It's a Conservative Thing; You Wouldn't Understand
This week, millions of Americans struggled to understand how an unarmed 17 year old African-American kid stalked by an overzealous community watch volunteer came to be blamed for his own murder. Millions more wondered what all the fuss was about. And like many Americans across the country, I naturally expected our President--who also happens to be America's first African-American President--to provide meaning to the tragedy and its tense aftermath. President Obama spoke both from the heart and from history to help us understand both the anguish so many our fellow Americans feel and the discomfort many others experience in response to that anguish.
But if you, like me, thought the President's personal history and life story uniquely positioned him to shed some light on America's dark past and brighter future, conservative commentators were quick to disabuse you of that notion. Instead, they instructed us Friday, Barack Obama is "the First Racist in Chief" and is trying "to tear our country apart." The "Race Baiter in Chief" could have been Trayvon Martin 35 years ago because "he smoked pot and he did a little blow" and must have "suckerpunched a watch volunteer & then bashed his head in."
Apparently, right-wing ideologues, almost all of them white, are the referees of race relations in the United States. If that doesn't seem right to you, that's because it's a conservative thing. You wouldn't understand.
Not that the right's best and brightest didn't try to explain the rules to us even before Barack Obama took the oath of office. Almost a year before Glenn Beck told Fox News viewers in 2009 that the President of the United States was racist and had "a deep-seated hatred of white people," Rush Limbaugh repeatedly described "this little boy" Senator Obama as a "Halfrican-American" and a "man-child." Now giving himself permission to use the "n" word in the wake of the Zimmerman trial, Limbaugh in January explained that the entire tragedy of Jim Crow could have been easily avoided:
"If a lot of African-Americans back in the '60s had guns and the legal right to use them for self-defense, you think they would have needed Selma? If John Lewis, who says he was beat upside the head, if John Lewis had had a gun, would he have been beat upside the head on the bridge?"
Back in the summer of 2008, Rep. John Lewis was surprised to hear that Republican presidential candidate John McCain described him as one of the three wisest people that he "would rely on heavily in an administration." His disbelief was amplified that fall, when attendees at McCain-Palin rallies called Barack Obama an "Arab," a "terrorist," a "traitor" and worse. While McCain to his credit responded, "He's a decent family man...[a] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues," legions of his voters insisted otherwise.
Thanks to the Tea Party movement peopled by his party's most fervent followers, by the fall of 2009 17 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of evangelicals believed Barack Obama was a Muslim. 58 percent of Republicans weren't sure if Obama was born in the United States. (Both figures were higher than in March 2008.) In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney happily accepted the endorsement and cash of Birther Donald Trump, even offering some red meat to his reddest of voters. As he explained to a crowd during a campaign stop in Michigan last August:
"Now I love being home in this place where Ann and I were raised, where both of us were born," the GOP hopeful told the crowd. "Ann was born in Henry Ford Hospital, I was born at Harper Hospital. No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate, they know that this is the place that we were born and raised."
It's no surprise that on the eve of the election in September 2012, polling found that 40 percent of Americans and 73 percent of self-identified Republicans did not believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States of America.
That may explain why so many of their leaders refused to treat this week's "Racist-in-Chief" as President of the United States. In September 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson shouted "you lie" as President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress on health care. While many Americans responded with shock and scorn, others replied with cash for Wilson's campaign coffers. (One gun manufacturer commemorated the event by offering a receiver for the AR-15 rifle featuring Wilson's words "you lie" etched into the anodized metal.) That episode recalled another one involving one of Wilson's Palmetto State predecessors back in 1856, when admirers sent canes to South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks after he viciously caned abolitionist Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in the Capitol. As one laudatory editorial back in Brooks' home state put it:
"Meetings of approval and sanction will be held, not only in Mr. Brooks' district, but throughout the State at large, and a general and hearty response of approval will re-echo the words, 'Well done,' from Washington to the Rio Grande."
150 years later, conservatives tell us, that is where the "real Americans" live. That was clear during the 2008 election. Before Rep. Robin Hayes (R-NC) said - and then denied saying - "liberals hate real Americans," the sound bite was firmly established as a GOP talking point. A few days before, McCain spokeswoman Nancy Pfotenhauer explained that northern Virginia was not the "real Virginia." GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin amplified on the point during an event in North Carolina:
"We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation."
