How Conservatives Reacted to Cliven Bundy’s Racism

By
Photo: George Frey/Getty Images

The problem with falling in love after a first date is that you might not know if he’s a racist.

The right-wing rush to fawn over freedom fighter Cliven Bundy — the Nevada rancher whose refusal to pay grazing fees for the 20 years his cattle spent eating government grass led to a mob of armed supporters chasing away the Bureau of Land Management — turned awkward yesterday when he was quoted in the New York Times, and seen on video, wondering if “the Negro” was “better off” as a slave, “pickin’ cotton.” Bundy’s many small-government suitors, including Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Sean Hannity, all whipped out their thesauruses to find the most forceful language with which to disagree. But only with the slaves part.

Paul quickly distanced himself, saying Bundy’s “remarks on race are offensive, and I wholeheartedly disagree with him.” But his senior adviser Doug Stafford stressed in a statement, “Senator Paul spoke out against federal overregulation and BLM handling of a situation. He has never spoken to or met Mr. Bundy and is not responsible for the vile comments that come out of his mouth.”

A spokesperson for Ted Cruz said the comments were “completely unacceptable,” but insisted the Texas senator had simply expressed “his concern about the vast amount of land controlled by the federal government.”

“His comments are beyond repugnant to me, they are beyond despicable to me, they are beyond ignorant to me,” said Sean Hannity, previously one of Bundy’s chief mainstream conservative cheerleaders. “I don’t even want to hear it anymore. It’s obnoxious, ignorant. It reminds me of Todd Akin” — in the sense that one extreme phrase made the entire conservative cause look bad by association. Hannity added, “people for the right reasons who saw this case as government overreach, now are branded because of the ignorant, racist, repugnant, despicable comments of Cliven Bundy.”

If anything, it’s a massive inconvenience — Bundy took issues the right typically tiptoes around with coded language and went full kook. And he hasn’t done himself any favors since, holding a press conference in which he referred repeatedly to “negroes” and “those people,” insisting he was just “wondering” if they were better off as slaves. He’s also appeared nonstop on cable news, referring clumsily to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. along the way.

“If I say ‘negro’ or ‘black boy’ or ‘slave,’ I’m — if those people cannot take those kind of words and not be offensive, then Martin Luther King hasn’t got his job done yet,” he said this morning.

“How does it feel to be abandoned by your friends on Fox?” CNN’s Bill Weir asked Bundy last night. “I mean, the only reason we could get you on tonight is that, I’m guessing, they didn’t call.” And why would they? He’s gone from folk hero to liability, but only because he went off script.

As former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, a black man, put it, Bundy’s rant “undermines the broader, more important goals to rebrand and reestablish a conversation with a community that looks suspiciously upon most of the things you say.” But the problem is more fundamental than an out-of-touch senior citizen in Nevada.

Ezra Klein argues, “Rip out Bundy's comments about slavery and his Dixie rhetoric and Bundy fits comfortably with the more reformist wing of the Republican Party,” citing Paul Ryan’s claims of a “culture problem,” in which men in “inner cities” are “not even thinking about working.” Klein calls it “essentially identical to Bundy’s, minus the nutty bits about slavery.”

Bundy's theory, basically, is that government handouts have lulled African-Americans into a fatal dependency. He thinks the damage is evident in the dissolution of black families and the waning of their work ethic. That's what Bundy means when he says that, post-slavery, African Americans got "less freedom." In this case, freedom is a stand-in, as it occasionally is in conservative rhetoric, not for liberty, but for basically all American values.

Jonathan Chait wrote yesterday, “it’s not exactly a coincidence that Bundy also turns out to be a gigantic racist … Why do all these people with strong antipathy toward the federal government turn out to be racists?”

And then there’s the hypocrisy: Bundy’s entire claim to fame is refusing to pay for the public land he’s using — freeloading, you could say — while then claiming black people are “dangerously dependent” on the government. “How are you not sort of a welfare queen in a cowboy hat?” Weir asked on CNN. (One of Bundy’s lonely defenders, racism aside, is the National Review’s Kevin Williamson, who maintains that Bundy’s fight against tyranny makes like Gandhi, MLK, George Washington, and the guys at the Alamo, all in one.)

But the wisest play for Republicans has turned out to be not falling for Bundy in the first place, since he was never beholden to any semblance of political decorum, no one really knew anything about him, and his cause was flimsy to begin with. Among right-wing media, The Weekly Standard kept its distance best, writing before the racist meltdown, “Cliven Bundy is no hero of any kind. No conservative would pick and choose the laws he intends to obey, defy the rest, and challenge the rule of democracy with guns.” For those who never kissed him, there’s no stink to rub off.