Cliven Bundy and the Klan Komplex

Why the rancher’s racist rant shouldn’t have surprised anybody

If you’ve been paying attention to the Cliven Bundy situation at all (as I started doing last week) you no doubt heard that Wednesday night he went off script in front of a New York Times reporter:

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Reactions varied. Bundy’s own first reaction was to claim he had been misquoted — “I didn’t say nothing about picking cotton” — until Media Matters released the video of him saying it.

Mainstream Republicans who had made a hero of Bundy — Rand Paul and Sean Hannity in particular — claimed to be shocked, and dropped the rancher like a hot rock. But the true believers promoted a smeared-by-the-liberal-media theme. InfoWars posted a longer version of the video that it claims vindicates Bundy: “his argument is actually anti-racist in that it laments the plight of black families who have been caught in the trap of dependency on government.” (I invite you to click through and examine the larger context for yourself. I don’t think it vindicates much of anything, probably because I already see the “dependency on government” meme as a racist dog whistle. I mean, we all know who those dependent-on-government people are, don’t we? We’re not talking about my white mother depending on Medicare to pay her hospital bills.)

One of the best responses came from satirist Andy Borowitz, whose invented quotes nail the hidden meaning of the mainstream Republican reaction:

“We Republicans have worked long and hard to develop insidious racial code words like ‘entitlement society’ and ‘personal responsibility,’ ” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky). “There is no excuse for offensive racist comments like the ones Cliven Bundy made when there are so many subtler ways of making the exact same point.”

Fox News also blasted the rancher, saying in a statement, “Cliven Bundy’s outrageous racist remarks undermine decades of progress in our effort to come up with cleverer ways of saying the same thing.”

If you hear someone saying that Bundy just wasn’t “politically correct” — or that the problem is “an old man rancher isn’t media trained to express himself perfectly” —
that’s what they really mean: It’s fine to imply that slavery wasn’t so bad and to characterize black people receiving government assistance (i.e., all of them) as lazy and promiscuous and criminal, but you have to use the right words, like Paul Ryan did in March:

We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work. There is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.

Ryan presumably does have some media training, so he didn’t say Negro or mention slavery or picking cotton —  and it’s those words (and not the ideas behind them) that make Bundy’s quote racist, right? Ryan criticized the “culture” of the “inner city” rather than black people, so his comment couldn’t be racist — “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” he said afterward — even though everybody knew who he was talking about and what he meant.

By contrast to the apparent shock of Sean Hannity, liberals mainly expressed surprise that anybody would be surprised by the discovery that Bundy is a racist. Matt Yglesias found it “clarifying” that Bundy had gone off on race “because race has not been far from my mind since the story first hit the papers.”

On Bill Mahr’s Real Time, Daily Beast editor John Avlon explained:

The reason it’s predictable is that we’ve seen a pattern, especially at a time when the face of the federal government is an African-American. The association with racists is becoming the black lung disease of the conservative movement. It’s an occupational hazard. … You start seeing a pattern and at some point you’ve got to confront it: “How come we keep making common cause with racists?” Maybe it’s got something to do with some of the appeals they’re making.

Rachel Maddow did the best job of laying that pattern out: Much of what Bundy had been saying all along were the kinds of bizarre ideas that are not themselves racist, but are way more popular in white supremacist circles than anywhere else. (It’s like an accent; you don’t have to be Canadian to end a question with “eh”, but if you do you probably are.) Rachel drilled down into the history of one particular strange notion: that county sheriffs are the ultimate in legitimate legal authority. Bundy had been urging his own county sheriff to disarm the federal agents, as if the sheriff’s authority were paramount. (In 2012, a fringe candidate for sheriff in my own Hillsborough County, NH professed a similar view of the job he imagined himself to be running for. He lost.) Rachel chased that notion back through the 20th-century Posse Comitatus movement, and from there back to the Southern resistance to Reconstruction in the 19th century.

Something I’m just beginning to appreciate is how influential the Southern anti-Reconstruction movement that birthed the KKK has been in forming the ideas that are still running around on the extreme Right. If you want initiate yourself into this mindset, I recommend reading Thomas Dixon’s 1905 best-seller The Clansman: a Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, which inspired the 1915 movie classic The Birth of a Nation, and whose themes were still echoing in 1936’s Gone With the Wind. Dixon drops you into a world where the Klan are the good guys. Evil Washington politicians have conspired with corrupt and rapacious local blacks to upend the natural order and create a black-dominated society. Unable to take any more, the noble Southern whites arm and organize themselves into a freedom-seeking secret society, the KKK. Once they do, the fundamentally cowardly black troops that Washington has tried to stand up against them scatter like nine-pins.

