Then there’s the Maryland GOP, which has its hands full with a wealthy, self-funded county council candidate, Michael Peroutka, who’s a past leader of the League of the South, a group that thinks the wrong side won the Civil War, and whose president, Michael Hill, recently openly fantasized about creating their own three- to five-man death squads. The squads’ “primary targets will not be enemy soldiers; instead, they will be political leaders, members of the hostile media, cultural icons, bureaucrats, and other of the managerial elite.” There’s even a videotape of Peroutka leading a meeting of the League of the South in singing “the national anthem,” as he introduced it—yes, “Dixie.”
This is not just the language of racism—a broad, often nebulous term. It’s the language of theocratic white nationalism–which is a great deal more specific. It’s surely not the case that every Republican is a secret white supremacist à la Michael Hill—far from it. There’s a very good reason that even Michael Peroutka didn’t want to talk much about the League of the South in a recent “come clean” press conference he called. He told insistent questioners to go look at their website and see for themselves, rather than say anything himself. Yet, it is true that strikingly similar arguments are made by Republicans of all different stripes—including those in the League of the South—absolving themselves of any racial animus and shifting blame to everyone else instead. And those same arguments persist right alongside recurrent racist incidents.
That’s why Rand Paul’s racial incoherence is not just the image problem of one leading presidential contender, it’s why Mo Brooks is not just an isolated congressperson, and why Michael Peroutka is not just an obscure local candidate. They are all actors in a much broader drama which they nonetheless help to vividly illuminate. So there’s value to be had in considering each of these figures in turn.
First to Rand Paul, who’s been getting a lot of attention lately for changing his positions and then lying about them—most notably—but not exclusively—about his position on the Civil Rights Act, which he now says he supports unequivocally…and always has, despite the aforementioned videotaped evidence to the contrary. He’s even gone so far as calling the folks at MSNBC “haters” because they won’t play along with his “I have always been perfect” charade.
Paul epitomizes the white conservative majority of today’s GOP: On the one hand, he clings to an ideology of moral superiority—in Paul’s case, based on his libertarian ideology; one the other hand, other people can clearly see the racial subtext to what he’s doing, even if he cannot—and that makes him really, really angry, not to mention unelectable at the presidential level.
The GOP’s continued dependence on Nixon’s racist Southern Strategy is an inescapable fact of life—even affirmed by insiders like Lee Atwater—although sophisticates like RealClearPolitics senior analyst Sean Trende have tried to argue that the South’s shift is driven by economics, not race. However, a 2005 paper by Nicholas Valentino and David Sears showed the opposite. Using the gold standard of U.S. public opinion research—the National Elections Survey and the General Social Survey—it found that “whites residing in the old Confederacy continue to display more racial antagonism and ideological conservatism than non-Southern whites. Racial conservatism has become linked more closely to presidential voting and party identification over time in the white South,” the exact opposite of what Trende claims.
America’s overt anti-racist consensus is so powerful, however, that Republicans simply can’t handle that truth, which is why they’ve developed elaborate conceptual workarounds that allow them to pretend that they’re the real anti-racists, no matter what. As civil rights historian Taylor Branch explained last year, just before the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, George Wallace pioneered this evasion within months of the March, which so thoroughly discredited his former segregationist stand:
So, there’s absolutely nothing new about post-segregation-era racists claiming not to hate or denigrate anyone else. In fact, it’s pretty much what they teach you on day one of Racism 101.
More than that, however, there’s a clear connection between economic conservatism and opposition to black political power. The year after the March on Washington, pioneer pollsters Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril conducted surveys that were the basis for their 1967 book, “The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion.” They found that those opposed to five forms of federal spending were three times as likely as those who supported the spending to think that blacks should have “less influence” in politics. Since blacks only had five representatives in Congress at the time—just over 1%, compared to 11% of the population—the notion that they had too much influence was ludicrous on its face—and clearly racist. Yet, that’s precisely what 60% of those “small government conservatives”—people like Rand Paul and the Tea Partiers—believed. But Paul is only the starting point for Republican’s racial incoherence.
