Some great causes achieve their goals and transform the world, while others fizzle out when it's discovered that their leaders are unadorned racists who think black people were in much better shape when they were slaves. Isn't that how it goes? At least that's what some conservatives must have thought today as they learned of the New York Times report on Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has been grazing his cows on federal land and refusing to pay grazing fees, what you or I might consider "stealing," but what the folks at Fox News, who have given Bundy hour after hour of glowing coverage, consider a principled stand against federal overreach in the finest American traditions.
Prior to this morning, Bundy's fans were a limited but influential group, including senators Rand Paul and Dean Heller, the entire Fox network (but especially Sean Hannity), and the National Review, where one writer compared him to Gandhi. Now that Bundy's fascinating ideas about "the Negro" have come to light, they'll no doubt pretend they never really liked the guy in the first place, then they'll stop talking about him. I predict, for instance, that after practically being Sean Hannity's co-host for the last couple of weeks, Bundy will never be seen on Fox again, and he'll be wiped out of their future discussions like a disfavored Soviet leader airbrushed out of a photo of the Politburo. But is there anything to learn from this episode? I think so. First though, here are the comments in question:
"I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro," he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, "and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn't have nothing to do. They didn't have nothing for their kids to do. They didn't have nothing for their young girls to do.
"And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?" he asked. "They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn't get no more freedom. They got less freedom."
Who would have thought that a gun-toting rancher who thinks he can graze on public land for free because "I don't recognize the United States government as even existing" would also be a racist? So weird.
Now hold on, you might say, that's just a stereotype based on some things about who he is and what he believes about an entirely separate matter. And yes, it is. Which is why it would have been unfair to assume, before we knew it to be true, that Bundy was a racist. But I didn't see anybody doing that. The only commentary I saw having to do with race before today came from people like Jamelle Bouie and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who pointed out that if Bundy were black, right-wing figures would not exactly be flocking to his defense, and the government might be dealing with him differently as well.
And the conservatives who embraced Bundy were doing so because of their own stereotypes about him. It wasn't as though he had some kind of compelling case to make. It was clear from the outset that the guy was a nut (see the above comment about not recognizing the existence of the United States government). His only cause was that he shouldn't have to pay fees to graze his cattle on land he doesn't own. To most people he looked like a crazy old man with a sense of entitlement that would put any "welfare queen" to shame.
But to his advocates, he was an avatar of freedom. Why? Well, he does ride a horse and wear a cowboy hat, and he loves guns and hates the government. What else did they need to know?
As I noted today over at the Washington Post, there are more than a few parallels with the case of "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson. Robertson too was someone conservatives knew they loved, since he was their kind of guy, even before they heard his views on gay and black people. Robertson's statement was remarkably similar to Bundy's, just substituting Jim Crow for slavery ("I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues"). Since no black people ever brought their complaints about the terroristic system of Jim Crow directly to Phil Robertson, he's pretty sure they were all "singing and happy" back then, unlike today with their entitlement and their welfare. Cliven Bundy once drove past a housing project, so he has a deep understanding of how pathological those black folk are.
The conservatives who elevate figures like Robertson and Bundy may not share the full extent of their views on race, but they can't escape them either. Because those people know which party and which ideology is their natural home. Sure, you may not hear Rush Limbaugh say that black people were better off as slaves, but you'll hear a lot of other things that make Cliven Bundy nod his head in agreement. You'll hear him say that Barack Obama's agenda is "payback" for slavery, a way to stick it to white people. You'll hear him say that Barack and Michelle Obama's lavish lifestyle, where they live in a big white house and travel on their own airplanes, isn't just what presidents do; instead, "they view it as, as an opportunity to live high on the hog without having it cost them a dime. And they justify it by thinking, 'Well, we deserve this, or we're owed this because of what's been done to us and our ancestors all these' -- who knows?" When you watch Fox you'll see story after story about welfare queens and food stamp cheats and all the other schemers and scammers who are taking your hard-earned money away from you. And you'll be told, again and again and again, that racism against black people is but a fading memory, while the false accusation of racism is something liberals and blacks use to keep the white man down.
Conservatives didn't invent Cliven Bundy, but when he rushed to their embrace they encouraged him and applauded him and made him into a national figure. He's theirs, down to his last ugly thought.