The Republican Party's secret motto: "Don't tread on my right to tread on you"

"Small government" conservatives talk about limiting federal power — except when it comes to the stuff they want

Published July 14, 2015 9:57AM (EDT)

  (AP/Danny Johnston/Charlie Neibergall/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Danny Johnston/Charlie Neibergall/Photo montage by Salon)

Since President Obama came into office, the Republican party has increasingly become the “Don’t tread on me” party -- or, more accurately, the “Don’t tread on my right to tread on others” party. Some of the most popular right-wing demagogues of today have achieved their political fame with this aggressive anti-federal government schtick, full of paranoid hostility and belligerence. From screaming of death panels to claiming socialist plots of wealth redistribution -- this modern form of what Richard Hofstadter once called the “paranoid style" of American politics has become the status quo in the Republican party. This shift was a kind of knee-jerk reaction to the rise of Obama -- a mixture of racial and political fears that were pushed hard by certain right wing media figures and organizations like the following:

“The president of the United States? We’re talking now about a Supreme Court justice? The days of them [racial minorities] not having any power are over, and they are angry. And they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That’s what Obama’s about, gang. He’s angry, he’s gon’ cut this country down to size, he’s gon’ make it pay for all its multicultural mistakes that it has made, its mistreatment of minorities. I know exactly what’s going on.” - Rush Limbaugh, 2009.

This fear of “minority retribution” has shaped the extremist Tea Party movement, taking up the same kind of paranoid politics that the John Birch Society did in the 1960s, when  its leader, Robert Welch, claimed that Dwight Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.” Today, the communist plot proved to be a silly imagination of an old loon with money, so minorities with power and Jihadi sympathizing socialists are the new enemies.

And so, conservatives have resurrected the classic Gadsden flag, with those strong words, "don’t tread on me" -- aimed directly at Obama and his imagined minority/socialist-run government. But these kinds of Tea Party conservatives are not completely convinced of these words, except when they fully support their own views of morality. A majority of these same people, for example, are surely not opposed to the government limiting the rights of woman by criminalizing abortion and restricting access to contraceptives, or keeping gay marriage illegal. They likely cheered yesterday, for example, when Rick Santorum called for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.)

In truth, conservatives don’t want the federal government to tread on them, because it tends to restrict their right to tread on others. Since the 1960s, conservatives have become obsessed with states rights for the simple fact that the federal government decided to crack down on certain state laws that restricted the freedom of particular individuals. In 1964, the government banned racial segregation and discrimination, which had been a staple of the south for over a century, while in 1973, the Supreme Court forbid the state to restrict a woman’s right to an abortion. These major events basically restricted the state/communities right to oppress and limit the freedoms of individuals, mostly minorities and women. Up until then, states had the right to stomp on individuals liberty because of their archaic and racist values.

And then there was economic freedom. When the New Deal went into effect, there were different regulations that limited freedoms of the capitalist class. New Deal reforms enacted certain regulations, such as preventing a bank from operating in both commercial and investment banking introducing a minimum wage, and creating the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate the securities industry. For the next few decades, these economic regulations and laws became norms of the economy, and the government became even more involved in the world of business and its effects on society, culminating when Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 to combat the environmental damages by private industry.

Wealthy businessmen and corporations do not stand to benefit from laws that regulate their activities, whether it be environmental destruction or how much they pay employees. The federal government had restricted the private industries right to tread on consumers, the environment, the health of citizens, etc, along with communities and states rights to discriminate and restrict the rights of others.

It's these similarities that unite the modern conservative movement; whether it is a big businessman or a community of evangelicals, the federal government has limited their rights to harm and oppress others for the betterment of society, and they feel like victims. To provide a simple analogy, conservatives are like bullies in grade school who end up being punished for their bullying, and suddenly feel like victims. It is now the teacher who is a bully! Or the federal government.

Charles Koch wants to stop worrying about the federal government investigating and fining his Koch Industries for environmental damage, while Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz want to continue restricting gay marriage and abortion. Same enemy, different issue. Ultimately, the one theme underlying all of these “don’t tread on me” conservatives is that of hypocrisy -- they want the federal government to stop bullying them so that they can bully others. But thats not how it works in grade school, and thats not how it should work in real life either.

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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Mike Huckabee Rick Santorum Social Conservatives The Republican Party