The Worst Racial Demagogues of the Decade

Conservatives insist they're on the left. But has any liberal behaved worse than Newt Gingrich or Rush Limbaugh in the last 10 years?

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In Stephen Colbert's ongoing spoof of conservative punditry, he often insists that he cannot see color. As if to prove that he's a spot on satirist, Rush Limbaugh has titled a Monday web item about the Trayvon Martin case, "The Left's Obsession with Race," wherein he explains to his audience:

This is one of those things I can't relate to. I don't look at people and see a race or a sexual orientation or whatever... I don't see black-versus-white or anything. The left is the ones who do this.

A lot of conservatives honestly believe this -- that the left is obsessed with race, while the right is assiduously colorblind, and wouldn't think about the subject, let alone discuss it in public, if its adherents were in charge. It's time that someone explain to them why the rest of America isn't buying it.

The right's race problem is a lot bigger than its most popular talk radio host, but he's a good place to begin. Remember when he briefly got a gig as an NFL commentator? If you watch Monday Night Football or Sports Center, you don't see much critical race theory creeping into the analysis. But bring in Rush Limbaugh and suddenly a conversation about Donovan McNabb's performance turned into what, if it were submitted as a term paper in a black studies class, might be titled, "How Racial Expectations Affect The Post-Civil Rights-Era Treatment of Black Quarterbacks In Mass Media." Whatever you think about Limbaugh's comments, he is the one who deliberately and needlessly brought McNabb's race into the conversation. He's also the man who won the 2009 award for accusing more people than anyone else of racism. And the man who responded to an obscure news item about a white kid getting beat up by a black kid on a school bus by saying that sort of black-on-white violence is perfectly kosher in Barack Obama's America. And who can forget his mocking mimicry of the way that Chinese people speak? If a black talk show host treated whites like Limbaugh treats minorities, conservatives would go ballistic.  

But as I said, it isn't just about talk radio. It's also about politicians like Newt Gingrich. In his latest foray into racial commentary, he took President Obama to task for his comments about the Trayvon Martin case.

Here's what Obama said:

I've got to be careful about my statements to make sure we're not impairing any investigation... But obviously this is a tragedy. I can only imagine what these parents are going through. And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. I think that every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together, federal, state and local to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened...

My main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon. I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves.

To me, that's as pitch perfect as an off-the-cuff statement gets.

Here's how Gingrich reacted to it:

What the president said in a sense is disgraceful. It is not a question of who that young man looked like. Any young American of any ethnic background should be safe. Period. And trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong. I find it appalling.

See what he did there? In the course of criticizing Obama for engaging in supposed racial demagoguery, Gingrich implies that the president cares less when white kids are shot by strangers, despite the fact that reading his statement that way is the sort of mistake only an overly literal idiot (or poorly programmed computer) would actually make. Gingrich is no idiot. And he is far too undisciplined to be a computer. Given his insistence that invoking identity is needlessly divisive, he's certainly a hypocrite. This is a guy who says the best way to understand Obama is through the prism of his alleged Kenyan anti-colonialism; a guy who says that American Muslims shouldn't be able to build mosques in Manhattan until Saudi Arabia permits churches on its territory; someone who thinks the widespread conservative belief that Obama is a Muslim is both something Obama ought to be embarrassed about (apparently he thinks there's something wrong with being a Muslim) and that the rumor is Obama's fault!

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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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