You reap what you sow, and Republicans are paying the price for elevating a minority within their party. It is democracy run amok when the country teeters on the edge of default because of a small number of Tea Party anti-government absolutists, some 30 to 40 by most counts, plus another 70 sympathizers, and most of the remaining half of the House Republican caucus too scared to speak out. The standoff coming to a head feels like an existential struggle, and that’s an invitation to the most aggrieved fringe of the GOP to come out in full force.
On Sunday, conservatives in town for the Values Voter Summit stormed the closed World War II memorial, tearing down the barricades and carrying them to the White House, where a protester gleefully posed for the cameras holding a confederate flag. Larry Klayman, a fringe player during the anti-Clinton mania of the ‘90s, told the crowd they were being “ruled by a president who bows down to Allah.” He urged President Obama “to put the Quran down” and come out of the White House with his hands down, or up. Klayman wasn’t quite sure which one.
Assertions about Obama somehow not being fully American have been a feature of the right wing for some time, but these protestations are growing more overt, and there’s nobody in charge on the Republican side to call a timeout or denounce the purveyors of hate. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who spoke at the Sunday rally along with Sarah Palin, another blast from the past, issued a statement condemning the media for being distracted by side issues. Over the weekend, Joe the Plumber, star of the 2008 Republican Convention, weighed in on Twitter: “America needs a white Republican president.” Samuel Wurzelbacher (his real name) followed up with another tweet, “Sorry MSM, I’m not a racist, I’m an American!”
Right-wing populism in the Obama era has always had an undercurrent of racial animus, says Matt Bennett, cofounder of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. For the most part, that animus was contained and even reasonably polite, giving rise to the birther movement, which became fodder for the late night talk shows and a celebrated Donald Trump putdown by Obama. “But now the lid is coming off and overt racism is bubbling out,” says Bennett. Just as conservatives feel they’re locked in an existential battle with Obama and the forces of government, Obama and his Democratic allies believe they cannot yield, they must draw the line, that democracy as we have known it is at stake.
During the campaign, comments about Obama as a “community organizer” or the “food-stamp president” sent the intended message and stayed within generally accepted parameters. “There’s a fine line between the dog whistles the right has always used and what we’re seeing now,” says Bennett. “Before you had to think about it before you got offended. Now you’re offended right off the bat.”
The extreme rhetoric is not helping the Republican cause, exposing as it does the worst aspects of the Tea Party and raising the question, is it the deficit and smaller government they care about, or is it race? At Monday’s White House briefing, a reporter referred to the Sunday rally and asked, “Is race a part of this stalemate?” Press secretary Jay Carney responded: “I don’t believe that that’s the issue here. I believe that…Republicans shut the government down not because every Republican wanted it, but because Republican leaders in the House were listening to a faction within their own conference.”
“The smart, careful folks in the conservative movement aren’t dumb enough to do what Klayman and Joe the Plumber are doing,” says Bennett. Whether these racially tinged outbursts will do permanent damage, it’s hard to tell when we’re still in the midst of a struggle that is likely to further define the Republican Party. “The Republican brand is so injured, it’s just kicking a dying horse at the moment,” says Bennett, who in fairness points out that both parties have less presentable ideological wings. Republicans tend to have racial overtones, and Democrats wage class war. “Neither side is flattered by what they see on the fringes,” he says.
Picking up on that point, Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, recalls the passage of Prop 187 in California, an anti-immigrant measure that had opponents waving Mexican flags at rallies, which incited the other side and may have helped pass the legislation. Embracing the confederacy can have the same boomerang effect, says Pitney: “The last thing you want at a rally critical of the president is for some nut to be waving a confederate flag. Embracing the confederacy is bad history and bad politics.”