The summer months are typically when the quality of political discourse in this country reaches its yearly nadir. Washington tends to slow down from June to August, and people who hold moderate interest in the political process instead turn to barbecues and baseball games. As a consequence, the people who remain engaged are those who are more, let's say, passionate in their beliefs, and aren't going to let a little thing like “other things to do” get in the way of their political activism. Summer is also tough for political journalists who still have deadlines to meet, but much less material with which to work. As a consequence, we see stories that would ordinarily merit passing or no mention earn disproportionate coverage. Minor gaffes become “scandals,” non-issues become “controversial,” and the end result is that pretty much everyone gets angrier.
It's in this environment that the right-wing media thrive, practiced as they are in ginning up stories based on manufactured outrage and utter nonsense. And lately, they've all had one topic on their minds: race. Specifically the racism of black political figures, which they claim is nothing short of institutional policy in the Obama administration, and the racism of white tea partiers, which they claim doesn't exist.
And where else can one begin except with the ever-evolving, increasingly ridiculous New Black Panther Party “scandal,” which revolves around the allegation -- and it's hard to believe that right-wingers actually profess to believe this -- that the Obama Justice Department dropped voter intimidation charges against members of this fringe hate group due to the administration's official policy of not pursuing cases in which the defendant is black and the victim is white. Is there evidence for any of this? No. Does the partisan GOP hack/former DOJ attorney making this allegation have any facts to support it? Not so much. But that's the story they're sticking to, and it has sparked a frenzy of race-baiting more explicit than any we've seen thus far during the Obama administration.
Fox News has, of course, been leading the charge, embarking on what Jonathan Chait calls “the most widespread and mainstream right-wing effort to exploit racial fears against Obama.” Glenn Beck nonsensically claimed that the New Black Panthers “have ties to the White House” and flat-out accused the administration of tacitly endorsing the “race war” he sees coming down the pike. Perpetually outraged Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, the “straight news” driving force behind the bogus story, has been corrected on the facts more times than should be necessary, but continues to hype the story with wide-eyed indignation.
In some ways, that's to be expected from Fox News. The danger is that, with not much else going on and the right-wing rage machine operating at high speed, the bogus story starts bleeding into the mainstream press. Kelly herself boasted that Fox News “dragged the media kicking and screaming” to the New Black Panther story, and already there have been overly credulous treatments of the non-scandal on CNN and in the pages of The Washington Post.
The obverse to the right-wing media's fact-free claims of racism at the Justice Department are their assurances, contrary to the facts, that there exists no racism in the tea party movement. After the NAACP signaled its intention to pass a resolution condemning the “racist elements” within the tea party, conservatives went ballistic, claiming that the many, many, many, many, many examples of tea party racism and bigotry simply don't exist. And nothing will convince them otherwise -- not the many photographs of racist placards at tea party rallies (if Sean Hannity couldn't find them, they must not exist!), nor the word of civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis (he's a liar!).
Bigoted, racial attacks from conservatives against Obama aren't anything new. Hell, not even a week after he announced his intention to run for the presidency, they were excitedly spreading false rumors that he spent his childhood in a madrassa. But this past month has been something different. Gone are the code words, the winks and nods, and the dog whistles -- the conservative media are openly and aggressively trying to turn Obama's race into something threatening. You can chalk it up to the heat, the summer doldrums, or whatever. The fact is that they're going down roads from which there is no coming back, and it's only going to get worse as the summer rolls on.
Erick Erickson conjures Atwater's exorcised demons
In January 1991, Lee Atwater, the storied political strategist whose bare-knuckled tactics helped propel George H.W. Bush to the White House in 1988, issued a public apology to Bush's opponent, Michael Dukakis. Suffering from terminal brain cancer, Atwater disavowed the statements and tactics he employed against Dukakis, in particular his stated intentions to “strip the bark off the little bastard” and “make Willie Horton his running mate.” According to Atwater: “I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not.”
The shameful history of Willie Horton's role in the 1988 presidential campaign need not be recounted here -- what matters is that the man who gave Willie Horton that starring role came to realize afterward that he had crossed the line on racial fearmongering, and he sincerely regretted doing so.
CNN's Erick Erickson, however, wants to cross that line, and he wants to take the Republican Party with him.
“King Samir Shabazz Should Be 2010's Willie Horton,” wrote Erickson on RedState.com, referring to one of the New Black Panther Party members who was under investigation for voter intimidation. The New Black Panther story is a farce, and, as noted above, it is merely a vehicle for conservatives to race-bait against President Obama.
But the naked political and racial callousness of Erickson's remarks put them in a class all their own. Erickson's desire to turn Shabazz into the next Willie Horton is shocking not just because he's advocating a return to the Southern Strategy-style politicking for which Republican leaders from Atwater to Ken Mehlman to Michael Steele have expressed regret. He also openly acknowledges the potential for racial divisiveness and dismisses it -- along with the support of black voters -- as irrelevant: “The Democrats will scream racism. Let them. Republicans are not going to pick up significant black support anyway.”
It's an extremely warped and cynical view of the political landscape, and it really makes you wonder if CNN realizes what it's paying for.
Boss Limbaugh, The Boss, and the “death tax”
One does not have to be a Yankee fan (like me) to be affected by the passing of George Steinbrenner. In many ways, The Boss embodied everything that is great and terrible about baseball. Like a player who takes steroids to give himself a competitive edge, Steinbrenner's own relentless drive for victory frequently led him to act less than admirably. At the same time, it's hard to argue with results -- the seven championships and 11 pennants the Yankees won in the Steinbrenner era are almost as many as the rival Boston Red Sox have won in their entire existence.
Rush Limbaugh, however, is a football fan, so Steinbrenner's passing would obviously affect him differently, and he needed to find something to say about Steinbrenner that wasn't about baseball. He opted for his two trusty stand-bys -- offensive racial commentary and conservative economic dogma. “George Steinbrenner has passed away at age 80. That cracker made a lot of African-American millionaires,” Rush observed in a statement that, to use a subject-appropriate cliché, came out of right field.
Obviously, most people have been focusing on the racial component of Limbaugh's remarks (Al Sharpton denounced them as “repugnant and offensive” ) but there was another remark in Limbaugh's ugly eulogy that deserves some attention: his statement that Steinbrenner “knew when to die,” because the estate tax will be reinstated next year and Steinbrenner's considerable estate will avoid taxation as a consequence of his passing before 2011. That sentiment was echoed across the conservative media and even in the halls of Congress, where Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY), a Hall of Fame pitcher himself, said of Steinbrenner: “Because he was smart enough to die in 2010, there is zero tax liability on the estate tax.”
In short, conservatives were very pleased that the ultra-rich Steinbrenner and his ultra-rich relatives were able to escape the tyranny of the so-called “death tax.” This is amusing, because up to this point, these same conservatives were assuring us that the evil of the estate tax was that it wreaks havoc on family farms and small businesses. Of course, that isn't true -- just about every small business and family farm in the country escapes estate taxes.
Nevertheless, conservatives told us that in repealing the estate tax, we'd be acting in the interests of the little guy.The timing of George Steinbrenner's death, and the ensuing right-wing celebration of his already wealthy heirs' good fortune, should make clear whose interests they really have at heart.
Rest in peace, Big Stein.
Simon Maloy is a Research Fellow for Media Matters for America.