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.”