It’s not enough to say of these comparisons that they’re ludicrous, which they are. Historical analogies, ideally, shed light on the present by using clear-eyed assessments of the past. The reverse is happening here: The motives and dynamics of present-day actors and actions are being obscured by misunderstanding or willfully misrepresenting the historical record, mostly to make amoral people look heroic. They do so specifically by invoking periods when black struggle against white supremacy was particularly strident. The civil-rights era, the Civil War, apartheid South Africa — all are being decontextualized and reenvisioned as shallow vectors for conflict where every person is interchangeable with whatever modern-day opportunist wishes to lay claim to their legacy, no matter how wildly their ideologies diverge. By this method, dullard white supremacists become pragmatic emancipators. Feckless mobs become principled activists, dissenting out of deep wellsprings of duty felt toward their countrymen. Far from aberrant, this brand of revisionism is quintessentially American. Republican bigots and enablers of oligarchy feel no dissonance when self-aligning with Martin Luther King Jr. on his holiday. Reimagining the Confederates as valiant crusaders for a noble Lost Cause was central to white post–Civil War reunification.
The latter myth’s endurance sheds light on the logic of dissenters waving Confederate flags at the Michigan State Capitol in April. A network of Trump-supporting special-interest groups and advocacy organizations, eager to foment partisan discord, responded to Governor Whitmer’s stay-at-home order by bankrolling a “gridlock” protest — thousands of demonstrators blocking traffic in front of the capitol — aimed at undermining her and recasting public-health common sense as economic tyranny. The protest was amplified by entities ranging from fringe activist Facebook groups to Fox News and the White House. “Liberate Michigan!” Trump tweeted, even though Whitmer was following guidelines promoted by his own epidemiologists. Some protesters waved “Make America Great Again” flags; others brandished the Confederate emblem, including State Senator Dale Zorn, who wore it emblazoned on a protective mask he donned for a legislative session. When asked by Kiyerra Lake, a WLNS reporter, about his accessory, the Republican denied it was the Confederate flag (it was), but qualified that, even if it were, “we should be talking about teaching our national history in schools” because “our kids should know what that flag stands for.”
There are two major strands of Confederate apologist: avowed white supremacists who celebrate the flag for what it is, an emblem of white supremacy, and denialists who insist it represents some nebulously defined white southern “heritage” that has nothing to do with racism, but just so happened to coalesce when the men who flew it waged a war to preserve black enslavement. Zorn seems to be a peculiarly noncommittal proponent of the latter vision. When Lake, the reporter, asked him what he thought the Confederate flag really stood for, he responded with a chuckle, “The Confederacy,” then sheepishly apologized for wearing it later that week. This is consistent with how the flag is often regarded in states, and by people, with no actual connection to the Confederacy. From NPR in 2017:
[Owen] Golay [of Pleasantville, Iowa] says his interest in Civil War history and symbols deepened during the Obama administration, when he felt President Obama was overstepping his executive authority. He says he feels a resonance today with 19th century Southerners’ resistance to what they saw as federal overreach.
“Those people were fighting for states’ rights, and the freedom to make their own way and to choose their own way against a tyrannical federal government,” Golay said.