Today’s conservatives are particularly keen on feeling the felt experience. They all want to impeach Obama—but no one’s really sure what for. There’s just this felt experience that he deserves it somehow—a felt experience that him being in the White House steals something essential from them—the “real Americans.” What’s more, they also somewhat know that impeachment is a bad idea, which will only further erode their power—though some feel this much more keenly than others. The combination of those two conflicting feelings—both concerned with the loss of power—perfectly captures where Mo Brooks was coming from. After his initial remarks, Brooks elaborated further, as Paul Gattis of AL.com reported:
That, my friends, is fact-free felt experience.
Which brings us to Michael Peroutka, a lower-profile, but far more skilled manipulator than Brooks, who first came to my attention back in February, thanks to author/journalist/researcher Frederick Clarkson, a senior fellow at Political Research Associates, where he published a story, “Two Neo-Confederate Leaders Join Republican & Democratic Parties to Run for Office.” Both were former members of the Constitution Party, as well as current members of the League of the South, long identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group “that advocates for a second Southern secession and a society dominated by ‘European Americans.’” The two were running for positions on the county party’s central committees, as well as for the Anne Arundel County Council. Peroutka, the new Republican, had been the Constitution Party’s 2004 presidential candidate. The other party-switcher, Pastor David Whitney, was Peroutka’s minister, as well as a business partner. By way of background, Clarkson noted:
Peroutka, who has been a regular speaker at League of the South national conferences for years, was elected to their board of directors in 2013, and pledged “resources” to the group. The League’s website currently features photos of billboards in Florida and Georgia simply reading, “SECEDE”….
Although the League says it does not support violence, in the past year Whitney has said that church members should own but not register guns; that citizen militias are a bulwark against governmental tyranny; that secession of the states from the union is valid; that vigilante violence is justified in response to legal abortion; and that the only real law is God’s Law.
It might seem bizarre that an advocate of Southern secession would claim to be anti-racist, but that’s exactly the line that Peroutka would take, when questioned—showing just how far this feigned posture of wounded innocence can go. The “American View” website, sponsored by Peroutka’s law firm, even contains a 1956 article defending segregation, which begins, à la Rand Paul 2010, “Whereas liberty is a prerequisite to happiness, the unrestricted right to discriminate is in turn a prerequisite to liberty,” and goes on to say, “We see no reason why men should not discriminate on grounds of religion, race, or nationality, if they wish.” Such are Peroutka’s anti-racist bona fides.
Clarkson wrote several follow-up pieces on these races, and was joined by Jonathan Hutson–whose wife, Betsy Bury, was running against Whitney for a seat on the Democratic Party County Committee—who wrote pieces for Talk2action.org, the group blog on religion, politics and culture that Frederickson co-founded, as well as for Huffington Post. Adele Stan of RH Reality Check wrote an early, detailed story about the race, but the local political press was slow to catch on. The only major media notice came just days before the election, when the the Baltimore Sun explored some of Peroutka and Whitney’s views, along with those of the League of the South, but it was muddled by the conventions of he said/she said journalism.
In late June, Peroutka won—by a whisker—Whitney did not. “Peroutka won his party primary, with denialism on the part of the media and the political community as his greatest ally,” Clarkson told Salon. “The Capital Gazette newspaper rather belatedly warned voters to go to the websites of Peroutka’s The American View and the League of the South and see for themselves what he is about–but it seems unlikely that very many did so. We have a political culture based on a willing suspension of disbelief, to borrow from Matthew Arnold. This allows us to enter into a semi-imaginary world in which we can kid ourselves that there are no threats to political business as usual. Peroutka and his ilk know better and they are not kidding.”
Hutson expressed a complementary view, focused on Peroutka’s performance of normalcy. “Wielding his wealth (garnered as a hard-nosed debt collector), presidential campaign experience, and a jovial, avuncular demeanor, Peroutka lends a veneer of sophistication to a regional, neo-Confederate network that aims to build a new Southern, Christian nation of the white folks, by the white folks, and for the white folks,” Hutson said.
After Peroutka’s victory was assured in a recount, he emailed Hill, who posted the following on the League of the South’s website:
The League office received the following e-mail today. This means that after a vote recount, our Southern Nationalist candidate won the primary election!
Dr. Hill: I am happy to report that after all votes were counted, we were ahead by 38 votes… They will come after me in the general election in November. Not only locally, but also from across the country. There are many, as you well know, who hate the idea of Godly, constitutional government. I ask you to ask the membership for prayers and for whatever financial support they can muster….
