What Trump and Haley’s Civil War gaffes reveal


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When the Civil War is in the news, it’s almost never a good sign about the health of the republic.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:


An Entirely Different Election

As the Supreme Court prepares to take up questions of Donald Trump’s eligibility to run for president, reporters are poring over transcripts of congressional debate about the post–Civil War Fourteenth Amendment, which bars insurrectionists, including former Confederates, from holding office. Meanwhile, Trump and Nikki Haley are engaging in a less historically literate debate about the conflict.

At a December 27 event in New Hampshire, Haley conspicuously omitted slavery from an answer about the causes of the Civil War, focusing instead on “the freedoms of what people could and couldn’t do.” She later said that this was because she felt it was obvious, adding that as a South Carolinian, she of course knows that slavery was a cause. And she’s right: She does know better. (As the governor of the Palmetto State, she at first didn’t oppose a Confederate battle flag at the state capitol, then changed course after the massacre of Black worshippers at Mother Emanuel Church, in Charleston.) That’s the problem. Haley may have been trying to appeal to the very Lost Cause–friendly national Republican base, but the answer was insulting to voters’ intelligence.

Trump had his own Civil War moment over the weekend, stating during one of his trademark meandering monologues that the war could have been avoided by simple negotiation. “So many mistakes were made. See, there was something I think could have been negotiated, to be honest with you,” Trump said in Iowa. “I think you could have negotiated that. All the people died. So many people died.”

He added, “I know it very well. I know the whole process that they went through.” That’s doubtful—this is a man who showed no familiarity with Frederick Douglass as recently as 2017, and who has given little indication that he’s spending his post-presidency boning up on his historical reading.

Though he mocked Haley’s answer as “three paragraphs of bullshit,” a refusal to acknowledge slavery’s role in the war is at the core of Trump’s gaffe too: A negotiated settlement was unlikely, because the southern states were determined to continue enslaving Black people, and any negotiation that allowed that to continue would have been barbaric. As Ta-Nehisi Coates explained in The Atlantic in 2011, arguing that the Civil War was “tragic” misses the point of its triumph in ending slavery.

But the reception of the two remarks has been distinctly different. Haley has centered her campaign on her competence and her no-nonsense affect, and the botched pander undermined both of those. She encountered a sudden surge of negative publicity and spent the next few days walking back and explaining her answer. Trump’s commentary, by contrast, elicited the same kind of shrug that so many things he says do. He’s made no effort at damage control and moved on entirely. Part of this is that Trump, as always, produces so many outrageous comments that it’s hard to keep attention on any one of them for very long. (Yesterday, for example, his lawyers argued in federal court that he could get away with assassinating a political opponent if he weren’t impeached.) But Trump also benefits from being a very well-known quantity: No one expects him to know anything about history, and people know he approaches everything as a deal.

Gaffes are seldom the single reason a candidate loses a race, and one poll this week even shows Haley within single digits of Trump in New Hampshire, a must-win state for her. But the disparate reactions from the American public show an underappreciated obstacle that Haley, or any other challenger, faces in taking on Trump. It’s not just that Trump is running as a de facto incumbent or that his rivals have to figure out how to attack him without alienating sympathetic Republicans. It’s that the lower expectations attached to him mean almost no misstep hurts him. Trump and Haley are effectively running in entirely different elections, yet only one of them can win.

Related:


Today’s News

  1. The U.S. and the U.K. shot down one of the largest recent Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping routes last night. A Houthi spokesperson said the “coordinated offensive” targeted an American ship “aiding” Israel.
  2. In a new milestone for cryptocurrency, the SEC approved the U.S.’s first spot bitcoin exchange-traded funds, which are slated to begin trading tomorrow.
  3. Chris Christie announced that he is dropping out of the Republican presidential primary race.

Dispatches

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Evening Read

Three grizzly bears roam in front of rock formations
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Grizzly Bears Are Mostly Vegan

By Katherine J. Wu

On the subject of grizzly bears, the San Francisco Call—a short-lived newspaper that went out of print in 1913—wasn’t what you’d call kind. Describing the 1898 downfall of a California grizzly nicknamed Old Reel Foot, a supposedly 1,350-pound “marauder and outlaw,” an unnamed journalist cataloged the bear’s sins: Old Reel Foot broke into a pigpen and “sat him down in the midst of the squealing porkers until his belly was made full”; he infiltrated an Indigenous tribe to abscond with an infant in a papoose; he disemboweled and “partly devoured” a sheep herder while his young son watched—actions all motivated, according to the writer, by the bear’s thirst for revenge on humanity …

If California grizzlies were ever anything like the horrors our predecessors made them out to be, they didn’t start out that way. Before Europeans arrived on the West Coast in 1542, the bears thrived on diets that were roughly 90 percent vegan, as Alagona and his colleagues found in a study published this week. (The typical modern American, meanwhile, derives about a third of their daily calories from animal-based foods.) In the decades after colonizers began to introduce new settlements and animals to the West Coast, the bears probably did start eating more meat. And humans were likely the ones to blame.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break

The Main Hall of the Icehotel has an ice chandelier and ice columns
Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP / Getty

Visit. Icehotel 34 is the latest hotel built out of snow and ice in the Swedish village of Jukkasjärvi, and our photo editor takes you through its awe-inspiring rooms.

Read. A 1929 Soviet novel shows how violence destroys the soul of a nation. It offers insights into Vladimir Putin’s Russia, writes Anastasia Edel.

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P.S.

Few singer-songwriters working today are as consistently great as Katie Crutchfield, who records as Waxahatchee. In March 2020, she released Saint Cloud, a record that helped many Millennials I know get through the early pandemic. She hasn’t released new music under her own name since—though she was half of Plains, a stunning 2022 one-off—but yesterday put out the first single from a forthcoming album. “Right Back to It” shows the power of her spare songwriting, and I’ve had it in near-constant rotation since its release.

— David


Stephanie Bai contributed to this newsletter.

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