Bill Kristol and Rush Limbaugh: The Right's Leading Race-Baiters

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How have they reacted to Occupy Wall Street and harassment allegations against Herman Cain? Playing the card conservatives claim to abhor most.

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In college and for some time afterward, I believed that the conservative movement was earnestly against using race as a political cudgel. It isn't that I had no knowledge of political history. I knew about the Southern strategy, the wrongheaded opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and the stubborn persistence of racists on the fringes of the political right (and the political left). But hadn't things changed? On college campuses, I saw that invocations of racism were sometimes cynical, intended to empower the accuser -- shortly after I graduated, for example, a professor faked a hate crime against herself -- and seeing 18, 19, and 20 year-old campus conservatives speak out against such nonsense, even as they were earnestly anti-racism, made it that much easier to nod along to the conservative movement's critiques of Al Sharpton's bad behavior and certain attacks on Ward Connerly, who sought to repeal affirmative action policies at California public universities, and other incidents too. The critics made sound points.

I still think some on the left are guilty of cynically using race as a political cudgel. I've written about the Duke players falsely accused of rape and prosecuted by both a grandstanding Mike Nifong and the left-wing media; about the New York Times columnist who said that minorities who attended a Tea Party rally were minstrels; and about Lawrence O'Donnell questioning Herman Cain in a way it's difficult to imagine him questioning a black Democrat. It is true, as Matt Yglesias is fond of pointing out, that racism remains a much bigger and more urgent problem than false accusations of it. Nevertheless, using race as a political cudgel is corrosive and ought to be called out.

What I no longer believe is that the conservative movement (as opposed to many individual conservatives) is earnestly against the cynical use of race as a cudgel. I haven't believed it for a long time now. You'll still see peripheral figures on the left, the present day equivalents of Sharpton and Nifong, behaving dishonorably. But the new status quo in the conservative movement is something different. In the conservative movement, extremely prominent figures race bait in the ugliest, most transparent ways. And no one complains. Despite decades of denouncing this sort of behavior as ugly, illegitimate, and immoral, the movement right is unperturbed.

How bad have things gotten? Recall the outrage on the right when people like Janeane Garofalo tarred the whole Tea Party as racist, citing some racist signs in their midst. To be clear, Garofalo was absurdly sweeping in her comments. Now look at how Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, is characterizing Occupy Wall Street in a new ad put out by a group he leads (he's quickly becoming America's foremost producer of disgusting video spots):


The antisemitism in those clips are execrable, and ought to be roundly denounced, but how little integrity must you possess to present such hate speech as if it defines all of your adversaries in a political controversy? And in just the way that your ideological allies were complaining about mere months before! (See Reason TV's excellent coverage from Occupy Los Angeles for an example of journalists who neither shied away from the creepy racist element in the protests nor misled their viewers into an exaggerated impression of its prominence.)

Kristol is hardly alone. 

On Rush Limbaugh's Web site, under the headline "We should not be surprised by the left's racist hit job on Herman Cain," the talk radio host characterizes Politico's sexual harassment story as follows:

What's next, folks? A cartoon on MSNBC showing Herman Cain with huge lips eating a watermelon? What are they gonna do next? No, Snerdley, I'm not kidding. The racial stereotypes that these people are using to go after Herman Cain, what is the one thing that it tells us? It tells us who the real racists are, yeah, but it tells us that Herman Cain is somebody. Something's going on out there. Herman Cain obviously is making some people nervous for this kind of thing to happen.

Did anyone object that he labeled an entire half of the political spectrum racist based on a sexual harassment story in a single publication that didn't in fact contain any racial stereotypes?

Nope.

And no surprise.

As I've pointed out at great length, Limbaugh frivolously accuses more people of racism these days than anyone else in public life. And the conservative movement is happy to consider him an ally.

Thus the pathology spreads:

Ann Coulter led the charge soon after the story broke on Sunday night, evoking Clarence Thomas's words in his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, that this was "another high-tech lynching," saying, "There's nothing liberals fear more than a black conservative."

The racial theme, and evocations of Thomas, were echoed across conservative talk radio on Monday. Laura Ingraham, who clerked for Thomas on the Supreme Court in the 1990s, said "Doesn't this all sound so familiar? A black man who thinks for himself...He needs to be put in his place, a lot of people think. Time to put this man in, hate to say it, the back of the bus."

...Brent Bozell, the founder and president of the conservative media watchdog the Media Research Center, wrote a post called "Stop the High-tech Lynching of Herman Cain" that argued that "anyone in the press that gives this story oxygen" is "hypocritical."

Should there be any confusion, that's the same Ann Coulter who said that "liberals and white supremacists are the only people left in America who are neurotically obsessed with race," the same Laura Ingraham who thinks disagreeing with Obama gets you demonized as a racist, and the same Brent Bozell who authored columns including Team Obama's Race Baiting and Selective Race Baiting.

How depressing to think an ideological movement is actually opposed to something in principle, to nod along to the abstract, righteous arguments it marshals, only to watch as some of its leading figures cynically engage in the very awful behavior that they once claimed to abhor.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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