Typically, Peroutka was reaching out to a national network of theocratic white nationalists for support, but would later insist to questioning reporters that that network and those views had nothing to do with the election—and any questions about them were just distractions cooked up by his opponents.
After the election, Clarkson reported further on Peroutka’s theocratic views:
The day after the primary, Peroutka issued a pronouncement that is likely to make his fellow Republicans, to say the very least, uneasy. In his regular broadcast of “The American View,” he suggested that all of the laws of the state of Maryland may be invalid, because the state legislature is an invalid body of government for having considered initiatives that, in his view, “violate God’s Law.”
“For the past few years,” Peroutka declared, “the behavior of the legislature in my home state of Maryland raises the question whether the people of Maryland may be justified in reaching the conclusion that what we call our ‘General Assembly’ is no longer a valid legislative body.
And if the case can be made that the legislature of Maryland or of your state is not a valid body, then, it follows that no validity should be given to any of its enactments.”
Peroutka was obviously feeling rather feisty after his win, but his extreme views were belatedly about to catch up with him—at least a little bit.
On July 7, the Capital Gazette ran a critical story, “District 5 race: Why an ultraconservative has the lead for GOP nomination” in which they noted:
“Peroutka has called the federal government and Maryland’s state government ‘lawless,’ because of their failure to abide by biblical precepts. Four days before the primary, he posted a video on the institute’s website in which he called the General Assembly ‘invalid.’”
Peroutka’s spokesman, John Lofton, who also worked on Peroutka’s 2004 presidential campaign, told the Gazette “that as a County Councilman, Peroutka would evaluate each piece of legislation to be sure it was authorized by God in the Bible, the U.S. Constitution and the Anne Arundel County Charter.” He also suggested to the Gazette that government programs and services such as road work and fire departments could be privatized.
This may sound a bit strange but also somewhat vague. But it needn’t be, if the journalists had just done a bit more digging, since Lofton and Peroutka have a documented record on the subject. Lofton also serves Peroutka in another capacity, as a representative of the “Institute on the Constitution,” a theocratic propaganda outfit co-founded by Peroutka. In that capacity, Lofton has promoted the “God and Government project” to use public comment periods before local government bodies to propagandize for theocracy and against democracy. The first suggested statement includes the following:
In the 13th chapter of the book of Romans in the New Testament, God’s [sic] says that those who govern us, such as this (yourselves, this Council, whatever) are ministers of God — that actual word “minister” is used. And that you are a minister of God to us for good, for good, as defined by God’s Word. And that you are, conversely, to bring wrath on those who are evil — evil as defined by God’s Word.
Thus, your job is ministerial and not legislative. Your job is to administer and apply God’s Law. And this means it is not the role of government to house or feed or clothe or give health care or education or welfare to anyone. There is no Biblical authority for that kind of thing. The provision of those things is the job of Christ’s Church.
Actually, Romans 13 says almost the exact opposite. First off, it’s not directed at governing officials, but at ordinary people. Second, it tells them to obey those who govern, not to lecture and rebel against them:
1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities,for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves….
What’s more, Romans 13 says nothing to limit the role of government. It is simply, without qualification, pro-government. But that’s not all. It’s also pro-tax:
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes…
So, there’s not much Bible in Peroutka’s “biblical approach” to governing. Big surprise, that.
Another way to penetrate Peroutka’s fog of obfuscation was shown the next day, when Clarkson followed up with a piece for Political Research Associates, providing a broader cultural/historical context for Peroutka’s view that a local council member could play the role of Supreme Court judge. Clarkson first noted that an ally of Peroutka and Whitney, Joseph Delimater, had won the uncontested GOP primary for county sheriff, in an even stealthier campaign than Peroutka and Whitney had run. Then he explained:
As PRA has reported, Peroutka and his ilk believe that holding local office empowers them to defy state and federal law under the rubric of an ancient concept called The Doctrine of the Lower Civil Magistrate….
The Doctrine of the Lesser Civil Magistrate, which Peroutka, Lofton and Delimater believe justifies their view of the nullification-role of county sheriffs and councilors, has been adopted by conservative Christian leaders who are opposed to religious pluralism and separation of church and state, as well as such matters as abortion, LGBTQ rights, taxes, public education and gun control laws—roles they say are empowered to overthrow “tyrannical government.” ….
