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Why the Right Has a Problem with Juneteenth
Reactionaries who oppose Juneteenth are the political, ideological, and spiritual descendants of those who were defeated in 1865. They dominate today’s Republican Party.
Two years ago, president Joe Biden signed a bill passed by Congress making June 19 – Juneteenth – a federal holiday. But conservatives don’t like Juneteenth very much. And that tells us a lot about the American Right, what the current political conflict is all about, and what role history and national identity play in all of that.
Juneteenth was established by a bipartisan measure – the Senate unanimously supported the bill, and only 14 House Republicans objected. Nothing to see here but the temper tantrums of a few fringe cranks? It’s actually a little more interesting and revealing than that.
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It is worth reflecting on what, exactly, the majority of Republicans in Congress actually supported. In June 2021, the manufactured moral panic over “Critical Race Theory” was already in full swing. Many of the GOP politicians who voted for the Juneteenth bill were – and still are – all in on demonizing anything that questions a white nationalist understanding of America’s past or present, on censoring, banning, and ostracizing anyone who dares to deviate from the reactionary vision for the nation. We can therefore safely assume that their vote to make Juneteenth a federal holiday should not be interpreted as an endorsement of a nuanced look at U.S. history.
Why, then, did almost all Congressional Republicans support the establishment of a federal holiday at all? While this crowd is not exactly open to contemplating how the lasting legacies of slavery and structural racism are shaping American life, they are not opposed to emphasizing slavery as an evil that is entirely confined to the past. Their preferred history is one in which the sins of slavery and racism were overcome a long time ago – a triumphant tale in which America is good and pure and virtuous.
While such a glorifying reading of U.S. history could provide some basis on which conservatives might accept a simplistic, sanitized version of Juneteenth, most people on the Right are still not willing to embrace even that. In 2020, Republicans were almost evenly split on the question of whether or not Juneteenth should be a national holiday. A recent University of Massachusetts Amherst poll indicates that support has since cratered: Currently, only 13% of Republicans are in favor of making Juneteenth a national holiday, and only 28% of people who identify as conservative want the history and significance of Juneteenth taught in schools.
Juneteenth as part of the leftwing assault on “real America”
It is perhaps somewhat surprising that not more Republicans try to claim credit for Juneteenth. After all, “Republicans ended slavery – Democrats are the party of Jim Crow!” has become one of the key propaganda slogans on the Right, and quite a few prominent rightwing figures have made it their sole purpose to present this fact as “evidence” that today’s Democratic Party is evil, that Democrats are the real racists. When Donald Trump was still president, this talking point was certainly out there. Charlie Kirk, for instance, the founder of the far-right youth organization Turning Point USA, wanted to remind the world in June 2020 “that we wouldn’t be celebrating Juneteenth had Republicans not freed the slaves.” But a year later, Kirk was raging on Twitter that “‘Juneteenth’ is an affront to the unity of July 4th,” warning his fellow rightwingers that “If you’re a conservative who is okay with the ‘Juneteenth National Independence Day Act,’ you're not paying attention to what the left is truly trying to accomplish.”
There is certainly an element of negative partisanship here. But there is more going on than “If my team does it, I love it; if the other team does it, it’s evil.” The rightwing case starts from the assumption that “the Left” elevated Juneteenth to the status of a national holiday purely to humiliate America and divide the country by race. As Representative Matt Rosendale from Montana, one of the fourteen Republicans in the House who voted against the Juneteenth bill in 2021, put it in an official statement, it was all part of a plot “to continually make Americans feel bad and convince them that our country is evil.” Similarly, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a French reactionary who lives in Paris and is, for some reason, widely seen on the American Right as an important intellectual voice, ranted on Twitter that “this entire project is about creating more anti-American humiliation rituals.”
In the reactionary interpretation, liberals and lefties are trying to humiliate and divide America by re-telling the national story. Rosendale described the Juneteenth bill as “the culmination of decades of efforts by the Left to prevent unashamed celebrations of our national story, heritage, and history” – all part of an insidious leftwing effort “to create a day out of whole cloth to celebrate identity politics as part of its larger efforts to make Critical Race Theory the reigning ideology of our country.” The Left, Rosendale was sure, was trying “to enshrine the racial history of this country as the prime aspect of our national story” while obscuring and denying “all the good this country has brought to the world – flight, our Constitution, the defeat of communism and Nazism, the internet.” The future leftists wanted, the Montana representative warned, was one in which “There will be specials on the Tulsa race riot, the Birmingham church bombings. There will be retrospectives on the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin.” The horror!
