The phrase has fallen somewhat out of use in recent years, but its core idea is one that has been with us for 150 years and longer: Someone who “waves the bloody shirt” is a demagogue whose rhetoric callously recalls violent incidents for the purpose of scoring cheap political points.
It appeals to a selectively skeptical part of human nature that is repelled by crass manipulation, but it has the effect of inverting reality and whitewashing violence and moral culpability: It makes, as historian Stephen Budiansky explains in The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomatox, “a victim of the bully and a bully of the victim.”
The phrase originated during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War. In the early years, white terrorists from armed paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan roamed the Southern countryside intent on terrorizing Black people and anyone assisting them. Preventing Blacks from voting was the primary focus of the terrorists. Their reputation for threatening people at the polls themselves was well established.
During this period, some 3,000 Black freedmen would be murdered in the South. The majority were people lethally attacked at their homes—shot through windows and doors, and at other times lynched. Most of these attacks took place at night. Black people lived in constant fear of having nighttime visitors.
The terrorists’ wrath was also directed at certain white people—namely, Southerners who sympathized with the Union, called “scalawags”; and Northerners who usually came to the postwar South with frequently altruistic intentions but were widely despised as exploitative “carpetbaggers.” These are phrases whose meanings remain with us, thanks to their enduring repetition over the decades. (You’ll recall how the carpetbagger is the chief villain of Gone with the Wind.)
In reality, they often were educators who were helping to open schools for Black children and promoting literacy in the adult population too. As historian Eric Foner observes in Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863–1877: “Carpetbaggers generally supported measures aimed at democratizing and modernizing the South—civil rights legislation, aid to economic development, the establishment of public school systems.”
This was seen as a threat to white supremacy and its rule, especially since education enhanced the freed slaves’ ability to vote. Schooling Black children threatened to overturn one of the core myths of white supremacists—namely, that Blacks were naturally too ignorant and stupid to be teachable, which is why they need to be under the control of their white masters.
So teachers were flogged and lynched, and schoolhouses burned to the ground as the first wave of terrorism struck the newly freed ex-slave community and their helpers. Some of the Klan’s most prominent white victims were schoolteachers. However, since they were white, they often were simply flogged or beaten and threatened with lynching.
This is where the phrase “waving the bloody shirt” originates, as explained by Budiansky in his terrific history, The Bloody Shirt. It was borne of an incident in Monroe County, Mississippi, in March 1871, in which 120 night-riding Klansmen descended on the home of George Ross at which a local school superintendent named Allen Huggins, an former Northerner, was spending the night, and demanded that Ross bring out “the man who was in the house”:
Huggins looked out the window and, by the bright moonlight, saw the porch crowded with men in white hoods and robes. They told him that, unless he came out to receive their “warning,” they would burn the place down.
Ross—“a good, respectable Democrat”—pleaded with Huggins to do as they asked and spare his frightened wife and children. So after securing a promise that “not a hair of your head shall be injured,” Huggins agreed to go down to the gate to hear what the men had come to tell him. It was just this. The men—whom Huggins would later describe as “gentlemanly fellows, men of cultivation, well educated, a much different class of men than I ever supposed I would meet in a Ku-Klux gang”—did not like his “radical ways,” they said. As superintendent of schools for the county, Huggins had instituted public schooling, was trying to “educate the negroes,” they said. They had stood it just as long as they were going to. Now he had ten days to leave—leave the county, leave the state altogether—or be killed.
Huggins replied that he would go when he was good and ready to go.
So the men marched him down the road, and when they reached a small hill a quarter of a mile away, one of them came toward him from where the horses were being held, and in his hand was a stout stirrup leather. And without any further ceremony, he began beating Huggins with the stirrup, with all his might. … When he came to, the men trained their pistols on him and repeated their warning that if any of them laid eyes upon him in ten days’ time, he was a dead man.
According to the legend that then became conventional wisdom in the South, the shirt from Huggins’ beating was delivered to Republican Congressman Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts, who then waved it about as he ranted at length about the evils of the Ku Klux Klan. But while Butler did deliver such a speech, at no time did he ever wave any bloody shirt in the House.
Nonetheless, the false legend not only was adopted as conventional wisdom, it became a sneer: If any Northerner should happen to bring up the campaign of lethal terror being waged against Blacks in the South in any political context, he would be dismissed as “waving the bloody shirt.” It became a political commonplace first wielded by Southern Democrats in the Congress to dismiss Republican attempts at upholding Reconstruction and holding Southerners accountable for their acts of mass violence, and then by the much broader populace. It became a common cartoon trope.
