Exclusive: The American Right demeans racial minorities for playing the victim’s role, but today’s Tea Party is draped in “victimhood,” claiming to be the target of an African-American president and feeling threatened by the nation’s demographic shift. But racist fears have always had a home on the Right, says Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
The Republican conspiracy theory – that the White House ordered the Internal Revenue Service to persecute Tea Party groups – imploded this week with the release of a House transcript showing that the special attention resulted from bureaucratic concerns of a local IRS office, not from political repression out of Washington.
But the manufactured IRS “scandal” is only one part of a much larger pattern of the Right falsifying both current events and national history. This false narrative then reverberates through the giant right-wing echo chamber, deceiving millions of Americans who rely on the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh for their news.
Among other falsehoods, these ill-informed Americans have been convinced that the key Framers of the Constitution – the likes of George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton – wanted a system of strong states’ rights and a weak federal government, when the truth is nearly the opposite. This fake history has, in turn, fueled an intense hatred of today’s federal “guv-mint” as Tea Partiers fancy themselves the brave protectors of the Constitution. (More below)
Beyond the made-up founding narrative, the Right has worked overtime to come up with current “scandals” that feed the paranoia of right-wingers and the implicit racism that pulses just below the surface of the Tea Party and similar movements.
The latest example of this practice of deception came from Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee. Issa has stoked the IRS conspiracy theory of a presidential-driven persecution of Tea Party groups, while concealing a transcript of a mid-level IRS official who told the opposite story.
The transcript finally was released this week by Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee’s ranking Democrat. In the interview of the IRS screening manager in the Cincinnati office, the manager – a self-described conservative Republican – said the idea of isolating Tea Party applications seeking tax-exempt status as “social welfare” organizations started with a low-level employee who was struggling over how to proceed on one Tea Party case that he had.
Amid doubts the Tea Party group qualified for the 501-c-4 tax-exempt status, a decision was made to consolidate the various Tea Party applications so they would all be treated in a similar fashion, according to the manager. “There was a lot of concerns about making sure that any cases that had, you know, similar-type activities or items included, that they would be worked by the same agent or same group,” the manager said.
So, that’s why the Cincinnati office ran a search for Tea Party groups, the manager said. “What I’m talking [about] here is that if we end up with four applications coming into the group that are pretty similar, and we assign them to four different agents, we don’t want four different determinations. It’s just not good business. It’s not good customer service,” the manager testified.
As for the supposed White House instigation, the manager said he was aware of none.
QUESTION: Do you have any reason to believe that anyone in the White House was involved in the decision to screen Tea Party cases?
ANSWER: I have no reason to believe that.
QUESTION: Do you have any reason to believe that anyone in the White House was involved in the decision to centralize the review of Tea Party cases?
So, rather than some nefarious plot by President Barack Obama to punish his “enemies” – as Issa and many right-wing pundits have alleged – the grouping of the Tea Party applications was explained as an effort to achieve bureaucratic consistency. In other words, the grand IRS “scandal” was really no “scandal” at all, just some clumsy bureaucratic effort to sort through a bunch of similar applications. The greater scandal appears to be Rep. Issa’s abuse of a congressional investigation for political ends.
But there’s a larger question involved here: the Right’s proclivity for falsifying information to serve an ideological agenda. Just as Issa selectively concealed evidence to advance his IRS conspiracy theory, the Right has cherry-picked “history” regarding the nation’s Founding to mislead Americans.
The Right has treated U.S. history as a kind of “Terminator” sequel, sending right-wing “scholars” back in time to kidnap key Framers and to hijack the historical narrative. That way, Tea Partiers can dress up in Revolutionary War costumes and pretend that they’re channeling the spirits of the Framers of the Constitution.
The Right’s “big lie” about the Constitution has been to misrepresent what the key Framers – the likes of Madison, Washington and Hamilton – were trying to do. They were implementing the nation’s single greatest shift of authority from the states to the federal government.
Rather than enhancing states’ rights – as the Right would like its followers to believe – the Framers were stripping the states of their “independence” and “sovereignty” that had been spelled out in the Articles of Confederation, which governed the United States from 1777 to 1787.
The other element of the Right’s deception is to white-out the motivation for the strong Southern opposition to the Constitution: the fear that it would gradually shift power to the North and eventually lead to the eradication of slavery.
