst of her fear, the boldness of these men heartens her. Violent blood is in all of them, she acknowledges, just beneath the surface.
She and her husband outfit Tony with a new horse and help him escape.
Margaret Mitchell depicts the mindset behind vigilante justice perfectly. Rather than it being about due process or objectivity, the mindset is one of tribalism. Tony Fontaine is one of their own and must be protected. He may have murdered, but he murdered one of them; one of an irretrievably foreign, undifferentiated mass of people, whose very presence is a threat. For one of ours, infinite understanding; for one of theirs, a single accusation is enough.
I don’t need to belabor the point but vigilante justice is not justice at all. It is “justice” turned into a tool of oppression. A similar word of complaint from a female relative led to the gruesome murder of Emmet Till, a Black fourteen-year-old boy, three-quarters of a century after Tony Fontaine’s fictional run. His accuser had lied.
Three-quarters of a century after Emmet Till, the mindset of vigilante justice lives on. For each police killing of a black man, the right-wing press performs a surround-sound defamation of the victim. Sometimes his hoodie marks him out to be a criminal. Sometimes it is that he inspected a construction site while jogging. Or reached for his wallet too quickly. If he had ever used drugs, all of that is excavated.
None of these facts about their biography could justify murdering them. But much like for Scarlett, the very presence of these black men is considered a threat. Communities close ranks around their murderers and some even become heroes.
Ownership and self-determination
MAGAs like to insist they are not racist. Scarlett’s compatriots would likely have had you believe the same.
It is true that some beloved characters in the book were black slaves. This is not shocking or surprising, and probably occurred outside of fiction too. Humans are complex and form relationships despite everything.
Mammy is Scarlett’s nurse. She loves and firmly guides Scarlett throughout her travails. Uncle Peter is a family servant to Pitty, Scarlett’s aunt-by-marriage. He is depicted as a wise elder who advises the family on the correct ways, and instructs the scatter-brained Pitty on every aspect of her life. Scarlett’s father Gerald likes to josh around with his valet, Pork. The book is filled with such examples.
These—shall we say—upbeat portrayals of slavery (much different than an earlier novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, also a bestseller) have come under heavy criticism in modern times, and rightly so.
But let me show you how GWTW betrays itself despite this upbeat portrayal.
Scarlett’s compatriots accept it as a given that their former slaves must never, ever, be allowed to vote. In fact, after the war is over, their main beef with the Yankees is that the Yankees force the Negro vote on their state. After calling their former slaves “out of hand,” the narrator goes on:
[…] there had been hell to pay since the legislature refused to ratify the [14th or 15th?] amendment. The stout refusal had been like a slap in the face of the furious North and retaliation had come swiftly. The North was determined to force the negro vote on the state and, to this end, Georgia had been declared in rebellion and put under the strictest martial law.– Gone With The Wind, chapter XLIV
It turns out that these former slaves are only beloved while they are subjugated.
The sentiment is best represented in the words of Aunt Pitty, a mild, fluttery elderly lady, who says this about her family servant Uncle Peter:
My dear, they want to let the darkies vote! Did you ever hear of anything more silly? Though–I don’t know–now that I think about it, Uncle Peter has much more sense than any Republican I ever saw and much better manners but, of course, Uncle Peter is far too well bred to want to vote. But the very notion has upset the darkies till they’re right addled.Aunt Pitty, Gone With The Wind
In other words, in order to be considered “well-bred”, freed slaves had to relinquish their right to self-determination. Tony Fontaine, the murderer on the run, clarifies further. About the Yankee scoundrel he has killed, he says that his worst flaw was how he “stirred up” the freed slaves:
[…] the way he kept the darkies stirred up. If anybody had told me I’d ever live to see the day when I’d hate darkies! Damn their black souls, they believe anything those scoundrels tell them and forget every living thing we’ve done for them. Now the Yankees are talking about letting the darkies vote. And they won’t let us vote. Why, there’s hardly a handful of Democrats in the whole County who aren’t barred from voting, now that they’ve ruled out every man who fought in the Confederate Army. And if they give the negroes the vote, it’s the end of us. Damn it, it’s our state! It doesn’t belong to the Yankees!Tony Fontaine, Gone With The Wind
In other words, their freed slaves are beloved as long as they shut up and dribble.
