On Sunday morning, President Trump broke with precedent, discarded norms, and did something few of his predecessors would ever have considered: He angrily denied the suggestion that he had praised Robert E. Lee.
“NBC News has totally and purposely changed the point and meaning of my story about General Robert E Lee and General Ulysses Grant,” Trump objected in a tweet. “Was actually a shoutout to warrior Grant and the great state in which he was born. As usual, dishonest reporting. Even mainstream media embarrassed!”
Trump didn’t respond to NBC by attacking the network for its clear implication that praising a Confederate leader would be inappropriate. Instead, he emphasized that he’d really been praising Grant, not Lee. And that represented a break—from his own past remarks, from the messages of some current Republican candidates, and from almost all his recent predecessors in the White House.
The fuss began with an NBC report on a Friday rally in Ohio. “President Trump says ‘Robert E. Lee was a great general’ during Ohio rally, calling the Confederate leader ‘incredible,’” the network tweeted. As the network later acknowledged, Trump was right—he hadn’t called Lee incredible. At the rally, he’d launched into a riff about Ohio’s favored sons.
“It also gave you a general, who was incredible. He drank a little bit too much. You know who I’m talking about, right?” Trump asked. The crowd understood he meant Ulysses S. Grant, even if not all the assembled reporters grasped the reference. Trump did go on to praise Lee as “a true great fighter and a great general,” but even that was in the service of his larger point—that Grant was all the more remarkable for defeating him.
It’s not news that Trump thinks Lee was a great general. Lee took his place in Trump’s familiar pantheon of military leaders—alongside George S. Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and Ulysses S. Grant—even before Trump ran for office.
And, as president, Trump has not been shy about exploiting Lee’s contested memory to stoke divisions. It was a violent protest against the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville that produced Trump’s equivocations at an August 2017 press conference. He proved unable to simply condemn the tiki-torch fascists, instead declaring there “were very fine people on both sides.” And when a reporter asked him to acknowledge the difference between Lee and George Washington, he rejected the premise of the question—instead suggesting that if the statue of Lee were removed, statues of Washington and Thomas Jefferson might be next to go. “You’re changing history, you’re changing culture,” he objected.
There are, moreover, good reasons to doubt Trump’s understanding of the Civil War. He has little grasp of its causes. When he discusses the conflict, he tends to reflect the views prevalent in the textbooks of his youth—downplaying the role of slavery.
But all of this only underlines the significance of the moment. Corey Stewart, formerly Trump’s Virginia campaign chair and now the GOP nominee for Senate in the state, has praised Lee as “a hero & an honorable man” and made defending his statues a centerpiece of his campaign. Until Sunday, there was no reason to think Trump might distance himself from praise for Lee. In the 20th century, in fact, it would have been hard to imagine any president distancing himself from praise for Lee.
For Woodrow Wilson, the first southerner to win the presidency after Reconstruction, affection for Lee was deeply personal. Lee visited Augusta, Georgia, when Wilson was 13. All his life, Wilson savored “the delightful memory of my standing, when a lad, for a moment by General Lee’s side and looking up into his face.” After he left the presidency, he wrote a hagiographic portrait of Lee for The Journal of Social Forces, holding him up as a “national hero” who was “in some regards unapproachable in the history of our country.”
But it wasn’t just Wilson. Lee was held up as the embodiment of Southern honor, duty, and sacrifice; by lionizing him, presidents were advancing the cause of sectional reconciliation. That the cause for which Lee had fought was, as Grant put it, “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse,” was seldom mentioned. That the reconciliation had been built on a shared commitment to white supremacy or, at the very least, on the tacit approval of Jim Crow went entirely unsaid. And Lee’s personal cruelty as a slave owner—so ably detailed by my colleague Adam Serwer—was simply omitted.
FDR praised Lee as a “knightly figure without reproach and without fear,” and as he unveiled a statue of the general in Dallas, as “one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.” Dwight Eisenhower kept portraits of “four great Americans” on the Oval Office wall: Franklin, Washington, Lincoln—and Lee. He told the United Daughters of the Confederacy that Lee was “a great and noble character,” and that he “remained always a pure soul.” JFK looked upon Lee’s wartime service as a “gallant failure.” Lyndon Johnson dubbed him “a great son of the South, a great leader of the South.” “As a man, he stood as the symbol of valor and of duty,” said Gerald Ford as he signed a bill restoring Lee’s U.S. citizenship. “Robert E. Lee was a man who understood the values of a region which he represented,” said Jimmy Carter, praising him as a “great leader.” Reagan said he was “an American legend.” George W. Bush, addressing the United States Military Academy, called Lee “the perfect West Point graduate.”
The notable exception is Barack Obama, who rarely mentioned Lee. In 2009, at the Alfalfa Dinner, held to celebrate Lee’s birthday, he joked, “If he were here with us tonight, the general would be 202 years old. And very confused.”
Measured against these standards, simply calling Lee “a great general,” as Trump did, is faint enough praise. And for Trump to blast the media for daring to suggest that he’d called Lee “incredible” is, well, incredible.
The United States is changing. The events in Charlottesville last year helped to elevate the debate over Robert E. Lee into broader public consciousness and to raise awareness of just how—and why—Lee came to be elevated into the American pantheon. And as more Americans focus on the cause that Lee defended, and on the fact that the canonization of Lee was intended to make him the patron saint of a reconciliation built on white supremacy, the elevation of Lee to an American icon becomes increasingly indefensible.
A century ago, Wilson wrote that Lee “is secure of his place” in history. That Trump—scarcely a year after Charlottesville—no longer sees political advantage in praising Lee proves that’s no longer the case.