Conservatives can't decide whether to disown or defend Cliven Bundy

After touting and lionizing the Nevada rancher for weeks, the GOP isn't sure how to respond to his patent racism

Published April 24, 2014 5:35PM (EDT)

Cliven Bundy                     (Reuters/Jim Urquhart)
Cliven Bundy (Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

Now that Cliven Bundy has revealed himself as a man who believes African-Americans are shiftless, abortion-happy moochers who'd probably be better off as slaves, anyway, conservatives and Republicans who spent much of the past few weeks celebrating the renegade rancher find themselves in a bit of a pickle.

Unlike the very similar comments made late in 2013 by Phil Robertson of "Duck Dynasty" (rather than slavery, Robertson said Jim Crow was better for black people), Bundy's remarks left no room for even the tiniest sliver of doubt as to whether he held extremely retrograde views on race. With Robertson, the right was somewhat able to argue that Robertson was simply recalling his childhood rather than making any political statements. With Bundy, not so much.

To their credit, some Republicans have disowned Bundy harshly and unequivocally. "His remarks on race are offensive and I wholeheartedly disagree with him,” said former Bundy booster Sen. Rand Paul. Another former Bundy fan, Sen. Dean Heller, had his spokesman say that the senator "completely disagrees with Mr. Bundy’s appalling and racist statements, and condemns them in the most strenuous way.”

Yet not every GOPer has been as eager to throw Bundy off the bandwagon. Rick Perry, who like Paul is considered a possible 2016 candidate, refused to distance himself from the racist rancher. "I don't know what he said, but the fact is Clyde [sic] Bundy is a side issue here compared to what we're looking at in the state of Texas," Perry told CBS. "He is an individual," continued the former leaser of what used to be known as "Niggerhead" camp.* "Deal with his issues as you may."

Although his lack of interest in acknowledging Bundy's racism was notable when compared to other GOP politicians, Perry's dismissiveness was echoed by many in the conservative movement who need not worry about winning elections, especially among influential Twitter users and the media. (Greta Van Susteren being a notable ALL CAPS exception.)

Radio host and Blaze contributor Dana Loesch, for example, responded to Bundy's comments with a shrug of her shoulders, writing, "I hope no one is surprised that an old man rancher isn’t media trained to express himself perfectly." Loesch did grant that, "at face value," Bundy's comments on race were "odd and sound[ed] offensive" but she also claimed that Bundy was, essentially, correct. "He seems to be decrying what big government has done to the black family," Loesch wrote, "which big government has negatively affected not just the black family, but all families regardless of ethnicity [.]" Loesch then went on to argue that Bundy was a distraction and that the larger issue of government overreach was in no way made less legitimate just because its mascot turned out to be an unreconstructed bigot.

In a similar vein, National Review's Kevin Williamson, who once wrote a piece praising Bundy and comparing him to Mahatma Gandhi, told Talking Points Memo that Bundy's racism didn't have much of an impact on his argument. "Mr. Bundy's racial rhetoric is lamentable and backward," Williamson wrote in an email before adding that Bundy was "separate from the fundamental question here, which is the federal government's acting as an absentee landlord for nine-tenths of the state of Nevada." Williamson then compared Bundy to the men who died at the Alamo, writing, "I very strongly suspect that most of the men who died at the Alamo held a great many views that I would find repugnant; we remember them for other reasons." (For what it's worth: The struggle over the Alamo was in part about whether people living in the area could enslave others, so maybe the comparison is more apt than Williamson realizes.)

On Fox News, meanwhile, the treatment of Bundy has been conspicuous mainly for its absence. More than any other element of the conservative movement, it was Fox that turned Bundy into a star, with Sean Hannity leading the way. Yet as of this writing, mention of Bundy is nowhere to be found on Fox News' website and mentions of Bundy on the channel itself have been few and far between. Nothing to see here, folks — move along.

And as for conservatives on Twitter? While a few followed the lead of Rand Paul and Dean Heller by decrying Bundy's comments forcefully, many of the conservative rank-and-file were loath to abandon their one-time hero, opting instead to ignore the issue by claiming Democrats are the real racists and bringing up Obama's former pastor and mentor Jeremiah Wright. The best representation of the overall reaction, however, can be seen with these two tweets from Kurt Schlichter, a columnist for the right-wing Townhall:

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*Originally, post incorrectly claimed Perry owned the ranch by that name. Perry's father, and at times Perry himself, leased the land from the Hendrick Home for Children Trust. We regret the error.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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