This notion of the duty to resist ungodly laws, leaders and government, based on the Doctrine of the Lower or Lesser Magistrate has a long history among the overtly theocratic elements of the Christian Right. They would like it to become a trend, and two recent books are seeking to make it so.
Over the next few weeks, political pressure began mounting to force GOP officials to renounce Peroutka’s candidacy. On July 23, the Capital Gazette reported that two GOP leaders were still undecided on whether to support or disavow Peroutka. These were Herb McMillan, the local Republican representative in Maryland’s House of Delegates, and Steve Schuh, the party’s nominee for county executive.
But after that, things quickly fell apart for Peroutka. On July 25, GOP gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan succumbed to mounting pressure and renounced Peroutka. The Capital Gazette reported:
Hogan’s campaign distanced itself from the candidate for County Council in District 5 after an African-American group and Democrats, including Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, called on Republicans on Thursday to take a stance on Peroutka.
On July 30, Peroutka held a hastily called press conference [video here, Hutson account/analysis here] intended to stop the bleeding, but without success. The next day, Schuh followed Hogan’s lead, the Capital Gazette reported, “because the GOP candidate will not distance himself from a group that believes in Southern secession,” and on Aug. 2, McMillan followed suit as well.
Before questions were asked in the press conference, Peroutka created a fairly slick illusion, even declaring himself “an anti-racist,” flanked by two black Republican activists, both of whom spoke briefly on his behalf. But once the questioning began, the illusion began to dissolve. When asked about the League’s support for secession, Peroutka refused to take a stand, called it a historical fact (is that what he’d say if asked about genocide, one has to wonder), and told people to go look at the website for themselves.
Yet, he did take a stand of sorts in one sense: he claimed to be working against secession that was already going on! People were already seceding from the county, he claimed—by which he meant they were leaving because of high taxes. And he was trying to join the government, to help stem that movement! Of course, a quick check of census data revealed what you might have expected—Anne Arundel County is gaining population, not losing it, up 3.4% from 2010 to 2013, compared to 2.7% for Maryland as a whole. But hey, you can’t blame a grifter for trying!
Peroutka also claimed that Democrats were the real racists—because they were allied with Planned Parenthood, and black women have more abortions than white women. All in all, it was no surprise that he failed to stem the erosion of support, but the district leans Republican and Peroutka has already spent very heavily for such a relatively low-level race, so it’s anyone’s guess what will happen in November.
Still, there are encouraging signs that the complacency is eroding. A new PAC, StopPeroutka.com, has been formed, with a website obviously intended to maximize awareness of what Peroutka actually stands for. According to its “About” page, “StopPeroutka.com is a Maryland political action committee dedicated to educating voters on the theocratic policies and bigoted national network of Michael Peroutka, a Republican Party official who is running for Anne Arundel County Council in District 5.”
But increased attention is no guarantee that the right lessons will be learned. “The media is still playing catch-up to Peroutka, wondering whether he’s personally racist, realizing that he’s at least a neo-Confederate secessionist, and ignoring the wider implications of the League’s overt calls to violence,” Hutson said. It’s a point Clarkson made at length in another recent article, “Let’s Not Ignore the Overt Calls for Violence from The League of the South”.
The fact is that they are involved not in an eccentric nostalgia for retrograde racial politics and wishful thinking about secession of the Southern states so much as a revolutionary vision of theocratic, white nationalist violence…..
On July 25, Hill followed up with an essay in which he calls on the young men of “Christendom” to become “citizen-soldiers” in the battles against the tyranny of our time. He sees himself and his comrades as part of a long line of such men, invoking historic battles with Islamic armies going back to the Battle of Tours in the 8th century. His role models for warriors for Christendom, however, are the white Westerners who fought against black liberation movements in Southern Africa in the 1970s. “So if Western men in past times were willing to fight for their civilization in remote areas of the world,” he asked, “shouldn’t we expect them to be just as willing to fight for that civilization here at its very heart—the South?”
“The traditions and truths of Western Christendom are anathema to the [Obama] regime,” he concluded. “The tyrants’ regime and Western Christendom cannot co-exist—that is not possible. One must win and the other must disappear. It is indeed the ultimate Zero Sum game.”
