If you want to know how much America has changed over the past few decades, take a fresh look at the most successful American movie of all time, Gone With The Wind (1939). It was based on Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 epic novel of 1860s Georgia at the end of the Confederacy, set in the red-earth plantation of Tara. Mitchell’s antebellum South is full of happy, or at least contented and respectful, slaves. Their white owners are elegant, chaste, southern belles and dashing, chivalrous Confederate menfolk. The tale – revolving around the loves and tantrums of one of cinema’s great heroines, Scarlett O’Hara, and her lover Rhett Butler – is set against the background of the Old South mobilising to defend Georgia and “Southern values” against Abraham Lincoln’s invading Union forces. It’s what southerners, even now, sometimes refer to as the “War of Northern Aggression” – a phrase coined, remarkably, in the 1950s by opponents of efforts to end racial segregation. Some “Southern values” are resistant to change.

Gone With The Wind describes the Civil War not as an internal struggle within what America’s Pledge of Allegiance calls “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Instead, Mitchell insists the war is between “two nations” which “came to death grips on the plains of Pennsylvania.” If you view this dated but extraordinary movie now, the first thing you see is a 21st-century trigger warning: “Gone With The Wind is a product of its time and depicts racial and ethnic prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society. These racist depictions were wrong then and they are wrong today. To create a more just, equitable, and inclusive future, we must first acknowledge and understand our history. This picture is presented as it was originally created.”

The warning is a reminder of all the things which have indeed changed in America, not just since the 1860s, but since the 1930s or even the 1950s: civil rights; the rise of Black Lives Matter; white embarrassment about historic racial prejudice; and even the way some words in Mitchell’s book are used as weapons to diminish and degrade African Americans. But what is even more remarkable are the many ways post-Trump America has not changed. The United States in the 21st century is once more divided between “two nations”. And it always has been. Or, at least, that’s the compelling case made by the British-based American academic and author Sarah Churchwell in her new book The Wrath To Come. Its subtitle is “Gone With The Wind and the Lies America Tells.”

Churchwell’s central argument is that American life is still, even now, full of delusional myths, prejudices, and the state of dis-union mindset of the Civil War. They manifest in the 2020s’ un-civil wars. They’re at the core of modern Culture War disagreements, violently divisive politics, the endless and apparently unsolvable rows about gun control, abortion, immigration and race. This 21st century battleground is not the fields of Manassas or Gettysburg but incendiary talk shows, social media, QAnon conspiracy theories, skirmishes in the US Supreme Court and Congress and sometimes violent street clashes involving armed right-wing militias with fancy names like Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, and left-wing groups such as Antifa, an American movement inspired by German socialist and other left wing anti-fascist groups.

As Churchwell puts it: “The United States is especially prone to cognitive dissonance as a society because the brutal realities of American life are so perpetually in conflict with its exalted ideals.” Churchwell writes history, but history so up-to-date it’s also on the evening news. The book emphasises the strong cultural links between Confederate secessionists of the 1860s, the racist politics of the American far right in the 1930s and beyond, and also Donald Trump’s secession from the norms of the American democratic process in the 2020s. Losers in US presidential elections generally concede gracefully. Trump instead claimed victory, inspired a riot and turned defeat, as with the Confederacy, into a new Lost Cause.

Churchwell notes: “On 6 January 2021, as the rancorous presidency of Donald Trump came to an anarchic end, the Confederate Battle Flag flew in the United States Capitol for the first time in American history… Many who fly the Confederate flag today insist it has been rehabilitated, having shrugged off its unfortunate origins as the actual standard for human enslavement.”

When I catch up with Churchwell, whom I’ve known for some years, she is (as always) extremely busy, whip-smart, and an intellectual dynamo who also happens to be very funny. The time we spend discussing her book flies past with a lot of laughter; yet hours after we talk, I’m still thinking through the seriousness of the challenges she poses. Our discussion begins gently enough. She mentions how much Gone With The Wind was part of her own youth, in a small mid-west town near Chicago. “As a kid, I loved it,” she says. “I was obsessed with this movie.”

