Two years ago last month, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley pulled down the Confederate flag that flew over the grounds of the state Capitol. The move unified her party and her state, and it transformed her into a national figure and the embodiment of the future of the Republican Party.
Back then, Haley’s move — which followed the shooting of nine black parishioners at a Charleston church — seemed to bring a close to the long-simmering question of whether the flag, and Confederate nostalgia more broadly, had an acceptable place in American politics despite its offensiveness to black Americans. But two years later, the flag and the Lost Cause are flickering back as potent symbols in American politics — symbols sometimes of an open new white nationalism, but more often of a brand of identity politics that prizes upsetting liberals above all else, in which the Confederate flag also serves as an emblem against “political correctness.”
There are flickers across the Old South: This year, New Orleans officials removed Confederate monuments under the cover of night amid protests and security concerns. Then a Virginia Republican crusaded on the issue (and on his support for President Donald Trump) and nearly secured the nomination for governor. And a leading candidate to occupy Haley’s old seat in the governor’s mansion in Columbia is describing herself as a “proud Daughter of the Confederacy.”
Virtually all established Republican Party leaders would like, as they say, to “move past” the issue — and few want to talk about it. But the people who want to talk about preserving monuments and keeping the flag in the sky really want to talk about it. And in the ground zero of the flag fight — South Carolina — Republican operatives describe Haley's push as a one-time response to a tragedy that rekindled wide national scrutiny of the Confederate flag. (The killer, Dylann Roof, had been photographed with the flag.)
The issue popped up last week in the state’s competitive Republican race for governor. Several audience members at a forum in conservative Pickens County grilled Catherine Templeton — a former member of Haley’s cabinet whose consulting firm was among those who cheered the flag’s removal at the Statehouse — about her stance on removing Confederate symbols.
“You cannot rewrite history,” said Templeton, who has emerged as a top primary challenger to Henry McMaster, the lieutenant governor who became governor after Haley left to become the US ambassador to the United Nations. “I don’t care whose feelings get hurt.”
Templeton went on to talk about her grandmother — “a Daughter of the Confederacy” — and about “standing on the shoulders of giants in South Carolina.” But that answer wasn’t enough for some in the crowd. She was pressed on the issue twice more at the livestreamed forum.
Would she have voted for Haley’s legislation to bring down the flag at the Statehouse? “I think what we did was we reacted, and I think that’s what happens in government a lot,” Templeton replied, sidling away from her firm’s past praise. “We have an emergency, and we create a response because it’s the only thing we have control over. … I’m proud of the Confederacy. But I’m not going to second-guess what the people in the Statehouse did when I wasn’t there.
“I live in Charleston. I drive by [the church] on a daily basis,” she added. “And a bad person took something that’s dear to us, took our heritage, and turned it into hate, and I think we reacted as a result.”
Would she back a bill to prohibit moving any monuments unless they were moved to a more prominent place? “The answer is yes. We have a law in place now, and I would enforce it. … I would not allow monuments to be taken down. I want to be very direct with you.”
The next day, following local media coverage of her remarks, Templeton issued another statement on social media.
“If it’s politically incorrect to say I’m a proud Daughter of the Confederacy, then call me politically incorrect,” she wrote. “My father was named after Judge William Brawley, a Confederate soldier who fought under Gen. Robert E. Lee, and lost his arm at the Battle of Seven Pines. I have a son named Hampton and a dog named Dixie but that doesn't make me a racist. It makes me from South Carolina and proud of it. It’s outrageous to me that some would have me disavow my family and our history. … Our history is not always comfortable, but it made us who we are.”
Confederate symbols have faced increased scrutiny in recent years, and several of those who have led the charge — most notably Haley — have seen their political stock rise. In New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s push to bring down four Confederate monuments, including a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, has earned him buzz as a future Democratic presidential prospect. And in Biloxi, Mississippi, Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich easily won a GOP primary and reelection this year after banning Mississippi’s state flag, which includes a Confederate emblem, from city buildings.
Corey Stewart, a Trump supporter and native Minnesotan with a pro-Confederate message, sees an opportunity — for himself and for others — after his surprise success in this summer’s primary race for Virginia governor.
After barely losing the nomination to establishment favorite Ed Gillespie, Stewart quickly launched a Senate campaign. And he told BuzzFeed News this week that candidates in several states want his advice on how to run on similar themes. Stewart’s racially divisive strategy involved embracing Confederate symbols and opposing the removal of Confederate monuments and statues. He has objected to plans to remove a Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“This,” Stewart said, “is the biggest cultural issue that will be on the plate in 2018.”
Stewart declined to identify those who have sought his counsel but said calls have come “from Florida to North Carolina,” from “people who are thinking about making this a central issue of their platforms.”
It’s a subject many Republican leaders are not comfortable talking about openly. A spokesperson for the Republican National Committee — whose then-chairman, Reince Priebus, joined Haley at her news conference to call for the flag’s removal — declined to comment. Several Southern state chairs contacted by BuzzFeed News either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to discuss the topic on the record, including South Carolina’s new GOP chief, Drew McKissick.
Representatives for McMaster and Templeton also did not respond to requests, nor did Mikee Johnson, a prominent Haley ally who is now helping Templeton raise money.
Others in South Carolina agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity, to avoid being publicly linked to a position on a subject that continues to divide Palmetto State voters.
“It seems to me that Catherine is trying to have it both ways,” said one senior GOP operative in the state. “The right-wing base and chamber of commerce are both getting a wink and a nod.”
Democratic National Committee spokesperson Sabrina Singh said Republicans who embrace Confederate symbols “risk alienating a big portion of constituents” in key states.
“It is sad to see Republican candidates touting images of the Confederacy, which to many in this country symbolizes hate and racial oppression,” Singh said.
Stewart disputes accusations of racism. “This isn’t about race,” he told BuzzFeed News. “It’s about destroying history. The thing is that political correctness has been used to ridicule people who simply want to honor their heritage. People know instinctively that is wrong.”
He believes his near miss earlier this year — by roughly 4,500 votes — is a harbinger of things to come, even if it was only one party primary in one state.
“It just takes the first politician to make this a big issue in a big race,” Stewart said. “After I showed that you could stand up for Confederate monuments and ... withstand the punishment from the mainstream media, I knew that others would follow.”