Summoning the Ghosts of South Carolina

Jason Miczek / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

South Carolina is a state infamous for whisper campaigns and dirty political tricks, and the Post and Courier asked readers to help expose them. Today, it turned up a doozy—a robocall attacking Donald Trump for supporting Nikki Haley’s move to take the Confederate battle flag off the state capitol grounds. “Trump talks about our flag like it’s a social disease,” the narrator says. It’s paid for by the Courageous Conservatives PAC, which says it’s “committed to the election of Ted Cruz as President.”

As I wrote last June, there’s a specific history to the use of this particular flag as a political symbol, and it’s doesn’t stretch back as far as many think:

Georgia inserted the battle flag into its state flag in 1956. Two years later, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the Confederate flag. And then, on the centennial of the day South Carolina opened fire on Fort Sumter came in 1961, it hoisted the battle flag above its Capitol.

It was a symbol of heritage—but that heritage was hateful. Two state delegations, in Charleston to mark that 1961 centennial, found themselves barred from the hotel where the ceremony was to take place because they included black members. President Kennedy had to issue an executive order moving the commemoration to the Charleston Navy Base. And when the centennial ended, the flag stayed, proclaiming that South Carolina might have lost the war, but that it was determined not to surrender its opposition to racial equality.

It was the Republican elected officials of South Carolina—most notably Senator Lindsey Graham and Governor Nikki Haley—who courageously helped the state close the book on this chapter of its history. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, was hardly a profile in courage.

He told reporters he could see both sides of the fight, including those “who want to remember the sacrifices of their ancestors and the traditions of their states,” and instead of taking a clear stand, said it should be up to South Carolina. He either could not be bothered to learn, or did not care, that the specific tradition represented by the display of the flag on the capitol grounds was resistance to desegregation.

There’s a straightforward political calculation in the robocall’s attack. Twenty-three state legislators voted against removing the flag; 16 of them now back either Cruz or Trump, The Wall Street Journal reports. Fully 62 percent of Cruz’s supporters opposed taking down the flag, a PPP poll found. But that opposition was actually higher among Trump supporters—at 70 percent—and a plurality of Trump’s fans also told pollsters that they wished the South had won the war. Cruz is clearly trying to peel away some of those voters whose stance is closer to his own, and is taking a swipe at Haley—who recently endorsed Marco Rubio—as he does so.

But this is not “our” flag. Not the flag of a United States senator. Not the flag of most South Carolinians when the state seceded—57 percent of whom were held as property. Not the flag of most South Carolinians today—most of whom supported its removal.

Courageous Conservatives PAC? There is nothing conservative about the defense of a banner flown in rebellion. And there is certainly nothing courageous about mounting that defense in a robocall, and hoping no one would notice.