“Many who fly the Confederate flag today have shrugged off its unfortunate origins as a standard for human enslavement”

She lists its strengths – the love story at its heart, the strong-willed Scarlett and caddish Rhett Butler – and then points out the grip this movie has on America’s image of itself. The mood quickly changes when I mention Donald Trump. Churchwell reminds me that when a Korean language movie, Parasite, won the Best Film award at the 2020 Oscars Trump’s response wasn’t the normal congratulations.

“Can we get, like Gone with the Wind back please?” he said. Churchwell translates this as Trump code for: “Why can’t we have more white supremacist stories?” I suggest that she is walking into America’s most dangerous minefield. I don’t just mean by risking the wrath of Trump supporters, but by offering a piercing critique of a film which is an American cultural icon. She is also a white writer navigating how to discuss Margaret Mitchell’s racist language, including the “N-word”.

Churchwell smiles grimly: “I was very conscious of that. I felt I had to address the racism issue head on. I definitely felt that I was painting a target on my face when I was working on this. But that was partly why I realised that I needed to write about it as a white woman, because that’s what this story is about. It’s about Margaret Mitchell and Scarlett O’Hara and me.”

She then draws an important distinction between the use of the N-word by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn (1884) and Margaret Mitchell’s usage of the same offensive word in Gone with the Wind five decades later. “Margaret Mitchell is using it [the N-word] as a weapon [against the black characters] .… whereas Mark Twain is using it to punch at the racists.”

Anyone reading Huckleberry Finn knows Churchwell is correct here. Twain’s sympathies lie very strongly with the runaway slave, Jim, while Mitchell seems oblivious to the horrors of chattel slavery. And drawing such nuanced distinctions is what is so impressive about Churchwell. She refuses to duck difficult debates about race and language, but she also avoids the intellectual laziness of “cancel culture”. She does not want anyone to cancel Gone With The Wind. It exists. Instead, she wants us all to see it as a profoundly important American cultural artefact which is also seriously and irredeemably flawed. But, in Culture Wars battles, the exploration of nuance and open-minded thinking becomes part of the minefield surrounding reasoned discourse.

Sarah Churchwell is professor of American Literature and Chair of Public Understanding of the Humanities at London University. Her previous books on Marilyn Monroe, Scott Fitzgerald and the rise of the far-right America First movement give a sense of her range as a thinker about American culture. All have met with critical acclaim. Running through her work there is, as she puts it, the consideration of an American “sense of our own righteousness”. In The Wrath To Come this becomes Churchwell’s own sense of disappointment that the world’s richest and most powerful nation, once described by President Ronald Reagan as a “shining city on a hill”, retains delusions of righteousness while simultaneously losing its moral sense so profoundly that millions appear to believe “that our slavery was innocent”. Some take to the streets with military-style rifles to insist on the noble gentility of the slave-owning American South, whitewashed in modern times by Gone With The Wind style myths.

In one of her more brutal examples, she cites anti-Black Lives Matter disturbances and specifically those neo-Nazis and white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville in 2017 to prevent the removal of a statue to the Confederate General Robert E Lee. Despite the ensuing violence, President Trump described the supremacist mob as “very fine people”. Those protecting statues of long-dead Confederate heroes and the Confederate flag, therefore, are part of this “sense of our own righteousness” but significantly the statues are not tucked away in cemeteries as memorials to a contentious historical past. They are prominent in town squares near state courthouses, symbols of aggressive power in the present.

“America as a nation is invested in its own innocence,” Churchwell says, and there is controlled outrage underpinning what she is about to say. “Going into this story taught me how we managed to convince ourselves of our own innocence.

It has involved re-writing history to a pernicious degree. We’ve had to just lie. Glorification of Confederate leaders is an absolutely crucial part of that. After the Civil War what happened was that every side got to maintain its innocence. In a sense nobody lost except black people. What the violence in Charlottesville and other places showed is how deeply invested Americans are in that sense of our own righteousness. That gets threatened if somebody says, ‘By the way, Robert E Lee was a white supremacist’. In fact he was a dyed-in-the-wool white supremacist who literally went to war against the United States to maintain race-based slavery. He was one of the worst ones. And so this idea that he was this gentleman and chivalrous and he became the heart of this cult…”

She shakes her head in disbelief, then continues. “So within the United States you have southern exceptionalism. The South gets a special pass and that’s the whole thing about their slavery being the ‘best’ kind of slavery, the ‘peculiar institution’ and all of this nonsense, right?”

