The South's victim complex: How right-wing paranoia is driving new wave of radicals

New wingnut pols may be laughed at as they enter Washington, D.C. But here's why their anger is deadly serious

Published September 30, 2014 9:59PM (EDT)

                    (AP/Dave Martin)
(AP/Dave Martin)

Southern voters will go to the polls in November 150 years, almost to the day, after Gen. Sherman commenced his March to the Sea, breaking the back of the Confederacy and leaving a burnt scar across the South. The wound never fully healed. Humiliation and resentment would smolder for generations. A sense of persecution has always mingled with the rebellious independence and proud notions of the South’s latent power, the promise that it “will rise again!” Congressman Paul Broun Jr., whose Georgia district spans nearly half of Sherman’s calamitous path to Savannah, evoked the “Great War of Yankee Aggression” in a metaphor to decry the Affordable Care Act on the House floor in 2010. The war, in Broun’s formulation, was not a righteous rebellion so much as a foreign invasion whose force still acts upon the South and its ideological diaspora that increasingly forms the foundation of conservatism.

The persecution narrative deployed by Broun, so woven into Southern culture and politics, has gained national currency. Contemporary conservatism is a Southern politics. Ironically, the Southern persecution narrative, born of defeat, has spread nationwide to form the basis of Republican victories since Reagan and the conservative hegemony that moderated President Clinton, establishing through President George W. Bush nearly 40 years of rightward movement at the national level. It is the South’s principal political export, now a necessary ideological substrate in Republican rhetoric. Lee Atwater, the Karl Rove of the Reagan era, explained the nationalization of Southern politics accomplished with the 1980 campaign and election of President Reagan: “The mainstream issues in [the Reagan] campaign had been, quote, ‘Southern’ issues since way back in the Sixties,” Atwater said in 1981. Likely the foremost representative of that Southern mood was Alabama’s George Wallace, who in his 1963 gubernatorial inaugural address, the infamous “Segregation Forever” speech, invoked Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis and raged that “government has become our god.” Just months later, that omnipotent force would defeat Wallace when President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard and forced desegregation at the University of Alabama. Wallace, though, would be rewarded for his stand, and the governor carried five Deep South states in his 1968 presidential run.

A century after the Civil War and Reconstruction, the 1960s was a sort of second federal invasion, with the White House strong-arming Wallace, Supreme Court decisions finally implementing Brown’s desegregation order, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts radically reshaping Southern politics and culture. “The South went from being behind the times to being the mainstream,” Atwater said. It is helpful to consider the inverse: The mainstream GOP adopted the '60s-era mood of the South. Atwater does not suggest that the South caught up with a modernized conservatism — i.e., that it ceased to be “behind the times” — but that the larger movement regressed, albeit with rhetorical coding to evade charges of old-school racism.

Since Reagan, then, conservatism’s principal issues cannot be extricated from what animated them in the Southern milieu of their birth. The North, if now only a phantom, prefigured the foreign other always at work in the modern conservatism borrowed from the South. Every major issue is argued in terms of persecution and attack. The racial minority is not the oppressed subaltern but a threat, whether physical or fiscal. Liberatory advances for women and LGBT Americans are assaults upon the family. Religious pluralism and fortifications of the wall between church and state evoke biblical accounts of Christian persecution. Deviations from increasingly neoliberal capitalism are described as authoritarian socialism. Relaxation of military aggression, especially under Obama, is even seen as collusion with the enemy.