Soon enough, the conventional wisdom became that this very real violence was not the problem, but rather the demagogues who dared reference it, “exploiting” the tragedy for political purposes. Budiansky describes the cultural outcome of this rhetorical manipulation:
To white conservative Southerners, the outrage was never the acts they committed, only the effrontery of having those acts held against them. The outrage was never the “manly” inflicting of “well-deserved” punishment on poltroons, only the craven and sniveling whines of the recipients of their wrath. And the outrage was never the violent defense of “honor” by the aristocrat, only the vulgar rabble-rousing by his social inferior. “The only article the North can retain for herself is that white feather which she has won in every skirmish,” declared one Southerner, speaking of the Sumner–Brooks affair. Only a coward would revel in a token of his own defeat.
The bloody shirt captured the inversion of truth that would characterize the distorted memories of Reconstruction that the nation would hold for generations after. The way it made a victim of the bully and a bully of the victim, turned the very blood of their African American victims into an affront against Southern white decency, turned the very act of Southern white violence into wounded Southern innocence; the way it suggested that the real story was never the atrocities white Southerners committed but only the attempt by their political enemies to make political hay out of it. The mere suggestion that a partisan motive was behind the telling of these tales was enough to satisfy most white Southerners that the events never happened, or were exaggerated, or even that they had been conspiratorially engineered by the victims themselves to gain sympathy or political advantage.
The use of this rhetorical manipulation—which is fundamentally underhanded, deceptive, and abusive—by conservatives, especially those who wish to whitewash the reality of far-right violence, has never ceased. In the 1920s, it was a common reference among defenders of the revived Klan. The era of lynching between 1867 and 1940 in which thousands of Black people were summarily and horribly murdered was justified by its apologists as a necessity for the defense of “white womanhood”—that is, it was needed to stop Blacks from raping white women.
More recently, you could hear versions of it whenever right-wing extremists would act out violently, often following the on-air urgings of right-wing pundits—who would then complain bitterly about anyone daring to connect them to the violence. The most striking example—mainly because of its real-world effects—came in 2009, when the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin to law enforcement warning that right-wing extremists were becoming more active and recruiting veterans.
Conservatives essentially did a kind of self-own in this instance, openly identifying with the terrorist factions identified in the report and defending them on the basis that they appeared to be normal “conservatives”—and that the real problem was DHS analysts who they claimed were intent on suppressing right-wing views. It worked.
Fox News seized on the issue, running multiple segments on virtually every news show discussing the DHS bulletin. Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh weighed in, declaring it an attack on conservative free speech. Limbaugh also claimed the DHS report—which actually had been commissioned during the Bush administration—was an attempt to attack the tea party movement. Joe “the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, appearing at a tea party rally on Fox with Sean Hannity, commented: “Am I an extremist for saying ‘In God we trust’?”
Glenn Beck chimed in, with the National Review’s Byron York adding his two bits. Again, the narrative was repeated: The problem wasn’t far-right recruitment and terrorism, it was if the government—or anyone, for that matter—ever warned about them. And of course Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly weighed in on multiple occasions, claiming that the DHS’s scenarios—such as that disgruntled veterans could be recruited by the radical right—were factually groundless and a matter of pure speculation.
O’Reilly was a past master of whistling a version of the “bloody shirt” tune. One noteworthy example of this was when he came to the defense of Rush Limbaugh after he was denied the chance to own an NFL team. The problem wasn’t the harm Limbaugh caused, it was people calling him out.
When people called out the tea party’s racism, the problem in O’Reilly’s view wasn’t the wholesale takeover of the movement by right-wing extremists, especially of the militia variety. It was anyone who happened to point that out, because O’Reilly had never heard that.
And then there was the classic moment when Salon’s Joan Walsh called O’Reilly out for his lethal demonization of Kansas abortion provider George Tiller. When she told him he had blood on his hands, he went ballistic: “You are misguided, you have blood on your hands because you portrayed this man as a hero, when he killed late-term babies for casual reasons!”
Laura Ingraham and other Fox News figures quickly figured out this rhetorical gimmick and used it as well. The bigotry of the Islamophobes who tried to prevent construction of a mosque near Ground Zero wasn’t the problem, it was their critics.