This is not to say that Laura Ingraham, who said that about LeBron James, literally wants to enslave him.
But, leaving aside actual ownership, the MAGA attitude towards Black athletes comes across as a desire for their subjugation. Whether it is Colin Kaepernick kneeling to protest police brutality, or Simone Biles withdrawing under enormous pressure for mental health reasons, it is clear that the MAGA reaction towards these stars is resentment at their right of self-determination. They clearly consider it an imposition to be asked to consider their feelings at all.
Legitimacy of elections
Most Trump supporters have still not accepted that Trump lost in November 2020. There have been upwards of sixty lawsuits, audit after audit, in state after state. There has been no evidence of fraud found, but they still keep looking, with no end in sight, trusting a pillow salesman over myriad election experts.
This is not a mission for getting at the truth. It is a hunt for justifications for their a priori certainty that Trump either won outright, or ought to have won.
Curiously, most of the recount efforts center on counties with high African American populations. It’s only those “urban” votes that they have such a priori distrust of. If only MAGAs had Margaret Mitchell’s ability to dismiss the entire non-white electorate by calling them “trainloads”, and be done with it!
Here is how Mitchell describes the election of Rufus Bullock, a Yankee, as the Governor of Georgia in 1868:
The Southern Democrats had General John B. Gordon, one of Georgia’s best loved and most honored citizens, as their candidate. Opposing him was a Republican named Bullock. The election had lasted three days instead of one. Trainloads of negroes had been rushed from town to town, voting at every precinct along the way. Of course, Bullock had won. If the capture of Georgia by Sherman had caused bitterness, the final capture of the state’s capitol by the Carpetbaggers, Yankees and negroes caused an intensity of bitterness such as the state had never known before. Atlanta and Georgia seethed and raged.Gone With The Wind, Chapter XLVII
Margaret Mitchell could be channeling Trump. Notice how easily she dismisses the votes of Blacks by merely calling them “trainloads” as if their sheer numbers disqualify them. Notice how easily she dismisses the votes of “Carpetbaggers, Yankees, and negroes” without even feeling the need to “prove fraud”, as MAGA Republicans have spent upwards of nine months since November 2020 trying to do, with more and more outlandish theories, from Chinese-printed ballots to votes manipulated in Italy.
Hers was a simpler time.
Beneath the façade of the voter fraud narrative, however, MAGA attitudes are much the same. During US Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn’s testimony to Congress, he described an altercation with the insurrectionists on January 6th. At first, they said to him that “nobody” had voted for Biden—which sounds like a voter fraud narrative. But when he revealed that he, an African American, had—“Does my vote not count? Am I a nobody?“—they threw racial epithets at him; showing that despite their insistence that voter fraud occurred on a massive scale, underneath it, their attitudes are much the same as Margaret Mitchell’s—they don’t think that Blacks have a moral right to vote in their country, the hunt for fraud is just window-dressing.
Mitchell’s compatriots never accepted Governor Bullock as legitimate. Conspiracy theories about corruption dogged him until he was forced to resign; those conspiracy theories influenced views about him right up until the 1990s. As a matter of fact, he was straightforwardly hated because he favored voting rights for freed slaves and fought back the Ku Klux Klan.
Meanwhile, his opponent John B. Gordon, who Margaret Mitchell speaks of in glowing terms in the excerpt above? Several historians have concluded that he was the secret head of the Georgia Ku Klux Klan.
Government spending and white grievance
One could make a justifiable claim that it was the passage of Obamacare that set wheels in motion that later elected Trump, as an avatar of white grievance, to the Presidency.
Think back to 2010. The battle over Obamacare led to angry town halls and the rise of the Tea Party movement. Even though Obamacare’s provisions were designed to be market-friendly, Tea Party members claimed to be fighting for libertarian ideals, which they claimed were being trashed by the new healthcare law.