This “historical romance” has essentially nothing to do with the actual history of the KKK, which from the beginning was focused on terrorizing blacks out of claiming their rights.

But there’s a configuration of ideas we might call the Klan Komplex — a combination of Lost Cause mythology, John Calhoun’s* misinterpretation of the Constitution and miscasting of the Founders, love of guns, and hatred of the federal government — that survives to this day in radical right-wing fringe groups. Today many of these ideas sound like nonsense to outsiders, but the whole Komplex makes sense if you picture yourself as a defeated Southern aristocrat watching victorious Union troops side with your former slaves against you, and looking to the heroic knights of the KKK to restore you to your rightful dominance.

  • The federal government is illegitimate, having grossly exceeded the authority legitimately granted by the Constitution. Government officials have no claim to represent the American people.
  • The Founders were divinely inspired men whose vision has been betrayed.
  • The true federal government was an agreement among the states, and had no direct authority over the American people.
  • The Founders intended states’ rights to be paramount and the federal government to be weak.
  • Slavery in the old South was a benevolent institution. Through slavery, African savages were civilized and taught Christianity. They were treated well by their masters.
  • Slavery is the worst thing that can happen to a white man. Any time the federal government forces a white man to do something he doesn’t want to do, he is being enslaved.
  • Federal taxes are confiscation.
  • The federal government has corrupted blacks by removing them from the benevolent authority of whites and giving them goods that it has confiscated from whites. Blacks are addicted to these government handouts, and through that addiction the government dominates them more completely than their masters ever did.
  • The United States was founded to be a white Christian nation. Non-whites and non-Christians have been generously allowed to settle and prosper here, but now they are illegitimately taking over.
  • States can nullify federal laws.
  • States have the right to secede, and the South was right to do so.
  • The Second Amendment was put into the Bill of Rights so that citizens could overthrow the federal government if it exceeded its authority.
  • The vast armament of private citizens is the only thing that keeps the federal government from establishing tyranny. Armed citizens ready to revolt against the federal government are the true American patriots.

The three-percenters are fighting a new American Revolution.

Those ideas are not related to each other in any logical sense, so it would certainly be possible to believe a few of them without the others. But they originated together in the defeated South and have spread through the same channels ever since. As a result, although lots of people believe one or two of these ideas, if you hear more than a few of them from someone, probably you’ll eventually hear all the rest. When well-armed white men are rabidly opposed to the federal government and talk at length about their love of their own freedom, chances are excellent that they will eventually start waxing nostalgic about slavery, as Cliven Bundy did.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone.

* I keep meaning to write a longer article on the seminal influence of Calhoun on the Right. (Sam Tanenhaus has already done one, but I have a different take.) Whenever right-wingers talk about “the Founders” or “the Constitution” in ways that make no historical sense, they are probably invoking John Calhoun without realizing it. Calhoun re-interpreted (i.e., misinterpreted) the Founders in a way that allowed Jefferson Davis and the other Confederate secessionists to claim that they were the true heirs of the Revolution. In particular, Calhoun cast the Constitution as a confederation agreement among the states (similar to the Articles of Confederation it replaced), ignoring that it begins “We the People” rather than “We the States”.

Combining freedom-loving rhetoric with a positive attitude towards slavery goes back to Calhoun’s 1837 Senate speech “Slavery a Positive Good“. Slave-holding founders like Washington and Jefferson had been ambivalent about slavery, regarding it as an evil but not willing to support any of the schemes to end it. (Jefferson described slavery as holding “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” Lincoln’s campaign platform that slavery should not be extended the territories — the cause of the South’s secession — was originally Jefferson’s idea.) But by the 1830s, abolitionism had progressed to such a point that Calhoun foresaw the slave system’s destruction unless the South full-throatedly defended it as good. Already in the first paragraph, though, he uses slavery as a vision of horror, if it should happen to white people.

[E]ncroachments must be met at the beginning, and those who act on the opposite principle are prepared to become slaves.

So Calhoun urges Southern whites to stand up to the abolitionists, lest they metaphorically become slaves of the North. But he holds literal slavery to be a good thing, when it happens to an inferior race like the Africans. That fundamental hypocrisy has been with us ever since.

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