In this view, these attempts to rewrite the nation’s story have to be seen in the context of a larger leftwing agenda to take complete control of the country. Rosendale saw a direct connection to what he identified as the Left’s immediate policy agenda, declaring that the “leftists’ current political project relies on the creation of a historical memory in which America’s story is one long racist nightmare. No one is going to defund their police unless the police are tools of white supremacy. No one will radically overturn voting laws unless every ballot security measure is Jim Crow. No one will pay reparations unless the black experience in America today is as bad as it was during 1860.” Crucially, this leftwing campaign had already advanced very far: the Left, according to Rosendale, was winning, having “the ability to create this reality because it occupies the commanding heights of U.S. culture, controlling the academy, the press, the arts, most corporations, primary and secondary education, the federal bureaucracy, the flag officer corps, and much else.”
The tale that emerges in these frantic reactions to the establishment of Juneteenth as a federal holiday in 2021 is one in which a fundamentally “Un-American” Left already dominates all spheres and major institutions of life, rapidly destroying all that “real Americans” hold dear about their nation. That diagnosis is shared not only by the extremist fringe – it has become dogma on the Right.
West-German conservatives also didn’t like to celebrate “liberation”
What is striking about these reactions is that rightwingers, instead of adopting the posture of liberators, were presenting themselves as if they were suffering under the yoke of hostile occupiers – a vanquished people forced to endure the shame of celebrating its own defeat. In many ways, they sounded a lot like West German conservatives who despised the idea of celebrating May 8, 1945 – the day Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies, known in the United States as Victory in Europe Day – as a “Day of Liberation” through much of the post-war period.
One of the two post-war Germanies did, in fact, celebrate May 8: The German Democratic Republic, which defined its identity in discontinuity with Prussian and Nazi history and explicitly (though inadequately) insisted it was a society of anti-fascists. Based on this officially imposed state identity, May 8 was celebrated as the “day of liberation of the German people from Hitler-fascism” (Tag der Befreiuung des deutschen Volkes vom Hitlerfaschismus).
The situation was very different in West Germany, where May 8 was largely – and deliberately – ignored in the first two post-war decades. This changed after Chancellor Willy Brandt, as part of a general attempt to establish a more critical understanding of the Nazi past and a better relationship with Germany’s eastern neighbors, embraced the idea of May 8 as a day of liberation in 1970. For many Germans, this was an outlandish provocation. That it came from Brandt, the leader of the Social Democratic Party who had been forced to flee into exile in Norway after the Nazis rose to power in 1933, made it much worse in their eyes: Many conservatives saw nothing but a traitor in Brandt. Conservatives argued that it was ridiculous to celebrate Germany’s defeat in World War II – and saw Brandt’s re-framing as part of what they perceived as a disgraceful, unpatriotic denigration pushed by a dangerously leftwing chancellor.
German conservatives lost the fight over May 8, however, when one of their own, West German president Richard von Weizsäcker, unambiguously declared it a Day of Liberation (Tag der Befreiung) in his speech during the ceremony commemorating the end of the war in 1985. Von Weizsäcker was not only president and an extremely well-regarded member of the conservative Christian Democratic Party CDU. He had also himself been an officer in Hitler’s army and fought on the eastern front. In the eyes of most Germans, these credentials largely immunized von Weizsäcker against attempts to denigrate him.
In a way, of course, the conservative critics of the interpretation of May 8 as a “day of liberation” were correct. Germany was indeed defeated in 1945. The Allies didn’t liberate Germany – they liberated Germany’s victims: in the concentration camps, the political prisoners, those in hiding. And the contemporaneous perception at the end of the war among the vast majority of Germans was dominated not by a feeling of liberation, but defeat, insecurity, fear; few Germans concerned themselves with the victims of Nazi terror for whom May 8 indeed brought rescue and relief. And yet, establishing the idea of a “day of liberation” was immensely important as a political project: It stated, to put it in basic terms, that May 8 was a good day in history, that Nazi Germany’s defeat was something to be celebrated, that Germans should rejoice because they got liberated from themselves.