This same patter has been going on for so long that now white conservatives no longer believe that their racism is the problem. The problem is the other people supposedly discriminating against them by calling them racists. A 2011 study found that “whites believe that they have replaced blacks as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America.”
Since the ascent of Donald Trump to the White House in 2016, much of conservative political strategy advancing the spread of white nationalism has been predicated on a similar kind of gaslighting. The strategy of pro-Trump, street-brawling far-right thugs invading liberal urban centers under the pretense of “free speech” or the right-wing cause du jour springboarded from this conventional wisdom. Essentially, the tactic was designed to create a narrative that turned reality on its head by claiming the real problem facing the nation was not violent right-wing extremists, but “antifa” and the “violent left” in these urban centers.
The narrative became official in 2019: The House held hearings on domestic terrorism, and Republicans invited demagogue Candace Owens to be their chief witness. She claimed white-nationalist terror was a Democratic fiction, and the real threat was “antifa.”
“The bottom line is that white supremacy, racism, white nationalism, words that once held real meaning, have now become nothing more than election strategies,” she said. “Every four years, the black community is offered handouts and fear. Handouts and fear. Reparations and white nationalism.”
On Fox News, white nationalists’ favorite pundit, Tucker Carlson, peddled the same garbage, claiming that the threat of white nationalist terror was a liberal “hoax,” and that making the charge (rather than promoting white nationalism) was “dividing the nation.”
“Attacking people for their race is exactly how you destroy a country,” he said. “That’s what Democrats are doing. They know that they are doing it, it’s obvious they just don’t care.”
Now, in the wake of a violent insurrection by pro-Trump Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, white nationalists and other yahoos, Carlson is singing a new verse for the same old tune: The Capitol siege was no big deal, the problem is liberals trying to make political hay with it.
“You may have thought you were a decent American in good standing,” he remarked. “Ten years ago, nobody in this country would have called your views extreme. They weren’t extreme then. You don’t think they’re extreme now, you’ve always considered yourself a pretty moderate person—live your life and get along with others. Oh ho, that’s not possible now—because the rules have changed. You are now a dangerous insurgent. You are no different from a bloodthirsty Pashtun in Helmand Province, or an ISIS terrorist in Erbil! You’re part of a guerrilla insurgency.”
Predictably, the public was fed similar rhetoric this week when the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security again held hearings on domestic terrorism in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection. The chief GOP witness was pseudo-journalist Andy Ngo, whose fabulist articles and “reportage” have been primary building blocks in the “antifa violence” mythos.
Ngo, unsurprisingly, characterized last summer’s anti-police-brutality protests as “riots,” and the violence that emerged from them entirely the product of “antifa” and Black Lives Matter “terrorism.” One Republican congressman played a video of the summer protests and then demanded to know if the scenes fit the definition of domestic terrorism (hint: they didn’t). Congressman Louie Gohmert of Texas tried to claim the Jan. 6 insurrection was primarily the fault of a Black Lives Matter activist—who, in fact, was a man who had organized rallies with Proud Boys and militiamen.
All this happens to align neatly with the views of Republican voters. A recent poll found that 58% of Trump voters believe that the Jan. 6 insurrection was actually the work of “antifa.” Because of course they, not violent right-wing extremists, are the real problem.
The consistent repetition of the Big Lie that Joe Biden won the election fraudulently by Republicans on the Sunday shows showed that they are all lining up to promote their gaslighting narrative of blamelessness. Just as distressing was the realization that none of their interlocutors from the mainstream media were at all willing to confront this lie.
All this gives us an idea what to expect for the foreseeable future out of the mouths of Republicans. The narrative will evolve into something like this:
- The Jan. 6 insurrection was understandable and indeed needed and a patriotic act because good Americans thought the election was being stolen.
- The Democrats who want to shame those good folks for their patriotism should be ashamed.
- Besides, they’re the ones trying to divide the country with all their identity politics and pronouns and Black Lives Matter stuff and violent antifa thugs. Antifa and BLM are the violent ones, not MAGA folks.
Count on something like that becoming the running storyline on Fox News over the next few months, and the basis of Republicans’ rationalization for their support for the disinformation and seditionist rhetoric that led to the insurrection. It’s how the “waving the bloody shirt” retort has always, always worked: turn reality on its head, reverse the victims and the perpetrators, then feign outrage. And until Americans wake up and realize they’re being gaslighted, it probably always will.