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A man points a finger at pro-monument supporter at the Robert E. Lee Monument the pro-monument supporter is with the League of the South, a white nationalist group, in New Orleans, La. Sunday, May 7, 2017.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

As the fight over Confederate monuments escalates and claims its first lives, you have to wonder whether it would have happened if New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu hadn't taken the lead.

Probably, it would have, for black people have long resented having their faces rubbed in the supposed heroics of their forebears' enslavers. Landrieu tapped into passions that, sooner or later, were going to boil over somewhere. Still, the riot in Charlottesville was a predictable consequence of the assault that Landrieu started on relics of the lost cause.

Equally predictable was the emergence of David Duke at the head of the racist rabble. Both sides in the great furor have cause to curse Louisiana.

Bold though Landrieu's move was, several politicians have adjudged it the right one, and rebel statues are falling like ninepins in the aftermath of the Charlottesville atrocity. A few days after that Nazi kid ran over and killed Heather Heyer, Baltimore's Confederate statuary was spirited away in the dead of night before the likes of Duke had a chance to mobilize the white supremacist hordes. A wise precaution. Some subhuman creature styled a Grand Dragon of the Klan announced he was glad that Heyer had been killed and promised more violence at future rallies.

Meanwhile, Confederate statues have been taken down in Gainesville, Florida, and Durham, North Carolina. Although Alabama state law forbids such a purge there, Birmingham Mayor William Bell has erected wooden panels around an obelisk honoring the secessionists. The Confederacy has even raised its hoary head deep in Union country. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has covered up a memorial to Confederate prisoners of war who died on an island in Boston Harbor, and it will probably be shipped out soon.

Border states are naturally the most ambivalent. Take, for instance, Kentucky, where Lexington Mayor Jim Gray has announced Confederate statues will be removed from the grounds of an old courthouse. The Klan nutters threaten to descend on the city, of course, while Gov. Matt Bevin offers them some succor by coming out against “the sanitization of history.”

There is no more natural flashpoint in this dispute than Kentucky. Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were born there, and their statues stand in the rotunda of the state capitol. This is fertile ground for Duke, and he will no doubt continue to attract headlines around the world. He can evidently count on President Donald Trump to keep passions high and provide moral support.

Duke certainly views Trump's remarks on Charlottesville as grist to his mill. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty and courage to tell the truth about Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists,” Duke tweeted after Trump let him off the hook. Trump, after briefly being pressured into denouncing white supremacy, reverted to his original position and blamed the Charlottesville mayhem on “many sides,” noting that only the Confederates had a permit.

So what Landrieu started has not only exposed a deadly rift in American society, but has provided further evidence that the country is not in safe hands. If Trump can be so reckless and inconsistent over a 1924 statue of Robert E. Lee, it will be hard to trust his judgment in disputes that really matter in such places as China and North Korea.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, some 1,500 Confederate monuments stand in American cities, and we should all write letters to the editor demanding their removal, thus proving that apologists for the Old South were right to suggest that once you start pulling them down, there is no telling where it will all end.

Trump has taken up the familiar refrain. “This week it is Robert E. Lee and this week Stonewall Jackson,” he said. “George Washington was a slave owner. Are we gonna take down statues of George Washington?”

Probably not, and another cause will emerge to agitate the public after we all grow weary of the Confederate one and Duke is left in the dust.

Email James Gill at jgill@theadvocate.com.