Apparently, extremism in defense of keeping those pro-American areas that way is no vice. In their campaign to "build the damn fence," Republicans over the last several years have compared the undocumented to "dogs" (Steve King) and "goats" (Trent Lott), and suggested providing free condoms to Mexicans (Mark Kirk) and advocated the construction of an electrified border fence which will "kill you" (Herman Cain). And as Rand Paul aide and co-author "the Southern Avenger" reminded us this week, the cause of many Republicans is the Lost Cause. 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, for many of the GOP's biggest names the appeal of states' rights, nullification and secession is as simple as black and white.
Consider, for example, the example of Virginia Republicans. While Democratic state senator and civil rights leader Henry Marsh was attending President Obama's second inauguration in Washington, Republicans last month voted for an unprecedented redistricting of their state. But the indignity hardly ended there. As Kevin Drum reported on January 21:
But wait! That's not all. The deed was done on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and at the end of the session Republicans adjourned in memory of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, whose birthday is today.
That GOP attempted coup died when soon-to-be ex-Republican Governor and former 2016 White House wannabe Bob McDonnell signaled he would not sign the redistricting bill. But in April 2010, Governor McDonnell did sign a proclamation recognizing Confederate History Month and the South's "four year war...for independence." Within days, however, McDonnell was forced to apologize after it was revealed that his proclamation did not recognize the existence slavery. (The next month, Texas conservatives approved an overhaul of the state's textbooks which would remove the word "slave" from the term "slave trade.")
For then Mississippi Governor and former RNC chairman Haley Barbour, McDonnell's supposed oversight was nothing to get exercised about. As he explained:
"To me it's a sort of feeling that it's just a nit. That it is not significant. It's trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn't matter for diddly."
As it turns out, to other Republicans like Mike Huckabee and Trent Franks slavery isn't a nit. Instead, slavery is a very big deal. Or more accurately, a big sledgehammer that serves as a helpful bludgeon to beat Americans' reproductive rights back into the 19th century. Huckabee, the master of that moral two-fer, explained it to throngs of GOP faithful in Texas two weeks ago:
Huckabee compared abortion to slavery, asking if society could reject slavery and "come to the conclusion that one person can take the life of another person."
..."It's the logic of the Civil War," Huckabee said, comparing abortion rights to slavery. "If morality is the point here, and if it's right or wrong, not just a political question, then you can't have 50 different versions of what's right and what's wrong."
For Arizona Congressman Franks, it's worse that than:
"In this country, we had slavery for God knows how long. And now we look back on it and we say "How brave were they? What was the matter with them? You know, I can't believe, you know, four million slaves. This is incredible." And we're right, we're right. We should look back on that with criticism. It is a crushing mark on America's soul. And yet today, half of all black children are aborted. Half of all black children are aborted. Far more of the African-American community is being devastated by the policies of today than were being devastated by policies of slavery."
African-Americans, according to Trent Franks, were better off in bondage.
The Council of Conservative Citizens, the successor to the dreaded White Citizens' Councils of Jim Crow days, couldn't agree more. Which is why Haley Barbour, who campaigned for governor of Mississippi wearing a lapel pin of the state's Confederate flag he vowed to maintain, was a fixture at the CCC's events.
Barbour's fellow Mississippi Republican, Trent Lott, similarly extended a hand to the CCC. The former Senate Majority Leader and later Minority Whip (you can't make this stuff up) was a speaker in 1992 at an event of the Council of Conservative Citizens. Among its offerings in seething racial hatred is a "Wanted" poster of Abraham Lincoln. Lott's also offered his rebel yell in the virulently neo-Confederate Southern Partisan, where in 1984 he called the Civil War "the war of aggression." That was years before he lauded the legendary racist and 1948 Dixiecrat presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond:
"I want to say this about my state: when Strom Thurmond ran for President, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
"Your magazine helps set the record straight. You've got a heritage of doing that, of defending Southern patriots like [Robert E.] Lee, [Stonewall] Jackson and [Jefferson] Davis. Traditionalists must do more. I've got to do more. We've all got to stand up and speak in this respect or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda."