Broun, a skilled purveyor of a Southern politics of persecution, was an early alarmist, predicting a violently oppressive, explicitly Hitlerian regime just days after President Obama’s election in 2008. Broun’s repeated evocation of Hitler and Stalin would later find its way into the crass iconography of Tea Party protests. The stakes have always been existential to Broun. In an almost mystical ritual, Broun, a born-again Christian, snuck onto the inaugural stage in 2009 to anoint the door through which Obama would pass with holy oil, entreating God to come to the aid of His besieged and cleanse the new president of his tyrannical evil. Broun’s persecution narrative, dismissed by many at the time as hayseed hyperbole, now forms the basis of conservative arguments on nearly every issue. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, likely 2016 presidential candidate whose star is still rising, adopts the “we want our country back” language and eschatological stakes of the Tea Party. Cruz is joined by newcomer Sens. Ron Johnson, Mike Lee and Rand Paul to form a conservative insurgency in a chamber historically governed by staid and statesmanlike members.

There is a problem, though, for the GOP in the 2014 and subsequent elections: Once the Fort Sumter-like salvo of superlatives and hyperbole is launched, it is likely impossible to quiet the fear and anger of the party’s base. Broun’s successor to represent the shamed land of Sherman’s path brings his own scorched earth rhetoric, sounding more 1860 than 2014. The presumptive successor, Rev. Jody Hice, whose primary win makes November’s general little more than a formality in the heavily conservative district, speaks uniformly in the language of persecution and insurrection. Like, actual insurrection. Hice regularly demands that Americans be permitted the full means of war — e.g., rockets, missiles, etc. — in order to prepare for an eventual armed conflict with the “secular,” “socialist” state. Hice, an evangelical pastor, is an unapologetic theocrat whose persecution complex pervades the entirety of his apocalyptic politics. Hice makes Broun look cuddly by comparison.

The GOP suffers through an internecine fight that shows little sign of slowing. The party’s internal conflict reached its latest peak in primary battles in two prominent Confederate locales: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s historic loss in the old capital of the Confederacy and Sen. Thad Cochran’s controversial victory in Jefferson Davis’ Mississippi, a state whose flag still bears the Confederate battle emblem. Cantor’s primary defeat would have been inconceivable just a few years ago, but the very fervor stoked by Cantor for what many saw as an eventual run at the speakership metastasized further into an implacable anti-establishment impulse from which even Cantor was not exempt. Cochran, targeted as an establishment senator, had to resort to DEFCON 1 tactics and openly beseech Mississippi’s black Democrats to lift him over Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel, a move that became something of a right-wing Alamo. In a late primary strategy, Jody Hice went public with the assertion that his opponent, a pro-business, establishment candidate, was courting the enemy in what the Hice campaign called a “Mississippi Strategy.”

A sort of Mason-Dixon line has begun to trace its way along the GOP’s internal fissures, threatening the coalition solidified by Reagan and sustained through the Bush presidency. After more than a generation of cultivating a narrative founded on persecution and insurrection, the GOP runs the risk of falling victim to a Maslow’s hammer-type predicament. If all you have is victimhood, all disagreement starts to look like oppression, even within your own party. The more Southern, rural, Tea Party wing of the GOP is beginning to resemble the People’s Front of Judea from Monty Python’s "Life of Brian," whose antipathy toward their Roman oppressors was exceeded only by their hatred for the Judean People’s Front.

Big business and national security Republicans of the party establishment, having benefited from the zeal brought by the martial politics of Southerners, can no longer control the emboldened rogues. The debt ceiling and shutdown episodes, pursued with crusade-like passion by conservative zealots, now frighten big business. Speaker John Boehner revealed the growing rift in a frank press conference after the 2013 shutdown, saying that Tea Party-affiliated groups have “lost all credibility.” Similarly, the intensifying isolationism of politicians like Sen. Rand Paul threatens Republican hawks’ long-standing hold on foreign policy matters.

When he reaches Congress, Rev. Hice will likely be laughed at, just as Broun was. But the politics Broun brought to Washington in 2007 is no longer a joke. The anger in the South is real. Voters along Sherman’s route have their own torches now. Hice’s theocratic, paranoiac and insurrectionist politics should not be scoffed at, if the trajectory charted by Southern politicians like Broun will be bent further with a new wave of radicals and a purging of moderates. The South is finally rising.

By Matthew Pulver

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