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Clarence Page: Where the Civil War never seems to end — our presidential campaigns

I wrote before about Nikki Haley and her gaffe in December about the causes of the Civil War. But the subject still strikes a chord with me.

Haley’s apparent sensitivity around offending GOP voters who don’t want to be thought of as racists, combined with the continuing debate around Jan. 6 and what it meant, has me wondering how much we’ve really put the Civil War behind us.

She stepped into the hot mess last month while campaigning in New Hampshire when she was asked what caused the Civil War. It didn’t sound like a trick question, but Haley tripped over it anyway.

As former governor of South Carolina, where that war’s first shots were fired, she surely knew the answer that just about everyone who was not a dyed-in-the-wool Southern apologist would have given.

But, no, she failed to mention slavery.

Her omission echoed a podcast appearance nearly five years ago with conservative host Glenn Beck in which she said the Confederate flag symbolized “service, sacrifice and heritage” for some people in her state until Dylann S. Roof “hijacked” it.

Roof was the avowed white supremacist who killed nine Black parishioners when he opened fire in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015. Before his attack, he posed with the flag in several photos.

Among other heated responses to her interview was this one from Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and the first African American to hold that position.

“Really, Nikki?!” Steele posted on Twitter, adding that Roof “inherited” the meaning of the Confederate flag.

Critics accused Haley of political posturing, which, let’s face it, is far from an unknown sin in politics.

And she sensibly posted a transcript of her remarks when she called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the position it long held on the grounds of the South Carolina State House.

In her 2015 remarks, Haley said, “for many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble.”

“Traditions of history, of heritage, and of ancestry,” she said, even though “for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.”

“As a state we can survive, as we have done, while still being home to both of those viewpoints,” Haley said.

I admired her position at the time and still do. It’s not easy in the tradition-bound South to stand against customs and traditions like this one, especially if you’re running for statewide office.

Besides, Haley’s failure to tiptoe easily around the less popular parts of her state’s history is small potatoes compared with the utterances of her rival Republican candidate, former President Donald Trump.

If anything, polling shows his popularity among Republican primary voters only improves as long as he insults the right people. Meaning, just about everyone outside his MAGA universe.

Haley’s struggles to discuss issues of racism and her state’s past have dogged her in one way or another for the past decade. To succeed politically in the South without the willingness, like Trump, to speak illiberally is tricky, to say the least.

For much of Trump’s political ascendancy, observers have wondered how much of his appeal is tied to lingering racism and how much is due to economic inequality and related issues. University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape studied the issues that motivated the 380 or so people arrested in connection with the attack against the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in the months following the attack.

He expected to find that the rioters were driven to violence by the lingering effects of the 2008 Great Recession, which had been the conventional wisdom. Instead, he found most of the people who took part in the assault came from places awash in fears that the rights of minorities and immigrants were crowding out the rights of white people in American politics and culture.

That would suggest that the Capitol attack had historical echoes reaching back to before the Civil War, he told The Washington Post.

Which brings us to today, as we continue to debate the meaning of Jan. 6. Indeed, the Supreme Court next month will take up whether Trump even is eligible to become president again based on the 14th Amendment’s prohibition against allowing insurrectionists to hold public office.

Insurrection. That’s what the Civil War was. And, as Nikki Haley was reminded, that conflict was about slavery. Which, of course, was about race — and racism. If, as Pape concluded, Jan. 6 was in no small part about race, we’ve really come full circle.

The presidential race, of course, is about many more things than the Civil War and its aftermath. Still, in too many people’s minds, that conflict has never really ended.

cpage@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @cptime