What Martin Luther King, Jr. Taught Today’s Movement Conservatism
Credit where credit’s due: Newt Gingrich knows how to play a room.
On the evening of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the state of South Carolina, Newt doubled down on his earlier comments that the NAACP and black voters should demand a Paycheck President and not a Food-Stamp President. When asked by Juan Williams during the latest GOP debate if he understood why many African Americans might see this as a bit insensitive, Gingrich feigned perplexed confusion that anyone might.
This playing dumb wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, however, even to those he was trying to reach. To hammer that point home, he gave an impassioned plea to black Americans that if they just gave him a chance, he would show them the value of an honest day’s work. As the camera turned to smiling FOX anchor Bret Baier, you could see the standing ovation that was being given to Newt for having the courage to suggest that white people are harder workers than black people in front of an all-white, socially conservative South Carolina audience.
As I said, the guy can play a room.
What is more interesting to me than this rally cry of pasty-white brotherly love, however, is the right-wing reactions that followed. A typical example was a columnist for no less that the Wall Street Journal who hailed Newt’s comments as – well, to be honest, I can’t even type it with a straight face, so I’ll just quote directly:
“Next to the election of a black president, we’d say that Gingrich’s standing O was the most compelling dramatization of racial progress so far this century. Which isn’t to say that racism has been completely eradicated. It lives on in the minds of liberals who see Bull Connor when they look at Ozzie Nelson.”
Because in today’s movement conservative lexicon, racism is something that only manifests itself in white liberals and people of color (save Herman Cain and Alan Keyes) towards white people.
How did we get here? How did we get to a point in our modern age where a major political party not only tolerates but celebrates race-baiting, and doesn’t even attempt to make it a dog whistle? (I’m sorry, but gravely intoning the phrases “inner city youths” and “urban culture” is blowing a dog whistle. “Black people need to taught by a white guy to do an honest day’s work” is going straight to the pet store, plopping down $250 cash and just taking the dog home with you.)
Ironically, at least part of the problem is that today’s movement conservatism learned its lessons from the successes of the man honored the same day Newt got his standing ovation. But in their cynicism and desire for as much power possible with the least amount of effort and governing, they got the lesson of MLK’s message all wrong. In their efforts to emulate him and those like him, they instead have created an eye-rolling parody. To today’s movement conservatism, the political lesson on MLK day isn’t that through shared sacrifice and love for our neighbors we can conquer injustice on our own terms. No, the political lesson they have learned is this:
It pays to bill yourself as a victim.
When I was a teenager and a young man, conservatives were beginning to realize they had a race problem. And not just with people of color, with middle class white folks as well. The white part of country – past the turbulence of the 60s and the general myopia of the 70s – was starting to seriously reexamine what it thought about race. While the the earlier decades saw the bloody and dogged fights to change the system, my generation saw that battle move into our internal psyches.
About the time I had my first kiss there were still laws on the books in many states outlawing interracial marriage. (Even though these laws weren’t always strictly adhered to, removing them was still pretty controversial.) In the two states I grew up in mixed marriages had long been legal, but to say it was “frowned upon” by white society at large would be a huge understatement. By the time I walked down the aisle myself, however, we had gotten to a point where growingly common mixed marriages didn’t really show up on anyone’s radar. The generation prior had made sure the laws were as they should be, but “the people” were still processing what those laws really meant for quite a while after.
Black actors and musicians began to be folded into the white mainstream, and in most places the thought that blacks were inherently inferior went from being an assumption one could voice casually, to one so stigmatizing that those that still thought such things learned to keep quiet about it. Conservatives, however, had already tied themselves pretty tightly to Nixon’s Southern Strategy and could see that they were well on their way to being on the wrong side of history. It seemed inevitable to me back then that cultural norms were going to force them to completely uncouple themselves with that part of their base that thought that “the wrong side won the war,” and that a woman’s place was in the home, and that homosexuals should be jailed or institutionalized.
But turns out, movement conservatives know how to play a room.
Somewhere in the 90s movement conservatives discovered that they could have their cake and eat it too. Americans, they decided, weren’t rallying around liberalism’s victories with advancing racial and gender equality. No, Americans were merely feeling sorry for those they saw as victims. The solution, then, was obvious: they needed to paint themselves as victims instead.
And so for the past 15 or so years, movement conservative has gone out of its way to transform branding itself as The Party of the Successful, to The Party of the Downtrodden. And more credit where credit’s due: it worked.
Ron Paul’s campaign has brought to light that a pleading, focused message that stated “those nice people from the Cosby Show are really The Man – and they’re keeping whitey down!” could bring in major coin.
Movement conservatives have also successfully gotten their base to open their wallets with messages that Christianity is under attack, and no longer has a voice amongst elected officials in 21st century America. This despite the fact that, as religious representation goes, the Christians have a handy lock on all three branches of government. We don’t yet know who’l be President a year from now, but we do know that he’ll be a professed Christian – just like every president before him.
Next October we’ll all start complaining that stores are running Christmas ads already, and then we’ll hunker down for two full months of Christmas Everything Everywhere. But still, movement conservatism will get its base to shell out cash in the panic that Christmas has become all but illegal. Sure, it will still be a federal holiday – in a way that no other religion’s holy days are. And the Obamas will have a tree, and a party, and go to Christmas Eve mass. But the message that the federal government no longer recognizes Jesus’s Birthday and is about to take it away from you as well will still be running on FOX and talk radio from Thanksgiving till December 26th.
In the world of movement conservatism, gays no longer simply want to be married to those that they love. Rather, liberals are using them as puppets to destroy your marriage. In the world of movement conservatism, people with funny names you don’t care for are no longer just trying to worship in the town you live in. No, fundamentalist extremists are replacing your entire town’s charter with Sharia against your will.
I can go on. The “Lame Stream Media,” activist judges, organized voter fraud by the black panthers, death panels, the fairness doctrine… None of these things – none of the things movement conservatives ever speak about these days – is part of a narrative of strength. Every soundbite today is made to echo the stirring rhetoric of Martin Luther King, which to those in charge of the machinery is this: “We are victims. We are second class citizens. Please give generously, for without your contributions we cannot protect ourselves.” And this, of course, is where they get the lesson of King’s legacy wrong.
Martin – and Malcolm – were second class citizens, in both the eyes of the law and the society around them. And to say that those they represented weren’t victims would be whitewashing history. But their message was never about staking a claim to victimhood. It was about the importance of not being victims at all. Both Martin and Malcolm are celebrated today not because they won a pity party, but because in the face of adversity they stood up and each in their own way declared to the world around them that they would not be victims.
Each of today’s parties is the party of big business, the rich and the powerful (or, as they’re know on FOX, “Job Creators”). But only one brands itself that way. And there’s nothing wrong with that – you can even argue that in doing so the GOP is more honest than the DNC. But you can’t be the party of Big Business, The Top 1% Wage Earners, The Majority Religion and The Majority Race and still claim to be the little guy that Martin Luther Kin was really talking about 50 years ago. At least, you can’t if you want to maintain your dignity.
And maintaining dignity was what MLK was really all about.
(Hat tip to Ta-Nehisi Coates for the WSJ column.)