Anger at the status quo and loathing for his opponent, far more than his own attractiveness, drove the fluke that landed Donald Trump in the White House. If he is to survive and have a chance at a second term, he evidently reckons his best hope is to keep bating his adversaries to act in ways that trigger the ire and hate of his base.

That is what his “on many sides” blame allocation for last month’s violence in Charlottesville was all about. He’s a provocateur, not a closet neo-Nazi or Ku-Kluxer. He regards such fringe ethno-nationalists as “losers”, than which there is nothing lower in his hierarchy of bad. But if his enemies want to accuse him of being a racist, he’s fine with that. In fact, he courts it. Witness his repellent quest to prove Barack Obama was not born in the US.

“The longer they (Democrats) talk about identity politics, I got ‘em,” Trump’s Rasputin, Stephen Bannon, explained. “I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” Bannon may since be gone, but he left behind his playbook.

It must have made Trump’s day when Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats’ leader in the House of Representatives, suddenly discovered, after a quarter century walking past them, that “the Confederate statues in the halls of Congress have always been reprehensible.” To Trumpies, who had voted to “take our country back” from Pelosi’s kind, it was just one more example of political correctness run amok. Besides, call Trump racist and you’re implying they’re racist too and that makes them even angrier.

Not that it isn’t high time America stopped airbrushing its past. If and when I am ever called for my citizenship interview, I may be asked what caused the South, in 1861, to commit the equivalent of Rhodesian UDI. According to the cheat sheet, there are three answers the immigration examiner may accept: slavery, state’s rights or “economic factors”. The second and third choices are prevarications but they still get equal billing in the official story. That needs changing.

Will removing Confederate iconography — statues, flags, plaques — from public spaces help? Much of it was erected long after the war itself as part of a concerted project to re-render the South’s cause as a noble if tragically doomed crusade to vindicate the founding fathers’ conception of liberty. This humbuggery is critical to understanding America. Might it therefore make sense to leave its artefacts in place to be reflected on rather than give demagogues like Trump a wedge issue?

Andrew Young, the former UN ambassador, congressman, Atlanta mayor and aide to Dr Martin Luther King, thinks it would. He has seen the politics work out badly. A battle over the Georgia state flag cost Democrats the governorship, he says, and with it, “$14.9 billion and 70 000 jobs that would have gone with the Affordable Care Act.”

In 2009, a newly inaugurated President Obama was asked to continue the annual tradition of placing a wreath on the Confederate memorial in Arlington cemetery, official burying ground of America’s war dead. The elaborate 10 metre tall bronze sculpture, consecrated by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914, features inter alia a female slave tearfully holding up a baby so that its father, her owner, may bid it farewell as he heads to war to keep her in bondage. Also depicted is an African-American soldier marching to defend the Confederacy. It is a stunning example of Southern cant.

Obama had a wreath sent over in the usual way, but insisted that one simultaneously be laid on a memorial for black soldiers who died fighting for freedom on the Union side.