If one reads these websites carefully, it’s quite clear that all democratic government constitutes tyranny in their eyes. The only “legitimate” government is one that follows their extremely twisted interpretation of the Bible (see how well they did with Romans 13 as an example.)
“The idea that ‘it can’t happen here’ — the ‘it’ being some kind of horrible anti-democratic onslaught from among ourselves, is comforting, but blinds us to actual threats,” Clarkson said. “People, including reporters, do not want to acknowledge that what is being proposed here is religiously motivated terrorism. If the religious motivation behind the proposed terrorism were Muslim, that would provoke outrage, since Muslims are seen as a faraway, foreign menace — but since the only way to describe this is Christian terrorism — it cuts too close to home, even to our own identities, even though the Peroutka gang is far from representative of Christianity in all of its rich diversity. And yet, given the unambiguous views of Michael Hill, and the intentions of the League of the South, they clearly understand that they are Christian revolutionaries waging an historic struggle against what they view as a godless, anti-Christian order.”
Clarkson also stressed how terms like “strong conservative” even “ultra-conservative” can “ obscure far more than they reveal,” and yet it’s clearly the case that Peroutka and his allies use arguments very similar to Mo Brooks or Rand Paul. They all condemn Democrats as the source of America’s racial problems, for example, and they then use race as a template for making other sweeping arguments, as Brooks did in his original “war on whites” comment:
“This is a part of the war on whites that’s being launched by the Democratic Party. And the way in which they’re launching this war is by claiming that whites hate everybody else. It’s part of the strategy that Barack Obama implemented in 2008, continued in 2012, where he divides us all on race, on sex, greed, envy, class warfare, all those kinds of things.” [Emphasis added]
The rhetorical strategy here is quite clear: If you can rebrand the party of racial equality as the party of racial animus, then you can blame them for anything. And since the GOP can’t rebrand itself, rebranding the Democrats as “the real racists” is the only option they have. Peroutka may indeed be so extreme that even calling him “ultra-conservative” is a form of camouflage, but the rhetorical strategies he uses are more or less commonplace throughout today’s GOP. Their racial incoherence reflects a broader rhetorical, moral and ideological incoherence that’s extremely difficult to pin down, precisely because its so omnipresent, though rarely in such malignant forms as those discussed above.
The Peroutka race provides a rare opportunity for Republicans to start cleaning up the mess they’ve made. “This is no longer a just a local story about a County Council race; it’s a developing story on national issues of calls to theocratic revolution in service of white nationalism,” Hutson said. “This is a big story not because Peroutka is a dark-horse candidate, but because, with the backing of a major party and more than a quarter million dollars in his war chest, he’s the odds-on favorite to win. If you find his rhetoric ridiculous, then do something now; don’t wait to find out how he’d govern.”
If Republicans don’t act now—not just individually, but organizationally—then they will literally own Peroutka. There will be no escaping him. As things stand now, they already own him, Hutson points out, since he’s an elected member of the GOP’s county committee—a post that the party could remove him from, if it had the will to do so. But party chair Joe Cluster remains mum on the matter.
“To move the Maryland GOP past its dithering state of paralysis, Cluster should show courage by calling for the removal of Peroutka from the county’s Republican Central Committee,” Hutson said. Other Republicans have done the right thing—but so far, only as individuals. The party itself has yet to stand up for anything. It’s an open question whether it can—or whether its incoherence will continue indefinitely.
But it’s not just a problem for the GOP, Clarkson stresses. “Win or lose, Peroutka and his movement are not going away. And the political community is going to have to find better ways of contending with it.”
“All this points to a certain depression, and vulnerability in our constitutional democracy,” he said. “Local races, and particularly party primaries, tend to be low turnout, low information affairs. Entrenched interests in both major parties tend to discourage more robust participation. The anti-democratic elements of our society recognize this and are able to take advantage of the situation…. I think that the Whitney/Peroutka/Delimater experience will provide a model for other theocratic, revolutionary elements — the kinds of people who make even a lot of Tea Partiers look like establishment liberals.”
“But I also think that the current campaign will provide lessons for alert leaders in both parties, in the media, and in concerned interest groups across a wide spectrum,” Clarkson added. “The most important of these lessons is that it is necessary to identify such anti-democratic candidates early, and to ensure that their candidacies and their movement neither gain, or seems to gain, any traction.”
Whether that’s even possible given the state of today’s GOP remains an open question.