And for many of today's Republicans, the real perverted agenda is the province of Democrats, and includes health care reform, women's reproductive rights and gun-control among its Yankee sins.
Take, for example, Georgia Congressman and Senate candidate Paul Broun. Broun, who last week boasted that he was the first member of Congress to brand Barack Obama a "Marxist-Leninist", had a different warning in 2010 about what would become the Affordable Care Act:
"If ObamaCare passes, that free insurance card that's in people's pockets is gonna be as worthless as a Confederate dollar after the War Between The States -- the Great War of Yankee Aggression."
As it turns out, Broun wasn't the first Republican to recall the Lost Cause in announcing his opposition to President Obama's policies. In February 2009, Missouri Republican Bryan Stevenson took exception to President Obama's support for the Freedom of Choice Act, legislation which sought to codify the reproductive rights protections of Roe v. Wade nationwide:
"What we are dealing with today is the greatest power grab by the federal government since the war of northern aggression."
Of course, the next logical step for the neo-Confederates of the GOP was to threaten secession. And in April 2009, Texas Governor Rick Perry suggested to a furious Tea Party rally that the secession option should be on the table:
Perry told reporters following his speech that Texans might get so frustrated with the government they would want to secede from the union.
"There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that."
To be sure, violating the oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the United States is an odd definition of patriotism. Sadly for Perry and the GOP secessionists, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia crushed their hopes:
"If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede."
After Chief Justice John Robert's ruling on the Voting Rights Act in the Supreme Court's Shelby County case, you might add "no right to vote" to that list as well.
As Republicans will during rare moments of candor will admit, their barriers to registration, draconian voter identification laws, reduced polling place hours, Election Day ballot challenges and other roadblocks to the franchise aren't designed to prevent the non-existent of voter fraud, but instead the real threat of Democrats winning elections. Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R) described his state's voter ID law in June 2012 as one the Republican majority's many accomplishments:
"Pro-Second Amendment? The Castle Doctrine, it's done. First pro-life legislation - abortion facility regulations - in 22 years, done. Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done."
Even though a federal court prevented full implementation of the law, Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Rob Gleason this week explained it worked as designed even if Barack Obama still carried the Keystone State:
"Think about this, we cut Obama by five percent, which was big. A lot of people lost sight of that. He won, he beat McCain by 10 percent, he only beat Romney by five percent. I think that probably voter ID helped a bit in that."
Of course, we're told, that's just a side effect of the kinds of voter identification laws pioneered in Georgia starting in 2005. The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, which rejected initial versions of the Georgia law, interviewed co-sponsor Sue Burmeister, a state representative from Augusta:
Rep. Burmeister said that if there are fewer black voters because of this bill, it will only be because there is less opportunity for fraud. She said that when black voters in her black precincts are not paid to vote, they do not go to the polls.
For his part, Georgia Congressman and would-be Senator Paul Broun last year offered an amendment to a contentious spending bill that which would have ended all funding for U.S. Department of Justice enforcement of Section Five of the Voting Rights Act. "I know firsthand how onerous this law is," Broun protested, "My home state of Georgia, as an example, has long struggled with the U.S. Department of Justice over its voter identification laws." When his fellow Georgian John Lewis rose to object that "People died for the right to vote - friends of mine, colleagues of mine," Broun withdrew his amendment.
A year later, the Supreme Court helped do Broun's work for him. Chief Justice John Roberts answered his own question--"are Southerners more likely to discriminate than Northerners?"--in the negative. With the coverage formula for the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act now gutted, Justice Antonin Scalia has helped put an end to what he deemed the "perpetuation of racial entitlement."
On Saturday, thousands of Americans took to the streets to protest the outcome of the Zimmerman trial. But on Monday, Paul Broun's fellow Georgian Newt Gingrich was already on the air explaining the meaning of the first demonstrations already underway in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles:
"The fact is, six women sat on a jury for five solid weeks. I watched these protesters, none of whom read the transcript, none of whom sat through five weeks of the trial, all of whom were prepared basically to be a lynch mob."
A lynch mob, no doubt, egged on by Barack Obama, the "Racist-in-Chief." Don't feel badly if that logic doesn't make sense to you.
After all, it's a conservative thing. You wouldn't understand.