White House chief of staff John Kelly told a Fox host Monday night that a “lack of an ability to compromise” on slavery led America into the Civil War.
Donald Trump’s chief of staff appeared Monday night on Laura Ingraham’s The Ingraham Angle and launched into a defense of the Confederacy’s honor.
Kelly praised Gen. Robert E. Lee as “an honorable man who gave up his country to fight for his state”—a claim that is categorically untrue.
“Men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand,” Kelly continued during his interview with Ingraham, evoking his boss’s controversial comments about this summer’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. At that time, Donald Trump displayed his sympathy toward neo-Nazis and white nationalists by lauding the “fine people” on both sides of the protests. (In retrospect, it’s possible Kelly fed him that line.)
But the most appalling and dangerous argument Kelly offered Monday night was that a “lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.”
As many finer minds than mine have noted, Kelly’s comments were at once ludicrous, irresponsible, deeply ahistorical and soaked in the vinegar of white supremacy.
One of the more notable responses came from writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who delivered a blistering critique on Kelly’s comments in a Twitter thread posted early Tuesday morning.
“Lee wasn’t some agnostic pressed into war. He was a dude who thought torture was cool,” Coates also tweeted, and added an account from one of Lee’s former slaves, written in a recent Atlantic article, about how the honorable general would have saltwater thrown on his slaves’ backs after they were whipped—“not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh.”
Kelly’s Civil War comments were shocking to some because the general was always presumed to be the “adult in the room” amid the Trump administration.
He lost that distinction, widely, when he attacked Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) in the wake of Trump’s controversial call to a Gold Star widow. Calling Wilson an “empty barrel,” Kelly illustrated his disgust with the black lawmaker from Florida with a story about a speech she made that was completely untrue.
When confronted with video evidence of his lie, Kelly didn’t apologize. The episode revealed a lot about the general’s character—about what may have drawn him to Trump in the first place—and busted the myth that he may be some sort of moderating influence on the president.
There is absolute nothing moderate about “compromising” on human bondage.
Did Kelly think, as many good white men of his ilk do, that he was being reasonable? That compromise is, in and of itself, a virtue? Or did Kelly, in some way, hope to shift the conversation away from what was by many accounts a long and arduous day at the White House?
It’s important to note that as ridiculous and bigoted as Kelly’s comments were, they speak directly to the hearts of Trump’s fervent base. Invoking the honor and virtues of the Confederacy is the sort of cattle call that drove white people to Tennessee to proclaim “White lives matter” this weekend.
Or, is it what so many people of color know in this country to be true—that the good white men so often entrusted with protecting and guiding America know the least about it? That they don’t, in fact, care about the country enough to move past their own idealized role in it?
Lee fought against the United States. We don’t teach the Civil War this way because, as with most aspects of our history, Americans are reluctant to face it head-on. The “Union Army” is a euphemism—it was the U.S. military against which the Confederacy, a separate country, with its own president and its own money and its expressed commitment to keeping and expanding slavery, took arms.
This is who and what Kelly was defending.
Kelly’s Civil War comments leave no doubt about who Kelly is. But the real horror, made clear time and time again this year, is that Kelly is certainly not alone, and that good white men and women like him aren’t afraid to follow his lead.