So where does this nonsense, as she puts it, come from, I ask.

“We got it from you,” Churchwell laughs, meaning the British. “In my view, the United States has always been two nations. This is our problem. I don’t know very many countries that are so uncertain of their mythical origins that they have not one, but two Genesis myths. We’ve got the ‘Founding Fathers’ if you want to be patriarchal about it: Washington, Jefferson, the American Revolution. We all learned that as children, and that’s the founding story. But there’s also, of course, the Mayflower. And the Mayflower is the other founding narrative, equally mythologised, but about being God’s ‘Chosen People’. So, we’ve got a theological genesis myth 150 years earlier, in 1620. And then we’ve got 1776, a second birth, a re-birth of a nation born out of continental Enlightenment philosophy, out of liberal philosophy. Liberal democracy and theology are in direct tension. They’re in direct, constant conflict.”

The American Civil War never really ended: it continues to be waged in proxy battles and brutal retaliations

It’s a compelling justification of the phrase used in Gone With The Wind that America is “two nations”, perpetually divided between liberal Enlightenment philosophers and Christian fundamentalists; between North and South; between Trump supporters, Proud Boys and militias on the one hand, and the other America which chose Barack Obama as its first black president and stretches leftwards to Antifa and beyond. But, I suggest, Donald Trump, with his notorious talk of “pussy grabbing”, his deceit and obvious lies, is hardly a model for Christian fundamentalists or anyone else.

Churchwell replies that “you’re underestimating the divine intervention. There are a great many evangelicals that believe that Trump is part of God’s ultimate plan, without actually thinking that he is himself godly”. That explains the fervour of Trump’s Christian followers. They see him as flawed but nevertheless God’s Instrument in the White House. It also explains why Trump’s lost 2020 presidential re-election bid is not merely an echo of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, but also regarded by some supporters as a Satanic plot against the glorious project to “Make America Great Again”.

Churchwell picks up the thought.

“Make America Great Again is not only nostalgic, it’s also imperative, demanding action of its believers. And it is regressive, holding the present hostage to an imaginary past.” When those 9,000 Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in 2020, the Confederate flag was far from detoxified: “A good clue that the Southern Cross hasn’t become innocent is that it keeps emerging in the context of violent white nationalism.”

The adult Professor Churchwell, like the girl growing up in the Midwest, remains fascinated by Gone With The Wind – but nowadays it is a very different fascination. In a constant dialogue with her younger self, Churchwell says she strives to answer one fundamental question: “What the hell happened to America?” She finds in Gone With The Wind “a kind of skeleton key, unlocking America’s illusions about itself.” Scarlett O’Hara turns that key when she says that “for her, for the whole South, the war would never end.” And Churchwell endorses the thought, echoing Scarlett in saying that “the American Civil War never really ended: it continues to be waged in proxy battles and brutal retaliations in which the sacking of the Capitol on 6 January 2021 was the latest iteration. The United States has never been united for long.”

Gone With The Wind is truly epic. The novel runs to more than 1,000 pages. David O Selznick’s film runs at three hours and 44 minutes, and it’s the highest grossing movie of its time. Once corrected for inflation, it’s claimed that makes it the highest-grossing film ever. It received ten Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Vivien Leigh as Scarlett and Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel as the house slave, Mammy. McDaniel was the first African American to win an Oscar, but no black member of the cast was invited to the film’s premiere in Atlanta in December 1939. By February 1940, even at the Oscar ceremony, McDaniel and her escort were separated from the white attendees at the Twelfth Academy Awards held in Coconut Grove, Florida. The film doesn’t just whitewash slavery. It bathes it in gold. The colour palette of the opening scenes is drenched in golden light and the Tara plantation is the image of bucolic perfection in which happy slaves toil cheerfully for benevolent masters.