In that sense, racism has always been at the heart of the American Right, from the days of southern Anti-Federalists sensing an existential threat to slavery, through Southern secession after Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, to the Ku Klux Klan’s resistance to black liberation and Reconstruction, to decades of Jim Crow laws, segregation and lynching, to anger over the federal government’s forced integration in the mid-Twentieth Century, to the Tea Party’s inchoate fury against America’s demographic changes personified by the first African-American president.
On Wednesday, when Tea Partiers donned their tri-corner caps and rallied against immigration reform on Capitol Hill, it was a Hispanic who suffered the brunt of their fury. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, was treated as their own Benedict Arnold, a traitor to the movement who dared promote legislation that would open a pathway to citizenship for many of the nation’s 12 million undocumented workers.
The Tea Partiers’ hatred of what they call “amnesty” is best understood as a recognition that many of those new citizens would have brown skin and likely vote Democratic, thus further diluting white power in the United States. That fear is reflected, too, in the Right’s systematic efforts to make voting harder across the country and to continue denying the District of Columbia any congressional representation.
Anyone can figure out that if Washington D.C. were populated by white conservative Republicans, rather than many people of color and liberal Democrats, the cause of D.C. representation would be a matter of “principle” for the Tea Party. There is no clearer case in America of people suffering under a key grievance of the Revolution: “no taxation without representation.”
However, given the dark-skin demographics and political leanings of the District’s population, Tea Partiers come to Washington to decry “taxation with representation” for themselves while caring nothing about “taxation without representation” for District citizens. The Tea Partiers wave their “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, but don’t demand seats in Congress for the people who live here.
With similar hypocrisy, the Right has rewritten the nation’s Founding narrative, an undertaking that has met little resistance from mainstream commentators who either don’t know the history themselves or don’t think the fight is worth having. Yet, ceding the historical narrative to the Right has meant that many Americans now think they are following the guideposts that the Framers left behind when they are actually being led in the opposite direction.
Leading the way in the years after independence, Washington and Madison wanted a unified nation that addressed the country’s practical needs and overcame the rivalries among the states. “Thirteen sovereignties,” Washington wrote, “pulling against each other, and all tugging at the federal head, will soon bring ruin to the whole.”
Prior to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison told Washington that the states had to be made “subordinately useful,” a sentiment that Washington shared because – as commander in chief of the Continental Army – he had watched the Articles’ failure first-hand when his troops suffered without supplies and pay.
However, right-wing propaganda has transformed these key Framers from being the fathers of the Constitution to avatars for the Articles of Confederation, a system that both Washington and Madison despised. It was the Articles that made the states “sovereign” and “independent” and relegated the central government to a “league of friendship.”
Madison and Washington were among the pragmatic nationalists who recognized that the Articles were a disaster threatening the fragile independence and unity of the country. For instance, both Madison and Washington believed the central government needed the power to regulate national commerce.
When Madison tried to get a Commerce Clause added as an amendment to the Articles of Confederation, Washington strongly supported Madison’s idea, calling the amendment “so self evident that I confess I am at a loss to discover wherein lies the weight of the objection to the measure. We are either a united people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of a general concern act as a nation, which have national objects to promote, and a national character to support. If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending it to be.”
Writing the Constitution
After Madison’s commerce amendment died in the Virginia legislature – and as Shays’ Rebellion shook western Massachusetts in 1786 while the central government was powerless to intervene – Madison and Washington turned to the more radical concept of a Constitutional Convention. Here is how historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg describe Madison’s thinking in their 2010 book, Madison and Jefferson:
“Building a case against the Articles of Confederation, [Madison] needed to explain why the United States was so ill equipped to accomplish the basic tasks of raising money, making treaties, and regulating commerce. By April 1787 he had a diagnosis in hand. He called it ‘Vices of the Political System of the United States,’ and it became his working manifesto, a summary view at the end of his first decade as a state and national politician.
“Chief among the vices Madison identified was the undue power lodged in the individual states. Having held a seat in Congress longer than anyone else (four years), he had come to feel that the Confederation was barely a government at all. Like most confederations, the U.S. system was a voluntary compact, a weak ‘league of friendship’ among the states, and subject to internal dissensions. It lacked executive and judicial components; it rarely if ever represented the collective will of the people. …
“Madison saw little to be gained in rescuing the Confederation. It was a dysfunctional system, its flaws too ingrained for it to be made energetic or even stable. … Moreover, the aggrandizing state legislatures of the 1780s resembled nothing so much as a group of rambunctious children refusing to play together fairly. … Damning the states unmercifully, Madison found his solution in a centralizing government. …
“Madison explained his thinking to George Washington shortly before the Constitutional Convention was set to open. There was only one way to save the nation, he said. The states had to be made ‘subordinately useful.’”
