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NEWTON, IOWA - JANUARY 06: Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event on January 06, 2024 in Newton, Iowa. President Trump is campaigning across cities in Iowa in the lead up to the January 15 caucus for Iowa Republicans to select their party's nominee for the 2024 presidential race. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
CNN  — 

At a campaign event in Iowa this weekend, former President Donald Trump told supporters there was a way to prevent the bloody and intractable Civil War that tore America apart: to strike a deal between the slave-holding states and non-slave holding ones.

Dean Obeidallah

Describing the conflict as “so horrible, but so fascinating,” Trump declared at a campaign rally on Saturday that “so many mistakes were made” in the conduct of the war, which raged between 1861 and 1865, claiming more than 600,000 lives, after secessionist states insisted on leaving the Union rather than ending the barbaric practice of owning Black human beings as property. “That was a tough one for our country,” Trump said.

He continued: “See, there was something I think could have been negotiated, to be honest with you. I think you could have negotiated that.” He later added, “Abraham Lincoln, of course, if he negotiated it, you probably wouldn’t even know who Abraham Lincoln was.”

One has to wonder: What exactly, would Trump have wanted to see “negotiated”? What did he think was open for discussion? The options at that moment in history were slavery or war, as many historians have noted.

His remarks recall last month’s gaffe — also on the subject of the Civil War — made by South Carolina’s former governor Nikki Haley, who is vying with Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

Haley made a massive misstep when asked at a campaign event to name the causes of the conflict, naming a laundry list of reasons, but somehow managing to overlook slavery. It was an inexplicable oversight: The Civil War secession declarations of Haley’s own state of South Carolina and other southern states, after all, stated point blank that the reason for leaving the Union was to continue with slavery. It was slavery, or war.

Haley later clarified that slavery was indeed the reason for the Civil War — while continuing to insist that a laundry list of vague factors — “basically how government was going to run, the freedoms, and what people could and couldn’t do” — were also among the causes.

Haley’s remarks constituted an enormous blunder, but Trump’s were far worse. And it wasn’t a situation where the former president could say, as he sometimes does, that he really didn’t understand the details of the issue being discussed — in this case, the Civil War.

In fact, just two days before Sunday’s rally, he slammed Haley for not citing slavery as the cause of that terrible conflict between the states. At that campaign event on Friday, Trump told supporters: “She didn’t use the word ‘slavery,’ which was interesting.” Trump then added, “I’d say slavery is sort of the obvious answer.”

It all raises the unavoidable question: What would “negotiating” about slavery would have meant for Trump? Is he suggesting he would have allowed slavery to continue indefinitely as the slave-owning states wanted?

That was the very point made by Liz Cheney, a former Republican House member from Wyoming. Cheney wrote on X: “Which part of the Civil War ‘could have been negotiated’? The slavery part? The secession part? Whether Lincoln should have preserved the Union?” She continued: “Question for members of the GOP — the party of Lincoln — who have endorsed Donald Trump: How can you possibly defend this?”

Cheney was not the only Republican to criticize Trump’s comments. Christian Vanderbrouk, now a writer for The Bulwark, who once served in former President George W. Bush’s administration, wrote on X, “Trump muses wistfully about allowing the south to have continued the practice of slavery.”

Some might dismiss Trump’s musings about a negotiated deal to avoid the Civil War. I don’t. It seems that with Trump, when a political issue intersects race, his reasons appear to be far more sinister. Cheney and Vanderbrouk were making that very point by raising the question of whether Trump would have negotiated a deal allowing the Southern states to continue to own Blacks as property.

That is a very fair point: This is an individual after all who as president repeatedly and very vocally defended monuments that celebrated the Confederate military offices that had waged a war to defend slavery. Trump even went as far as to call these monuments to White supremacy things of “beauty.” In contrast, Trump called the Black Lives Matter street mural painting a “symbol of hate” while never using those same words to describe the Confederate monuments, like the one honoring slave-owning Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who Trump praised again in 2021.

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Beyond those remarks, there’s Trump’s history of spewing racist comments such as decrying immigrants from African countries and Haiti which he dubbed “shithole countries.” And his refusal to denounce White supremacy during the September 2020 presidential debate. That is the prism through which we have to view Trump’s comment that there could have been a way to negotiate an end to the Civil War.

The question for me is not whether Lincoln could have made a deal that would have made the slave-owning states happy enough to remain in the Union. What I wonder about is which side would’ve Trump sided with in the Civil War: The Confederacy or the United States of America? The track record of a president facing accusations of attempting his own insurrection, which he of course denies, would seem to readily answer that question.