What Plantation Is Jim DeMint Living On?

The Heritage Foundation chief’s ludicrous claim about who ended slavery in America is just his latest effort to destroy the federal government—past or present.

I once had this idea for a play about God, a comedy, in which the audience would be introduced to a series of casuists and charlatans and braggarts and bloviators, and they’d be carrying on, lecturing away on topics large and small with serene self-confidence. There’d be the sound of thunder and perhaps a puff of smoke, and from the wings, God would appear. He or She would, over the course of the three acts, take on numerous corporeal forms—white man, black woman, Asian man, Arab woman, et cetera—but in each guise would admonish the speaker: “No, asshole. You’re totally wrong. How do I know? Because I’m God, and you’re wrong.”

The idea came to me, of course, because of life’s endless pageant of moments when one wishes life really worked that way. But I don’t know if I’ve ever wished it more than I did two days ago, when Jim DeMint, the ex-senator and Heritage Foundation head who defines the words casuist and charlatan and braggart and bloviator and about 262 others that are worse, said that the federal government of the United States did nothing to end slavery. The salient words:

Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution, it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately, there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property, but the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights’ in the minds of God. But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people, it did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. 

Please, I beg of you, don’t do DeMint the honor of thinking him merely stupid. He’s probably that, in some way. Certainly those sentences add up to a mountain of stupid, a Himalayan range of it. Yet at the same time, a statement this insane can’t be propelled merely by stupidity. A denial of reality this whole, this pure, requires, I think, some thought, some premeditation. Dwell with me on this for the moment.

Today’s radical conservatives like DeMint want to destroy government. This means in the first instance discrediting everything government does in the present. That, we’re all plenty familiar with. It’s a lot of what we fight about all the time.

But the project also includes history—proving that nothing good that ever happened in history was done by the government. Oh, they might grant you a war here or there, these wingers. They’re OK with war (when we win them—when we’ve lost them, that was of course the liberals’ fault). But nothing else.

Often, this is easy enough. Example: The great post-war prosperity boom and middle-class expansion. We on my side say: unionization, massive public investments, a tax rate that kept the coffers full, a few other things. DeMint and his type can’t have that, so they say: American ingenuity, a free-market system that encouraged initiative, no big bloated welfare state yet, etc. That’s a simple one. Left and right offer competing narratives, and to most people, parts of each probably sound plausible.

But then you get to trickier matters. How, as a radical conservative today, and especially a Southern one, and especially one from the state (South Carolina) that started the Civil War (first to advance nullification, first to secede, first shots fired), are you supposed to explain that war? And how are you supposed to explain slavery? Tough ones. If you ever visit any of those crackpot websites I look at sometimes, you’ve seen, for example, the commonly advanced idea that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, it was about states’ rights and economics and so on. I guarantee you that notion will show up pretty quickly in this very comment thread.

But that explains only the war’s beginning, not its end. I had not heard, until DeMint’s comments here, their theory on the war’s end, and more deliciously on slavery’s. So it was “the conscience of the American people” that ended it. And the Constitution, which “kept calling us back to ‘all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights.’” And William Wilberforce. But whatever it was, it wasn’t “big government.”

DeMint doesn’t have a legitimate difference of opinion. He has a wholly ideological one, designed not to spur historical debate but to justify his miserly posture toward contemporary politics.

Interesting interpretation, eh? DeMint’s “conscience of the American people” x’s out of history the Emancipation Proclamation, which strikes me as an act of the federal government (a presidential order); also the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery and, as an amendment to the Constitution, was surely an action of the government. It also x’s out the war itself, fought to the end, no matter what today’s Confederate revisionists say, to wipe out slavery once and for all.

As for the Constitution, well, there’s the fact that the words DeMint quotes appear not in the Constitution but the Declaration of Independence, but there are bigger problems here than that. If Jim DeMint had been alive in 1860, it’s reasonable to assume that he’d have gone with the flow in his state, correct? So he’d have supported secession. And, big cheese that he is, he’d have likely played some role in creating the Confederate States of America. And in turn he’d likely have signed the Confederate Constitution, thus pledging his loyalty to a document that explicitly prohibited the Confederate government or its several states from interfering in slave ownership in any way, including a specific provision stating that any territories the CSA gained via war or any other means would become slaveholding states. That would have been Jim DeMint’s Constitution, not the one you and I heed.

Finally, this Wilberforce business. They love Wilberforce, today’s rad-cons. He was a devout Christian, you see, and a conservative; and yet at the same time a stern abolitionist. What a useful combination! Invoking Wilberforce allows conservatives like DeMint to pretend that he, not Calhoun, is their moral lodestar and inspiration. It’s somewhat problematic for them that while Wilberforce did indeed fight slavery, he did so in England, where he actually lived, not in America. And only up until 1833, when he died. Besides which the fiery abolitionists in America, William Lloyd Garrison and so forth, were quite religious too, but on the political left.

There is such a thing as having a legitimate difference of opinion on a question of history. Was Napoleon the embodiment or the corruption of the French Revolution, to take an obvious example—historians will argue that one till the end of time. But DeMint doesn’t have a legitimate difference of opinion. He has a wholly ideological one, designed not to spur historical debate but to justify his miserly posture toward contemporary politics.

And so every sentence that came out of his mouth was just utter nonsense. But not just that--premeditated, pernicious, and malicious nonsense, spun to serve contemporary ends like fighting the delivery of health coverage to millions. Physicians have boards to answer to, lawyers the local bar; but in politics and media, there’s no panel that can police this drivel and declare DeMint unfit for participation in public discourse. And so he gets to say these utterly insane things but still get quoted in the papers as if he were a serious person. And the rest of us just have to endure him. God, if you’re there, now would be a good time to show up.