The debate over May 8 was also a manifestation of a larger shift in Germany’s ongoing struggle to deal with the Nazi past – a development for which it also acted as a catalyst. By the 1990s, the Holocaust had been elevated to the center of German national identity. As former president Joachim Gauck put it on Holocaust Remembrance Day in January 2015: “There is no German identity without Auschwitz.” More generally, a mainstream consensus had formed around centering not the defeat of 1945, not the concern for national honor, but the victims of Nazi terror and genocide, and the responsibilities that follow from acknowledging Germany’s crimes for the country’s present and future. Today, May 8 is observed as a day of remembrance in Germany. It’s not a public holiday, however; an arrangement that perhaps adequately captures the fact that, while rejoicing at Hitler’s defeat, Germans should not forget on which side they fought in the war.
There are quite a few similarities in rhetoric, style, and substance between the way West German conservatives used to rail against the “ignominy” of being asked to celebrate the country’s defeat – and to emphasize, more generally, the suffering of the victims of German terror rather than that of the perpetrators – and the American Right’s furor over “the Left” installing “humiliation rituals.” The idea of Juneteenth being established as a national holiday to disgrace the nation could have been transported straight from the West German 1970s. There is also the pervasive perception among conservatives of being on the defensive in a struggle against corrosive leftwing subversion and a rapidly advancing leftwing agenda enacted by Biden here, Brandt there. And there is, finally, the idea that a celebratory national story is an essential part of the nation’s fabric, that once “the Left” is able to inject doubt and self-criticism, that fabric is destined to tear. On either side of the Atlantic, these symbolic struggles over the past played out against the background of a general “liberalization” and a widespread fear among conservatives to have lost political and cultural hegemony to “the Left.”
The Right’s eternal quest to defend white freedom
At first glance, however, these similarities are puzzling. Germany’s conservatives at least had a point, regardless of where one stands on their reactionary political project: Germany *was* defeated in 1945, this was indeed a rather unusual case of the defeated celebrating their own defeat.
Juneteenth, on the other hand, was the result of the United States – the country conservatives claim to love above all else! – *winning* the most destructive war in its history and defeating a traitorous rebellion. Why are conservatives acting like they are told to celebrate their own defeat? The answer is that, in a very profound way, that is exactly what is happening. Today’s Republicans are not the successors to the Confederacy in any legal sense, of course; and unlike Germany’s post-war conservatives, they weren’t personally defeated in the Civil War. But in a very real sense, they stand in the tradition of those who took up arms against their country in 1861.
Since the founding, two incompatible ideas of how to define the nation have shaped the American project. From the beginning, some believed that America was to be a place where all people were created equal. For much of the nation’s history, however, a very different conception of “America” dominated, an ethno-religious nationalism that envisioned a land where property-owning white Christian men had a right to be at the top and shape society and culture in their image. From these opposing forms of nationalism sprung two very different, fundamentally incompatible ideas of democracy and freedom. The egalitarian vision demanded, at least in theory, a truly democratic order that would balance the needs and demands of all people in a multiracial, pluralistic society in order to guarantee the maximum degree of freedom for everybody. The white nationalist vision, on the other hand, set narrow boundaries to how much democracy, and for whom, was permissible. It revolved around the principle of white male freedom: The freedom to impose a reactionary “natural” order on others and subjugate all those who dare to deviate. This idea of “freedom” as the power to curtail the freedom of others has been the ideology invoked by white settlers, apologists of slavery, and opponents of civil rights as justification for their quest to dominate. As historian Jefferson Cowie has demonstrated so powerfully in his latest book, Freedom’s Dominion, they all presented themselves as defenders of “freedom.”