In Madison’s original draft of the Constitution, the federal Congress would have even been given veto power over state legislation, a provision that eventually was dropped. However, the Constitution and federal law were still made the supreme laws of the land, and federal courts had the power to strike down state laws deemed unconstitutional.
Though not giving the federal government all the powers that Madison had wanted, the Constitution still represented a major shift of authority from the states to the central government. And, that transformation was not lost on the Anti-Federalists who struggled desperately to block ratification in 1788. [For more details, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]
The South’s Fears
The battle against the Constitution and later against an energetic federal government — the sort of nation-building especially envisioned by Washington and Hamilton – emanated, in part, from the fears of many Southern plantation owners that eventually the national political system would move to outlaw slavery and thus negate their massive investment in human bondage.
Their thinking was that the stronger the federal government became the more likely it would act to impose a national judgment against the South’s slavery. So, while the Southern argument was often couched in the rhetoric of “liberty,” i.e. the rights of states to set their own rules, the underlying point was the maintenance of slavery, the “liberty” to own black people.
This dollars-and-cents reality was reflected in the debate at Virginia’s 1788 convention to ratify the Constitution. Two of Virginia’s most noted advocates for “liberty” and “rights” – Patrick Henry and George Mason – tried to rally opposition to the proposed Constitution by stoking the fears of white plantation owners.
Historians Burstein and Isenberg note that the chief argument advanced by Henry and Mason was that “slavery, the source of Virginia’s tremendous wealth, lay politically unprotected” and that this danger was exacerbated by the Constitution’s granting the President, as commander in chief, the power to “federalize” state militias.
“Mason repeated what he had said during the Constitutional Convention: that the new government failed to provide for ‘domestic safety’ if there was no explicit protection for Virginians’ slave property,” Burstein and Isenberg wrote. “Henry called up the by-now-ingrained fear of slave insurrections – the direct result, he believed, of Virginia’s loss of authority over its own militia.”
Henry floated conspiracy theories about possible subterfuges that the federal government might employ to take away black slaves from white Virginians. Describing this fear-mongering, Burstein and Isenberg wrote:
“Congress, if it wished, could draft every slave into the military and liberate them at the end of their service. If troop quotas were determined by population, and Virginia had over 200,000 slaves, Congress might say: ‘Every black man must fight.’ For that matter, a northern-controlled Congress might tax slavery out of existence.
“Mason and Henry both ignored the fact that the Constitution protected slavery on the strength of the three-fifths clause, the fugitive slave clause, and the slave trade clause. Their rationale was that none of this mattered if the North should have its way.”
Madison, a principal architect of the new governing structure and a slave-owner himself, sought to finesse the Mason/Henry arguments by insisting, according to Burstein and Isenberg, that “the central government had no power to order emancipation, and that Congress would never ‘alienate the affections five-thirteenths of the Union’ by stripping southerners of their property. ‘Such an idea never entered into any American breast,’ he said indignantly, ‘nor do I believe it ever will.’ …
“Yet Mason struck a chord in his insistence that northerners could never understand slavery; and Henry roused the crowd with his refusal to trust ‘any man on earth’ with his rights. Virginians were hearing that their sovereignty was in jeopardy.”
Enter Thomas Jefferson
Though Madison had served essentially as Washington’s right-hand man in developing the Constitution and shepherding it through ratification, Madison gradually shifted his primary political allegiance to Thomas Jefferson, his Virginia neighbor and fellow slaveholder.
Jefferson was in France during the Constitution Convention, but he later took up the Henry-Mason concern about federal abolition of slavery. Perhaps more than any early national leader, Jefferson also injected a bitter “factionalism,” ignoring Washington’s warnings against it as a threat to the new constitutional Republic.
Jefferson proved to be a clever politician as he built a movement that challenged Washington’s Federalists and their vision of a vibrant central government. Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party supposedly represented the interests of modest “farmers,” although his true base of support was among Southern plantation aristocrats. By the early 1790s, Madison had been pulled from Washington’s orbit to Jefferson’s.
