Every now and then – and especially around election time – someone from the general public becomes a household name thanks to a politically exploitable controversy. Politicians are eager to highlight how their philosophy and policies interact with real people, so they seek these representative examples. But the recent causes célèbres that have been exploited by the right are much worse than your average Joe the Plumber. They are of a distinctly nasty character and help expose conservatives’ mainstreaming of bigotry, lawlessness and violence.
Most recently, of course, was Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses after the Supreme Court recognized gay marriage as the law of the land. An elected official, Davis refused to comply with the mandates of her office and got thrown in jail for it. A thrice-divorced defender of “traditional” marriage, her only claim to fame is that she’s a bigot, a hypocrite and a breaker of constitutional oaths.
Of course, conservatives couldn’t wait to cast their lots with her. On the day Davis was released, presidential candidate Mike Huckabee set up a stage and a press conference and embraced her on national television. So desperate was he to be the candidate associated with Davis that his goons physically restrained another presidential contender, Ted Cruz, from going onstage. Huckabee then went on Sean Hannity – who is frequently instrumental in thrusting these conservative causes célèbres into the spotlight – to discuss the “criminalization” of Christianity.
To many conservatives, the right to be intolerant is under assault from big government. It’s the bigot who’s being oppressed and persecuted. In the case of Kim Davis, this thinking led to horribly misguided comparisons and invocations of Martin Luther King Jr. The National Review, ostensibly a paper of choice for intellectual conservatives, published a defense of Davis praising her “civil disobedience.” The article made no mention of the fact that Davis’ disobedience was explicitly aimed at denying a group of people equality under the law, a stand Dr. King might not have endorsed.
But those who’ve had their right to be intolerant taken away by left-wing big government are just one favorite conservative victim. Another archetype is the man’s man who’s being railroaded for making a living or protecting himself.
Rancher Cliven Bundy provided Sean Hannity’s viewers a healthy dose of red meat in the spring of 2014. Bundy inherited a family ranch in Nevada and for 20-plus years allowed his cattle to graze on adjacent federal land without paying the required fees. In effect, Bundy was stealing from Americans to the tune of about $1.2 million. This led to a standoff between Bundy militiamen and federal agents.
Rand Paul pledged his support for Bundy and Sean Hannity had him on his show several times. In fact, no one was more responsible than Hannity for making Bundy a national figure in the first place. Yet when Bundy began waxing philosophical about whether black people were better off as slaves, his mainstream Republican supporters fled. So while it’s perfectly all right to trample federally protected land, and gay people are still a fair target for conservative intolerance, one must be careful to veil racist statements in euphemism, lest even fellow conservatives abandon your cause.
What might not get you cast out of conservative circles, though, is killing a black person. It’s hard to think of a more reviled name in America than George Zimmerman, who made national headlines for stalking, accosting and murdering a 17-year-old kid in a hoodie. For this most heinous and indefensible of actions, Zimmerman became a hero in some circles. He was infamously acquitted of any wrongdoing. Around the time of his trial, Zimmerman found a very accommodating home on Sean Hannity’s show, sitting down with Hannity for sympathetic interviews.
As with Bundy, the press around Zimmerman has grown sourer as the full depth of his psychopathy becomes apparent. He continually exposes himself as a violent lunatic – as though his killing of Trayvon Martin hadn’t already demonstrated it – with accusations of domestic violence, involvement in road rage shootings, teaming with a gun store to sell Confederate flag paintings, and all-around profiting from and acting emboldened by his getting away with murder in front of the entire nation.
The frequency with which men like Zimmerman are portrayed as conservative folk heroes is disturbing. Despite these toxic associations, buried deep within the most heated right-wing venom is often a denunciation of violence. It is so subtle and insincere that it gets overlooked, but it’s usually there, if only out of begrudging necessity.
So when Jared Lee Loughner was rumored to have been inspired by Sarah Palin’s “Crosshairs” political ad to shoot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Tucson in 2011, Palin had to not only condemn the act but defend herself from the charge that she’d inspired it. Similar extremism has been attributed to right-wing leaders like Glenn Beck, who urges Americans to arm themselves, prepare for the worst, defend their country from the tyrants taking it over and, seemingly as an afterthought or to cover his own ass, not hurt anybody.
But even this standard may be collapsing. When white thugs felt compelled by Donald Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric to assault a homeless Hispanic man, Trump’s initial reaction was almost complimentary. He said it’d be a shame if his speech inspired the attack, then spoke to the “passionate” nature of his supporters. At another recent Trump event, an attendee can clearly be heard shouting “white power.” It’s also worth noting that Hannity defends Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin to the present day.
It’s said so often it’s become a cliché: One party is as bad as the other. In certain aspects, this is true. But admiration for violent bigots is much more difficult to find on the left. When the left does find someone to hold up, they’re usually people who have actually experienced some oppression or stood up to a corrupt system.
Sandra Fluke became a left-wing cause célèbre after being slandered by Rush Limbaugh while testifying before Congress on the importance of birth control. Michael Brown and the growing roster of unarmed black men killed by police officers have also become iconic on the left. Both examples demonstrate the distinction. And even while they defend their killers, men who have actually taken lives, conservatives won’t hesitate to resort to the cynical, meaningless accusation that the victim was “no angel.”
Keep in mind Kim Davis, Cliven Bundy, George Zimmerman and even Phil Robertson or Joe the Plumber aren’t people the left invokes to cast a disparaging light on conservatives. These are people conservatives are happy to have carry their banner, with plenty of support from the base. And although conservatives have turned away from some of their icons as they became harder to defend, they're often admired precisely because of something horrible they did. Davis is applauded for her bigotry; Zimmerman is applauded for murdering a teenager.
Looking at any number of these nationally embarrassing citizens and incidents can be damningly suggestive of a core rot in the conservative worldview. Guilt by association may be unfair, but the men and women right-wing leaders exalt as heroes should give thoughtful conservatives plenty of cause for reflection.
This story also appeared on Third Rail News.