The Civil War was one iteration of this struggle over “freedom” – freedom from oppression and freedom defined as equality vs the freedom to oppress and subjugate. On the level of the political project of defending white freedom against the onslaught of multiracial, pluralistic democracy, there is a direct line from those who fought for their right to enslave others in the name of “freedom” to today’s reactionaries who cling to the idea that the world works best if it is dominated by wealthy white men, that America must be the place where this “natural” and/or divinely ordained order is still upheld.
In this perspective, those who oppose Juneteenth are indeed the political, ideological, and spiritual descendants of those who were defeated in 1865. Their rejection of a federally mandated holiday stands in the long tradition of reactionaries defining their freedom in opposition to the federal government as an agent for equality – from the struggle against Reconstruction in the early 1870s all the way to the twenty-first century.
Wars over history, national identity, and power
It’s no coincidence that symbolic conflicts over the past and how to commemorate it, over the stories we tell and the history we teach, have been at the center of this broader political conflict lately. They are part of a much larger struggle over who gets to define national identity and the way that either stabilizes or questions the status quo and the existing political, social, and cultural order.
Juneteenth stands in stark tension with the kind of purely celebratory reading of America’s past and present the Right prefers and wants to mandate for the country. It’s very different from Independence Day – in some way, as historian Robert Greene II puts it, it’s even a “counter-celebration to the Fourth of July.” Juneteenth doesn’t lend itself easily to a celebration of white heroism in ending slavery. It instead centers the celebration of Black freedom and the struggles to establish a Black voice and perspective in the collective imaginary of the nation, elevates the stories of those who have traditionally been marginalized in the dominant white mainstream tale of U.S. history. In that sense, Charlie Kirk was actually not entirely wrong when he argued that “this is about replacing July 4th – just like the 1619 Project is about replacing 1776.” Juneteenth is indeed more 1619 Project rather than 1776 Commission.
In this ongoing struggle over who gets to define the nation’s history, identity, and “natural” order, reactionaries feel their backs against the wall. That’s why Charlie Kirk’s rather dramatic reversal from endorsing Juneteenth in 2020 to demonizing it in 2021 is so revealing. In 2020, the Right was still in power; the establishment of a national holiday in 2021 came after defeat. Worse yet, it came not only after Democrats took back control in Washington, but after the mass protests against racist police violence in the summer of 2020. This mobilization of civil society further escalated the perception of imminent threat on the Right: It has become a key element of rightwing political identity to view the protests as irrefutable proof that “the Left” has started its full-on assault. That’s what the rejection of Juneteenth is ultimately all about: “They” (the Left) are forcing “Us” (the sole proponents of “real America”) to celebrate defeat while they are rapidly advancing.
We should be careful before declaring Germany a role model for how to deal with the past. A new fight over Holocaust history and memorialization has broken out, casting doubt on the idea that there is something to be learned from the Germans, an idea of which I am somewhat skeptical. However, it’s still fair to say that in Germany, centering the victims – those for whom May 8 was indeed, in a very real, very direct sense a day of liberation, and the millions for whom that liberation came too late – became the accepted position of all pro-democracy parties. Those who oppose such a perspective on Germany’s past are to be found on the Far Right. They are not “conservatives.” They are extremists.
In Germany, the willingness to grapple with past crimes and integrate them in the nation’s identity in a way that defines and guides the country in the present and the future has become a litmus test for whether or not parties and movements are considered part of the democratic consensus. Meanwhile, Republicans – who want to rename military bases after Confederate traitors; prevent the removal of Confederate statues that were erected as symbols of everlasting white supremacy; defend the Confederate flag – are currently conducting a witch hunt against “unpatriotic” ideas and are using the power of the state to outlaw dissent, restrict critical debate, and punish anyone who dares to question the righteousness of past, present, or future white reactionary rule. The bipartisan vote in Congress to make Juneteenth a federal holiday notwithstanding, the Republican position is that no one ever gets to talk about what it actually means, and no one gets to ask critical questions about the lasting legacies of slavery and racism. That approach to the nation’s past, present, and future is closer to what the German Far Right believes than to anything that is considered acceptable from a party that champions democracy as an idea and a political project. If you demand “patriotism” and define it as the glorification of a mythical past that serves as the basis and justification for white nationalist rule in the present, you are not a (small-d) democrat. Not in Germany, not in America, not anywhere.
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