When Abraham Lincoln became President of the United States of America on March 4, 1861, he became the first Republican president. This new party was founded only seven years prior (if that should give any hope to Governor Whitman’s “Forward Party”) and was built principally on the idea of opposing the expansion of slavery in the US. Early Republicans were pro-infrastructure in advocating for railroads, and wanted a stabilized banking system in the aftermath of the chaotic mid-19th Century monetary crises.
When Lincoln was elected, the Democrat-controlled South seceded, and the Civil War began as northern forces fought to contain and suppress the “slaveholder’s rebellion” as Frederick Douglass described the conflict on July 4, 1862. Long story short, the Confederacy lost, the nation’s first Republican president won the war, and was promptly assassinated by pro-Confederate actor, John Wilkes Booth. Republicans could not get a political foothold in the South for a century thereafter.
Why, then, does the symbolism of the failed south continue to be a flashpoint within New Jersey
politics in its most Republican of districts? With State Senator Steve Oroho not seeking re-election, Assemblyman Parker Space began his campaign to succeed him. Former Bogota mayor and self-styled “real Republican” Steve Lonegan ran against Space in a brief but contentious campaign which he ended in March.
The question remains, however, of what is a Republican and why does the party struggle to hone its brand within, when it should be an easy and proud legacy to cultivate?
It should be noted, if only for clarity of historical context, New Jersey was not keen on Lincoln, and “Honest Abe” did not carry the state in either the 1860 or 1864 election. Nevertheless, when war did break out, New Jersey contributed over 80,000 men in uniform, fighting for the Union, and about 8% of them never returned.
The smoke from the cannons of the Civil War evaporated some 158 years ago, but the battles for the Civil War legacy continue to be fought, and ferociously, to this day.
Enter, therefore, a paradox best suited for the post-satirical age that is the early 21st Century. What is the Party of Lincoln today and why can it not joyfully embrace its victory in 1865, its political triumph over slavery, and look forward, as successive Republican presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt did? Those earlier Republicans did not see the government as the enemy, but rather the instrument, of the will of the people. And they, along with the northern Civil War veterans’ association, The Grand Army of the Republic, did not seek to glorify those who tried to destroy the Union.
Confederate flags could not breech the defenses of Washington, DC, during the nation’s darkest days, when men fought on the battlefield, and a Republican president saved the fabric of the nation and liberated millions of people in the south from the institution of chattel slavery. But it is inescapable and undeniable that when the modern armies of rebellion did violently enter the Capitol on January 6, 2021, the rebel banner—the standard of the second-place winners in the real Civil War—was carried through the halls Lincoln walked when addressing the houses of Congress, the product of a Republican president’s cowardice and willingness to use his loyalists as foot-soldiers for a contest he never intended to fight himself. When the Vice President of the United States was threatened with murder by hanging, the crude gallows erected outside the Capitol was flanked by the banners of the defeated old South and an electorally defeated Republican president.
Because the 2010s and 2020s are proving themselves the most absurd decades in American history, where ghoulish internet edgelords, the alt-right memeocracy, and Twitter flamewars stoked by countless thousands of foreign- and-domestically-programmed “bots” envelope and shape the discourse of America’s elected representatives, the Confederacy continues to throw a shadow over the national conversations.
The adults in the room, men like State Senator Steve Oroho, continue to depart the stage, fed up,
demoralized, or otherwise exhausted by the sophomoric timbre of grown men (and women) who should know better. Meanwhile, a dynasty of Space Farms groundhogs named for Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson ends up making the news, becomes a political matter. This is, of course, the post-satirical reality.
Oroho, by not seeking re-election, may be another departing old guard of New Jersey Republicans, the kind that got things done, that could wear a suit well, and were not afraid of working across the aisle to deliver for the people of New Jersey. An intellectual, effective statesman, Oroho—a conservative, without a doubt—and his ilk are becoming increasingly fewer, while firebrands seek to flip the board over rather than learn the nuance and strategy of the game.
Republican State Senator Jon Bramnick, another adult in the GOP, condemned Lonegan in March, saying in a statement that the former mayor “…attacks the Republican Party for his own failures.” Bramnick added that “…Mr. Lonegan believes that we lost to Murphy, Biden, and Menendez because Republicans are not conservative enough for New Jersey voters. I do not think most New Jerseyans or Republicans believe that theory. In order to win statewide or in swing districts, we must be trusted as a political party by unaffiliated and moderate Democrats. We cannot be branded as the ‘Trump’ party or deny the existence of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. We cannot deny the results of elections where 60 federal courts made 60 independent decisions rejecting the cases that claimed widespread voter fraud.” Bramnick ended his statement, asserting that Lonegan’s inability to win elections is “because he has not been and should never be the voice of the New Jersey Republican Party.”