The Tea Party movement led to the election of some of the farthest right members of Congress, who formed the House Freedom Caucus. Many of these same class-of-2010 members later became Trump’s closest allies: Jim Jordan, Mick Mulvaney, Mark Meadows, Ron DeSantis. Trump was many things, but a libertarian, he was not. Some of its current members incited the Jan 6 insurrection: Mo Brooks and Andy Biggs. One of the activist leaders of Tea Party Express, Amy Kremer, later showed up as an organizer of the January 6 rally to overturn the 2020 election in favor of Trump.
The GOP base seemed utterly misled about what Obamacare did or didn’t do. We saw them thunder that Obamacare would institute “death panels” to finish off grandma. We saw them hold up signs that said, “keep your government hands off my Medicare”. Meanwhile Birtherism spread like wildfire amid this same group, with Trump as the Pied Piper, questioning Obama’s legitimacy to be President at all. Memes of Obama as an ape, Obama being lynched, etc. spread among the Tea Party grassroots.
But why such overheated rhetoric—with language evoking murder and judgment and blood-and-soil legitimacy—around a law that ultimately was a market-friendly set of regulations? What does opposition to government spending have to do with white grievance?
Obama’s race was not incidental to the reaction against Obamacare. Some passages in Gone With The Wind make it all make sense. Here’s how Mitchell describes the first Black Congressmen to ever get elected to office:
These negroes sat in the legislature where they spent most of their time eating goobers and easing their unaccustomed feet into and out of new shoes. Few of them could read or write. They were fresh from cotton patch and canebrake, but it was within their power to vote taxes and bonds as well as enormous expense accounts to themselves and their Republican friends. And they voted them. The state staggered under taxes which were paid in fury, for the taxpayers knew that much of the money voted for public purposes was finding its way into private pockets.– Gone With The Wind, Chapter LII
Mitchell here gives voice to a very explicit reframing of the narrative about Reconstruction by former slaveholders and their sympathizers that took place years after. Historians including Heather Cox Richardson and Eric Foner have written about this attempt at great length.
In How the South won the Civil War, Richardson calls this the “resurrection of antebellum southern ideology”. It “depicted Reconstruction as a misguided attempt to give African American men voting rights that they were entirely unequipped to exercise”.
Eric Foner writes:
Mythologies about black officeholders formed a central pillar of this outlook. Their alleged incompetence and venality illustrated the larger “crime” of Reconstruction–placing power in the hands of a race incapable of participating in American democracy. […] The incapacity of black officials justified the violence of the Ku Klux Klan and the eventual disenfranchisement of Southern black voters.– Rooted in Reconstruction, Eric Foner
In reality, the Black legislators elected to office in those years tended to institute policies that benefited the poor, like public schools—the south did not have public schools before the Civil War—and land for former slaves, with higher taxes on the wealthy. Today, we would call this democratic socialism.
It was the higher taxes on the plantation owners that stuck in their craw—and often led to violence. “One-third of all of the race riots in 1873 occurred the week before a local election“. Much of the plot of the latter half of GWTW is predicated on the higher taxes Scarlett needed to pay to keep her plantation. The idea that our hard-earned money should go to the upkeep of one of them animated terrorist attacks by the KKK in the late 1800s. The same idea animated the Tea Party in the 2010s; most of the Tea Party wing later reincarnated as Trump’s strongest supporters.
The argument I have laid out above—that today’s MAGA right are the inheritors of the Confederacy—was brought into stark relief when a Capitol insurrectionist with a confederate flag walked past a portrait of Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts Senator from the 1850s…on January 6th, Sen. Sumner’s birthday.
Sumner would have understood MAGA rage better than most—because he felt it on his back. He was caned on the floor of the Senate by pro-slavery Senator Preston Brooks; the caning nearly killed him. When he recovered from the caning, as historian Joanne Freeman recounts, he gave a speech going through “years of Southern bullying & violence, threat by threat, beating by beating, building a narrative of violence[…]”. If he had been alive today, he would have had no trouble adding Trump’s MAGA insurrection to his list.
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