Despite his intellectual brilliance, Jefferson was really just another Southern hypocrite. He wrote that “all men are created equal” (in the Declaration of Independence) but he engaged in pseudo-science of skull measurements to portray African-Americans as inferior to whites (as he did in his Notes on the State of Virginia).
His racism rationalized his own economic and personal reliance on slavery. While desperately afraid of slave rebellions, he is alleged to have taken a young slave girl, Sally Hemings, as a mistress. Jefferson’s hypocrisy also surfaced in his attitudes toward a slave revolt in the French colony of St. Domingue (today’s Haiti), where African slaves took seriously the Jacobins’ cry of “liberty, equality and fraternity.”
After their demands for freedom were rebuffed and the brutal French plantation system continued, violent slave uprisings followed. In 1801, President Jefferson (along with his Secretary of State James Madison) sided with French Emperor Napoleon in his effort to crush the slave uprising. [For more details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Racism and the American Right.”]
Ironically, after the slaves of Haiti defeated the French army, Napoleon was forced to abandon his dream of building a French empire in the center of the North American continent and instead sold the Louisiana territories to Jefferson in a deal negotiated by Madison (although the purchase exceeded the Constitution’s “enumerated powers,” thus violating their supposed strict constitutional principles).
Madison also flip-flopped on the issue of a national bank, opposing it when the bank was created by Treasury Secretary Hamilton under Washington’s presidency. But – as President – Madison struggled with financing the War of 1812 and then embraced the necessity of a bank.
Loyal to Slavery
Even after their presidencies, Jefferson and Madison remained loyal to their neighbors, the slaveholders of Virginia who – as a group – had discovered a lucrative new industry, breeding slaves for sale to the new states emerging in the west. Jefferson himself saw the financial benefit of having fertile female slaves.
“I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm,” Jefferson remarked. “What she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption.”
While recognizing the economic value of slavery, Jefferson suggested that the ultimate resolution of slavery would be to expatriate black Americans out of the country. One of Jefferson’s ideas was to take away the children born to black slaves in the U.S. and ship them to Haiti. In that way, Jefferson posited that both slavery and America’s black population could be phased out.
Jefferson and Madison also insisted on framing the slavery issue as one in which the white Southerners were the real victims. In 1820, Jefferson wrote a letter expressing his alarm over the bitter battle surrounding the admission of Missouri as a slave state. “As it is, we have the wolf by the ear and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go,” Jefferson wrote. The imagery sought sympathy for the Southern slaveholders as the ones caught in a dangerous predicament, tenuously holding onto a ravenous wolf.
After returning to his Virginia plantation, Madison expressed his own sympathy for the slave-owning South in a play that he wrote, entitled “Jonathan Bull and Mary Bull.” The plot involved the wife Mary having one black arm, which husband Jonathan had accepted at the time of their marriage but later found offensive. He demanded that Mary either have her skin peeled off or her arm cut off.
In Madison’s script, Jonathan Bull becomes obnoxious and insistent even though his remedy is cruel and even life-threatening. “I can no longer consort with one marked with such a deformity as the blot on your person,” Jonathan tells Mary, who is “so stunned by the language she heard that it was some time before she could speak at all.”
Madison’s play clumsily made the belligerent and cruel Jonathan represent the North and the sympathetic and threatened Mary the South. As historians Burstein and Isenberg note, “Madison’s refusal to acknowledge the North’s right to speak out against southern slavery is matched by his feminization of the South, vulnerable if not wholly innocent and routinely subjected to unwarranted pressure. …
“Mary alone appreciates the ‘good feelings’ that are meant to characterize relations between husband and wife. … She is calm as she tries to talk sense to Jonathan, whom she continues to refer to respectfully as ‘my worthy partner.’ … [S]he asks him a rhetorical question: Would divorce make your estates stronger than they are as one half of our union.”
In other words, Madison considered the South’s white slaveholders the real victims here, and the North’s abolitionists were unfeeling monsters.
Unlike Washington and some other Founders whose wills freed their slaves, Jefferson and Madison did not grant any blanket freedom. Madison freed none of his slaves; Jefferson only freed a few who were related to the Hemings family.
On Route to War
Jefferson and Madison (at least the later incarnation of Madison as Jefferson’s ally) also helped put the nation on the path to the Civil War by lending support to the “nullification” movement in which Southern states insisted that they could reject (or nullify) federal law, the opposite position from the one Madison took in the Constitutional Convention when he favored giving Congress the power to veto state laws.