Space runs unopposed candidate in Tuesday’s GOP Primary – and solidly “the establishment” by virtue of having a decade in the Assembly. Despite Lonegan’s attacks on Space as a supposed legislative failure, Space blew off Lonegan with 2020s panache and elegance, calling him a “loser” and a “carpet bagger” (to use a post- Civil War term). In a state where “home rule” is a sacred concept, Space said that his family has lived in the area for over two centuries, and Lonegan showed up last autumn.
Lonegan challenged Chris Christie to be governor, but was defeated in the 2009 primary. Since that time, Lonegan has continued to be a presence, touting himself as the “real” conservative choice while challenging contests up and down the state. All the while, men like Bramnick in the NJ GOP seemed to roll its eyes. An arch Ted Cruz supporter and Trump opponent leading up to 2016, Lonegan has bizarrely tried to invoke Trump’s MAGA brand while condemning Parker Space as being keen on the Confederacy. The Space campaign, in the meantime, released an ad with a Fox News clip of Trump calling Lonegan a “loudmouth” and a “loser.” Trying to connect to the real world, in March Lonegan tried to smear Space, saying in a statement that, “Since 2019, Space has taken a whopping $13,200 from Local 825 — the leading advocate for the current gas tax and the expected leader in a 2024 fight to implement a mileage tax that will mandate invasive trackers be installed in every car, truck and minivan in New Jersey. The cash infusions that the Space team is relying on are clearly tied to his Assembly running mates’ full-throated endorsement of the gas tax and his promised support for renewing the gas tax in the Senate.”
Space caused some uproar a few years back, photographed standing in front of a Confederate flag, where he said he was attending a Hank Williams concert. The Republican incumbent also has a Confederate flag tattoo on his arm, something Lonegan assailed, calling it “foolish” although he did not assert that Space himself was a racist.
Space’s chief of staff at the time of the controversy said the tattoo was after The Dukes of Hazzard TV show. The assemblyman pushed back on Lonegan’s attacks, calling him “far left”—the guy who tried to out-conservative Christie in a Democrat-majority state and subsequently lost.
In 2015, after Dylan Roof killed 9 people worshipping in a black church in Charleston, the New Jersey legislature voted to condemn displays of the Confederate flag and this easy, low-hanging political fruit was seized upon by all with the exception of Space, who abstained. The sponsor of the bill, the late State Senator Ron Rice (D) said, “The Confederate flag may have initially been waved following the end of the Civil War as a symbol of Southern pride and heritage, or in remembrance of fallen Confederate soldiers, [but] it has since evolved to be a painful symbol of this country’s past and the segregation and racism that was so deeply rooted in the South.”
“It’s heritage, not hate” – some say. It is an argument which could possibly be made in Florida or Alabama, but it does not hold up here, as New Jersey’s heritage is the 80,000 men who defeated the Confederacy. The hate was that which tore the country to shreds and left over 620,000 dead. The Confederacy is a part of American history—a mere four years, though bloody and painful years—but whatever argument of heritage there is to be made cannot apply to the Garden State except as a force vanquished by sacrificing New Jersey families a century and a half ago.
The party Lincoln once led cannot seem to come to grips with political symbolism or even agree on who their enemy was. Space has asserted that it is a kind of working-class, agricultural icon rather than an object of racism. This is an appeal to his voting base. (Enslaved black agricultural workers might have had a different take on it, but that, apparently, is not much of a factor.)
Christie was apparently left of Lonegan in 2009, and Lonegan lost. Rather than be trounced again, Lonegan bowed out, leaving his supporters, and perhaps most of all, himself, to reassess—again—what, exactly, the Republican Party is, and why his brand of it does not resonate with greater numbers of voters. Was he ever Republican enough? Did he ever know what being a Republican really is, where Christie understood and, seemingly, Space does as well? Where, if anywhere, can a man like Lonegan find sure footing in the vast valley between Presidents Lincoln and Trump? If he looks to the political past, he may find fewer answers than he would hope for, as the waters have been deeply muddied in the last 150+ years. What Republicans died fighting against a century-and-a-half ago does not cause any political repercussions within the GOP of today. Space Farms’ Stonewall Jackson is no traitor, just a groundhog who predicts whether or not spring will come early: nothing more, nothing less. Would his namesake be proud? Would General Jackson wonder why Republicans are discussing concerts, tattoos, and meteorologist rodents with the constituents they seek to serve? Jackson might just as well be glad that he was accidentally gunned down by his own men, rather than trying to find sense in the political dynamics of the 21st Century.
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