It is “a land of cavaliers and cotton fields” where “gallantry took its last bow”. The film’s characterisation of African Americans was, even in 1939, seen as offensive, risible and revolting. Malcom X described the character of the witless maid Prissy as so embarrassing he felt like hiding under a carpet. Hattie McDaniel’s performance as Mammy is inspired, but the script (and her name) suggests she is a willing surrogate mother, trying to control the capricious Scarlett. In reality, Mammy, as a chattel slave, would have been the property of a white family: to be bought, sold and abused at will. McDaniel, who was born in 1893 and whose parents were former slaves, was herself a case-study in American racism. Despite her Oscar, despite being the first African American woman to sing on radio in the United States, despite appearing in more than 300 films, McDaniel received screen credits for only 83 movies. When she died in 1952 she was refused burial in a Hollywood graveyard. That honour was for whites only.

Of course, other nations also find it hard to come to terms with inconvenient historical facts. Putin’s Russia obsesses with the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis, conveniently forgetting that Stalin only entered the war when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 and that from 1939-41 Russia was a Nazi ally. Some British people cannot cope with the re-evaluation of the history of the British empire, especially by historians with family roots in former colonies. In Northern Ireland the United Kingdom maintained for decades the Unionist myth of a Protestant state for a Protestant people, despite the inconvenient truth of a large Catholic population. Yet Churchwell’s insistence that in the United States “liberal democracy and the theocratic state are constantly in conflict” means that America is, and perhaps always will be, exceptional. It is a work in progress – a 50-50 nation divided between Union and Confederacy, and nowadays between Red (Republican) and Blue (Democrat) states. It’s also divided between those who embrace the myths of Gone With The Wind and those who are repelled by them.

In Trump’s case the film might be Gone With The Windbag

The next formal tussle in the struggle for the American soul comes with November’s US mid-term Congressional elections. The shadow of Donald Trump hangs over this troubled Republic, but perhaps all Americans should take notice of the 14th Amendment of their Constitution. It disqualifies from public office “any individual who has taken an oath to uphold the US Constitution and then engages in an insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or gives aid or comfort to those who have.” Yet even if Trump was disqualified and further disgraced, Trumpism, like the Confederacy, will remain in the imagination of some Americans as yet another glorious Lost Cause – perhaps turned into another syrup-laden movie. Margaret Mitchell saw the Confederacy as “no more than a dream remembered, a civilisation, gone with the wind”.

In Trump’s case the film might be Gone With The Windbag. Either way, nostalgia for the glorious Trump years will always endure for some Americans. As Churchwell notes, even in 1936, three generations after the defeat of the Confederacy and “70 years after fighting a bloody war to end slavery, Americans were convinced that there was nothing very wrong with slavery in the first place. They might have been forgiven for wondering why it was worth fighting a civil war over, in that case.”

Perhaps Americans will eventually find space in town squares for statues featuring a new hero, Donald Trump, alongside Robert E Lee. If so, there will be consequences. Churchwell’s book is about the future as well as the past. That’s why it’s called The Wrath To Come. After we finish our conversation I switch on the news. The two angry Americas are clashing again outside the US Supreme Court in Washington. A majority of the Justices – including three appointed by Trump – have overturned the right to abortion guaranteed in Roe v Wade. It means that in much of America including, inevitably, Margaret Mitchell’s Georgia and other states at the heart of the Old Confederacy, abortions will (also inevitably) still happen, but now they won’t be legal and may not be safe. I think of calling Sarah Churchwell back for her reaction but I know she will be furious and appalled, so I check her Twitter account. It says, “Guns officially have more rights in the United States than women do.” Then she reminds us of the American dystopia in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale by saying that “this refugee from Gilead is going to have a f***ing drink. If you need me I’ll be under the table.”

According to Pew Research, the highly regarded US polling group, “a 61 per cent majority of US adults say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 37 per cent think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. These views are relatively unchanged in the past few years.”

The 61 per cent majority of Americans includes Sarah Churchwell. They are part of “the wrath to come,” as America’s un-civil wars become even more vicious. And, as Churchwell knows better than most, the wrath to come is already here. It never went away. It is America’s original sin.

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and author, most recently, of How Britain Ends

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