When Lester Maddox was governor of Georgia in the late 1960s, he insisted that the problem with the state’s prisons was “the poor quality of its inmates.”
Maddox was a Democrat and an ardent defender of the Apartheid South, not exactly an American statesman. Yet his defense of Georgia’s prison system turns out to be a perfect metaphor for today’s Republican Party, created when political consultant Kevin Phillips realized that Nixon’s 43.9 percent, added to George Wallace’s 13.5 percent of the popular vote in the 1968 election, was the beginning of a coalition that would ensure a permanent Republican majority in the South. (Phillips has spent the second half of his life atoning for and writing about his Southern Strategy.)
To understand the posturing of the Republican candidates this year, you have to take into account the quality of the inmates––the Southern, conservative, anti-immigrant base that dominates the party Lincoln helped create to confront the nativism and anti-immigration politics of the Democrats and Know Nothings in the 1850s.
The candidates––not their backers and constituency-group leaders––got most of the media attention at last month’s Values Voters Summit in Washington because they are the candidates––and because their pronouncements, which range from deeply disturbing to utterly risible, are newsworthy.
When Ted Cruz implies that if elected, he will kill Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, that’s news. When Mike Huckabee promises to invoke the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to ban abortion with the stroke of a pen, because the unborn are fully fledged citizens of the United States (“None of your daughters and daughters-in-law called you up and said ‘Guess What? I’m going to have a blob of tissue.’”), that’s also news. As is Rick Santorum’s promise to pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage “as between a man and a woman.”
As is, I suppose, Donald Trump’s truculent defense of Christmas. “I love Christmas. You go to stores now and you don’t see the word ‘Christmas.’ It says ‘Happy Holidays’ all over. I say ‘where’s Christmas?’ I tell my wife ‘don’t go to those stores!’ I want to see Christmas!”
Where’s the market for political discourse of this caliber? It plays particularly with the constituency groups that make up today’s Republican Party.
The Values Voters Summit is an annual production of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins’s non-profit (and tax-exempt) foundation that for decades has been at the center of anti-abortion, anti-LGBT campaigns. During the presidential election cycle, its national and regional events are a magnet for candidates in pursuit of the Republican evangelical base. This year, roughly 2,500 attended the D.C. event.
“You’ve been amazing! And to have such a fantastic room!” Donald Trump said as he wrapped up his 30-minute “speech.” The Don Rickles, Vegas-style sign-off was pitch-perfect for Trump, even if waving his Bible in the air as he closed seemed contrived, and even if he had no idea of the second bananas who opened and closed for him.
Consider the Benham brothers.
Identical twins Jason and David Benham became Christian-right martyrs when the HGTV cable network cancelled their “Flip it Forward” reality show before it went into production.
The network had been careless in vetting its two stars. The twins’ father, the Rev. Flip Benham, is a virulent and confrontational anti-abortion crusader and anti-LGBT activist. The sons have followed in the father’s footsteps.
HGTV, an apolitical home-and-garden network, had been sold on a program that followed the brothers as they bought, remodeled, and flipped houses. Then network executives discovered some of David’s anti-gay advocacy, which might have made selling ads a challenge.
One example was a passage in an article the rowdier of the two twins wrote for a Christian publication:
In the Leviticus passage above it says that death is the consequence for homosexual sin. This is how detestable this type of sin is to God.
Benham did go on to observe that because “homosexual sin is covered by the blood of Jesus,” it will never again be considered a capital offense. But network execs decided that his anti-gay writing and advocacy was a reasonable justification to abort the reality program.
The “firing” catapulted the twins into a new career, their hugely popular two-man show booked by hundreds of Christian event planners. The brothers are handsome, virile, and charismatic. Their act plays off a gently mocking sibling rivalry, quibbling about who was the better player on their high school basketball team in North Carolina, or who is the harder-bodied Cross-X trainer.
On the Values Voter stage, they added to their routine a group of heroes in “the war on religion”––the Oregon couple who owned Sweet Cakes Bakery and refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple; Iowans Rich and Betty Odgaard, who refused to rent their wedding chapel to a same-sex couple; Baronelle Stutzman, the septuagenarian Washington State florist who refused to provide floral arrangements for the same-sex wedding of one of her longtime clients; Kelvin Cochran, a former Atlanta fire chief relieved of his duties after he had published a book in which he described “homosexuality, lesbianism, pederasty, bestiality,” as related forms of “biblically unclean sexual perversion,” et al.
Secular liberals are targeting only Christians, David said.
“I haven’t seen a Muslim baker gettin’ sued yet,”he said. “And I haven’t seen the imams and the clerics getting pressure to marrying gay couples.”
Redemption and the unredeemable
Martyrdom is one powerful Christian theme, redemption another.
Star Parker is a tall, imposing African-American woman given to stylish long braids. She, too, is in demand at Christian and other conservative political events. She has run for Congress, written books, and is a columnist whose work appears in right- wing news outlets.
Parker often prefaces her speeches (actually strident, high-decibel rants), with a short take on her CV: “I’ve been in and out of criminal activity, drug activity, sexual activity, welfare activity, until Christ reached out into my heart to reconcile me.”
Her focus is usually abortion and her performance is as Grand Guignol as political theatre gets. She tells a large Saturday morning crowd gathered in Northwest Washington’s Omni Shoreham Hotel ballroom that the nation is in a civil war. Committed Christians are the Union Army engaged in a campaign to free the unborn from secular forces that would have them aborted.
She describes in grisly detail excerpts of testimony from the trial of Kermit Gosnell, convicted of first-degree murder for killing viable babies at his West Philadelphia abortion clinic, by cutting their spinal cords with scissors.
“One baby was big enough to walk to the bus stop, and he slashed that little boy’s neck and tossed him in a shoe box,” she says.
There is a description of parts of “47 babies in a freezer that had to be thawed out like a TV dinner.” Then Star moves seamlessly to Planned Parenthood (never in any way associated with Gosnell’s private, for-profit Philadelphia clinic).
“Did Congress pay attention to Gosnell? See if there are any more Gosnells out there? . . . Planned Parenthood is still in business, the taxpayer-subsidized abortion business. And selling baby body parts.”
Owning an enrapt audience, she goes on.
“Homosexuals, now that they are married . . . are going to get their children right out of our foster care system.”
“Any Christian parent who has their child in one of those cesspools we call public schools is going to receive back a liberal.”
“A government that wants to retire our seniors through a taxation scheme called Social Security.”
Until I can’t go on and head out to Calvert Avenue to hail a cab.
But this road goes on forever and this party never ends––at this event, at CPAC, at Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom gatherings, at hundreds of venues and before tens of thousands of activists across the country, where the religious right, the Tea Party right, and the American Conservative Union, et al. convene.
The Benham Twins, Star Parker, Oliver North on patriotism, Gary Bauer’s account of every execution that has occurred in the Middle East since Obama took the oath of office; Congressman Louie Gohmert on the prospects of impeaching Barack Obama.
Until it ends, the neo-Confederate, mostly white, Christian party that Kevin Phillips envisioned in 1968 continues as half of our republic’s two-party system.