Human Rights

The Right Plays to its Nativist Base

What passes for "conservatism" these days is a theater of scapegoating that fuels not just the anti-immigrant right but also the anti-gay, anti-black, anti-Muslim, anti-liberal rhetoric.
So Republican candidates were busy finding better things to do this week than appear at a forum where they could debate minority issues. Rudy's excuse was the best: he had to go off and hobnob with Bo Derek.

Digby's right, as usual: It's not just that the no-show reveals the undercurrent of racism that runs through the conservative movement like an ancient underground sewer -- the snub also played an important role in sending a signal to the conservative base.

We've known for some time that the GOP's fake inclusiveness -- hosting black children onstage at campaign events, trotting out big-name minorities in key public positions -- isn't actual minority outreach. It's part of its strategic appeal to fence-sitting white voters as somehow racially sensitive, while continuing to empower and indulge in wink-and-nudge racial politics that sends coded messages to the more naked racists in their base. It also gives them cover even as they pursue policies that reduce civil-rights enforcement on a broad scale.

A big part of playing that game is to keep the signals going to the base. Sometimes it's plain old race- and gay-baiting, couched in ways that let them erect flimsy facades of deniability. At others, it's making subtle snubs like this week's to make sure no one's deluded into thinking that defending white privilege isn't the first and most important job on the right's agenda.

So in the meantime you get a broad range of right-wingers, from Rush Limbaugh to Glenn Beck to Bill O'Reilly,, and all points in between, finding themselves increasingly comfortable coming out and saying things that no one in their right mind would have found acceptable or reasonable as recent as a decade ago. And the troops are taking note; they're even openly frothing along with their icons at the very thought of an African American running for the presidency.

The big opening for this shift in the dialogue towards near-open acceptance of old-fashioned bigotry is the immigration debate:
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all this is the big picture: the anti-immigrant push really represents a significant incursion of right-wing extremism into mainstream conservatism. Each is busy empowering the other, with the end result being an American right pushed even farther to the right.
The nativist right has effectively captured a significant segment of the Republican right, and it's playing out nationally in the immigration debate, most often on the local level. There was, for instance, the immigration forum held in Colorado a couple of weeks ago that was nothing more than an exercise in Latino-bashing:
Tuesday's immigration forum arranged by Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck was orchestrated to play on the worst fears of residents anxious about changes to their community.
… On the one hand, Buck has repeatedly acknowledged publicly that only a small fraction of illegal immigrants commit crimes -- beyond their unauthorized entry into this country. On the other, he attempted to whip up a crowd of 600 that gathered at an auditorium Tuesday night by flashing a slide show of photos of Hispanic men and the crimes they've committed. It was accompanied by an "ominous soundtrack," according to a Rocky Mountain News story.
Coupled with a Weld County Sheriff's Color Guard presentation and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the mood was cast for an us-versus-them event.
… There is no doubt Weld County has undergone significant demographic change over the last decade. The foreign-born population of Greeley went from 7,421 people in 2000 to 11,907 in 2006, a 60 percent increase in a city of 76,000.
When a place begins to undergo that kind of change, there is sure to be anxiety. The newcomers may look different. They may practice a different religion or speak a different language. Historically, this country has suffered waves of tension as groups of immigrants have brought with them their own traditions.
Rather than point out how much different "they" are, as Assistant U.S. Attorney Cliff Stricklin coyly did when he said he was glad to see so many "cowboy hats, boots and American flags" in the largely white audience, it would be far more productive to highlight the things we have in common. We want safe neighborhoods. We want our children to be well-educated. We want friendly communities.
And if you watch the leaders of this charge, you'll see that increasingly they're dropping all pretense of being rational. Presidential candidate Tom Tancredo, for instance, recently came out and said plainly what has been an innate -- but oft-denied -- part of his message, namely, that it isn't just illegal immigration he opposes:
Tancredo contends that illegal, and legal, immigrants are harming the nation because many of the newcomers "refuse to assimilate."
Even many legal immigrants fail to learn English or embrace American culture, choosing instead to keep their old customs and religion, he said. "The American melting pot is broken."
He asserted that such practices are destroying the cultural ties that long bound Americans together. The crowd roared in agreement when Tancredo shouted, "I'm tired of pressing '1' for English, and '2' for Spanish!"
He also linked illegal immigration to the nation's fight against terrorism and Islamic extremists. Tancredo asserted that some Iraqis were paying $50,000 to be smuggled across U.S. borders.
Rhetoric like Tancredo's (which comes from a variety of anti-immigrant quarters, including many white supremacists) is then picked up and broadcast by right-wing media figures like Lou Dobbs and Michael Savage and their dozens of imitators.

