In 1863, the Confederate States of America adopted a flag that has come to be called the “Stainless Banner.”
A white flag with a St. Andrew’s Cross in the upper-left corner, the flag was dubbed “the White Man’s Flag” by one of its proposers, the Savannah Morning News editor William Tappan Thompson. What, exactly, is stainless about it? As Thompson wrote, “As a people, we [the Confederacy] are fighting to maintain the heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored races.” The previous Confederate flag, called by some a “servile imitation” of the Union flag, by implication, subordinated the “heaven-ordained” masters. The “stain” that was represented by the previous flag, it’s clear, was the presence of non-whites in the national fabric.
Thaddeus Stevens, a Republican member of Congress in the 1860s and one of the proponents of Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War, was seen by Southern Democrats as racially corrupt, owing in part to rumors of his longstanding relationship with his African-American servant, Lydia Hamilton Smith. The Radical Republican member of Congress Austin Stoneman in the KKK-apologist film Birth of a Nation draws on the insinuations of Stevens’ racial “stain” through his almost ape-like appearance, recalling the racist depictions of those of African descent as less “evolved.” (A disturbingly popular belief still among the self-described “alt-right.”) Stoneman’s relationship with his servant, Lydia Brown, is depicted as manipulative and treacherous. His “cruelty” against his “own” “white” race is the result of the stain of racial conspiracy, his stupidity (emblemitized by his sloping forehead and the associations of “Stone-man”
with a historical remote era, “Stone Age” having been a term invented in the period between the Civil War and the movie’s premiere) becomes the theater for the machinations of the minorities who influence him. Like the many colors of the Union flag, his ultimate fault is trying to further relations between different races. But, though he is “stained” by racial manipulation, he remains, on some level, innocent, due to his apparent stupidity, his evolutionary inbetweeness, and the multi-racial influence of Lydia.
Since Charlottesville and the outrageously racist presidential address that followed, I have been trying to piece together two seemingly unrelated elements of modern Republican politics: the racist strand that has become increasingly important since Barry Goldwater, and the dumbing down of Republican Presidents. Since Nixon (an asshole, but a clever one for the most part), each successive Republican President has been stupider than the last (George H.W. Bush, 41, being a bit of an outlier). Ford, though not elected, kicks it off, Reagan cements this direction, 41 is a fluke, Geo. W. Bush, 43, was famously dim (and also had the simian charm of an Austin Stoneman), and the current President is stupid enough to look directly into the sun even after being warned by onlookers not to do so. Why are they so dumb?
The connection was revealed inadvertently by a caller to Tony Schwartz, the co-author of The Art of the Deal. In a six-minute-long voicemail message, the caller, who claims to be a supporter of the 45th President, excoriates Schwartz for opposing his former “writing partner”. Among the many absurd, conspiracy-driven fantasies the caller lays out, one stuck out to me: “You corrupted the system, and don’t think that we don’t know that George Bush was set up and that was intentional by Barack Obama. And don’t forget Mr. Soros, John Kasich, all the usuals.” Referring to the bank bailout after the crash of 2008, the caller somehow pins the legislation signed by Geo. W. Bush, 43, and supported by both of the then-Senators and presidential candidates Obama and McCain, on the first-term Senator from Illinois. The conspiracy/fantasy operative here also ensnares Jewish people (“Mr. Soros”) for good measure. The import is clear: Behind the curtain of white power, a black man and his Jewish benefactor pull the levers.
The caller concludes with the statement that the Tweeter-in-Chief will “never leave the American people, and we’ll never leave him.” This is pretty questionable, given that he lost the popular vote and has only become more unpopular since taking office. And though we can’t take this anonymous call as representative of any group as such, the message is chilling. It is clear that the stupidest President is also a racist and an enabler of racist demagoguery. But this caller insists she’ll support him no matter what, even if his policies harm huge numbers of whites. Why is support for this dim bulb so strong?
In truth, his stupidity is a part of his appeal, as his ignorance and illogic is an alibi for his white supremacy. It allows him and the Republican presidents before him to do unmitigated harm to the working- and middle-class whites who enable their electoral wins while appearing to be free of blame. It becomes the fault of the black, brown, and Jewish bodies that are the objects of racist derision. To the extent these presidents are complicit in white supremacy, they “don’t understand” what they’re doing. To the extent they harm poorer whites, they are being manipulated by Jews and blacks. They remain, as white people, stainless, as Austin Stoneman did, despite his corruption under the influence of his multi-racial mistress. Whiteness: the ultimate alibi.