In the early 1830s, Southern politicians sought “nullification” of a federal tariff on manufactured goods, but were stopped by President Andrew Jackson who threatened to deploy troops to South Carolina to enforce the Constitution.
In December 1832, Jackson denounced the “nullifiers” and declared “the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.”
Jackson also rejected as “treason” the notion that states could secede if they wished, noting that the Constitution “forms a government not a league,” a reference to a line in the Articles of Confederation that had termed the fledgling United States a “league of friendship” among the states, not a national government.
Jackson’s nullification crisis was resolved nonviolently, but a few decades later, the South’s continued resistance to the constitutional preeminence of the federal government led to secession and the formation of the Confederacy. It took the Union’s victory in the Civil War to free the slaves and firmly settle the issue of the sovereignty of the national Republic over the independence of the states.
However, the defeated South still balked at equal rights for blacks and invoked “states’ rights” to defend segregation during the Jim Crow era. White Southerners amassed enough political clout, especially within the Democratic Party – the successor to Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party – to fend off civil rights for blacks.
The battle over states’ rights was joined again in the 1950s when the federal government finally committed itself to enforcing the principle of “equal protection under the law” as prescribed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Many white Southerners were furious that their system of segregation was being dismantled by federal authority.
Southern rightists and many libertarians insisted that federal laws prohibiting denial of voting rights for blacks and outlawing segregation in public places were unconstitutional. But federal courts ruled that Congress was within its rights in banning such discrimination within the states.
Rise of the Tea Party
The anger of Southern whites was taken out primarily on the modern Democratic Party, which had led the fight for civil rights. Opportunistic Republicans, such as Richard Nixon, fashioned a “Southern strategy” using racial code words to appeal to Southern whites and turned the region from solidly Democratic to predominantly Republican as it is today.
Southern white anger was also reflected in the prevalence of the Confederate battle flag on pickup trucks and in store windows. Gradually, however, the American Right retreated from outright support of racial segregation. The growing public revulsion over the “Stars and Bars” as a symbol of racism also forced the Right to make a stylistic adjustment as well.
The Right stopped deriving its key imagery from the embittered unreconstructed South and turned to the far more palatable era of Lexington and Concord. Instead of highlighting slogans like “the South will rise again,” the Right glommed onto Revolutionary War messages like “Don’t Tread on Me,” with the elected American government placed in the role of a tyrannical British monarch.
Though the Right’s imagery changed, the message remained the same. From the Anti-Federalist days of 1788 through the Civil War and the segregationist South to hatred of the first African-American president, there was a determination to prevent the federal Republic from acting against injustices existing inside individual states.
But the racism that has permeated the American Right for more than two centuries continues to bubble just below the surface and occasionally breaks through, such as with attempts to make voting more difficult for minorities or with opposition to immigration reform (and the prospect of more brown-skinned American citizens).
At Wednesday’s Tea Party rally on Capitol Hill, the overwhelmingly white crowd hooted at the mention of Sen. Rubio’s name although he was just recently a Tea Party favorite. However, because of his work with Democrats and more moderate Republicans on immigration reform, Rubio became the Right’s newest bête noire.
As Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank observed, pro-Tea Party members of Congress “called to the microphone the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector, who delivered a sustained rebuke of the turncoat. ‘Marco Rubio,’ he charged, ‘has not read his own bill.’
“A chorus of boos rose from the crowd of several hundred. Rector mocked the claim that the legislation wouldn’t cost taxpayers money. ‘Liars! Liars!’ the crowd replied. ‘Senator Rubio says that [illegal immigrants] are going to have to pay a penalty, ‘cause this bill is tough,’ Rector said derisively. ‘Boo! Liar! Liar!’ … ‘Primary Rubio!’ somebody in the crowd shouted.”
While Milbank marveled at “the speed with which the tea party turned on Rubio,” the behavior should not be surprising given the history of the American Right, a movement that has long harbored racists and resented federal efforts to intervene against slavery, lynching and segregation.
To this day, much of the American Right has refused to come to grips with the idea of non-whites holding U.S. citizenship. And, there is now a palpable fear that the demographics of democracy might finally eradicate white supremacy in the United States. It is that last-ditch fight for white dominance – as much as anything else – that is driving today’s Tea Party.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.