Of course, we know the immediate effects of this on the ground as well -- namely, the formation of vigilante action groups like the Minutemen, who reportedly are gearing up this week for another border watch. No doubt we can look forward to a concomitant rise in border deaths, while the yahoos in their lawn chairs concoct more video fantasies about shooting Latinos.

There are broader effects as well. We're seeing a number of cities attempting to create modern 'sundown' towns by driving out their Latino populations. And to no one's surprise, we've seen a marked upsurge in violent bias crimes targeting Latinos and other immigrants in the past couple of years.

This kind of hate never contains itself, though. It's like a bad virus that starts affecting every other walk of American life too. The desire to inflict violence on your scapegoat du jour always shifts along with the scapegoat. Pretty soon it isn't just "illegals" being targeted but any colored people, or whoever they decide to hate next: gays, liberals, whatever.

We've been seeing more ugly hate crimes in the Seattle area. There's been a spate of gay-bashings this summer. A Jewish family in the suburbs recently had their home vandalized, after someone wrote "I eat Jews" and drew a large backwards swastika on the hood of the family's work truck parked in the driveway. Another suburban family's home was vandalized because the contractor working on it was of mixed race.

We've been seeing it regionally too. Over in Lewiston, Idaho, a local white woman and her daughter were jailed for assaulting a 13-year-old Indian girl. Down in Butte Falls, Oregon, the swastikas have been coming out at the local high schools, and they've been directed, predictably, at Latinos:
The quiet Jackson County town of Butte Falls is combating outbreaks of racism by white supremacists and others, evident by swastikas carved in benches and fights between whites and Hispanics.
By June it had reached the high school. Someone burned a swastika symbol in the carpet of a history classroom.
… Last year 10th-graders Derrick Cisneros and Harley Casillas heard about classmates using slurs referring to their Hispanic heritage behind their backs.
Some of the racist remarks came from football teammates, Casillas said. They saw swastikas on bathroom walls.
It's even spreading in Canada:
"When there's an incident where there's the potential for people of colour or racialized minorities to be targeted, you find the white supremacist groups or individuals use it as an excuse to perpetrate even more hatred," says Mock.
It used to be that those involved in neo-Naziism could be typecast as young, white men in their teens and 20s. In order to reach out to a wider demographic, white supremacist web sites have changed tactics in recent years.
"(They're) transforming their views from the poisonous 'We want to expel minorities and imprison or exterminate Jews,' to something like 'We're just concerned about non-traditional immigration sources,' which usually means non-white," says Richard Warman, an Ottawa-based human rights lawyer. "They try to throw sugar in with their poison just to give it a more palatable taste."
And sometimes, as they have in Jena, Louisiana, they simply move in and try to exploit racially sensitive situations by inflaming them.

This two-step dance -- putting on a mainstream face while privately coddling the real fanaticism that underlies the agenda -- matches the dance of the mainstream right as it indulges the theater of scapegoating that fuels not just the anti-immigrant right but so much of what passes for "conservatism" these days: anti-gay, anti-black, anti-Muslim, anti-liberal.

The real question is where they're going to end up at the end of the dance, which will depend on who's calling the shots. Movement conservatives like to kid themselves that the fringe fanatics they're dancing with are fully under their control; but the nutcases have the crazy notion that it's the other way around. Judging from the way their presidential candidates are behaving, they look to be right.
David Neiwert is the author of In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest and Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, A Trial, and Hate Crime in America. He is proprietor of the Orcinus blog.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018