Sunday, July 05, 2009

In the course of a post at Media Matters that includes an impressive list of some of the most outrageous things that Pat Buchanan has said recently on the air, Jamison Foster has wondered, what does this unrepentant old racist blowhard have to say to get thrown off the air? In response, Adam Serwer at the Root advises Foster to be careful about what he wishes for:

But what makes Buchanan most interesting is that he’s no blind partisan—he’s his own brand of traditional paleoconservative. Most of the time, he tells it pretty straight. Buchanan hasn’t been shy about praising Obama or criticizing the GOP when he believes it’s warranted. When Republicans like Bill Kristol and John McCain were clamoring for Obama to antagonize Iran’s leadership in the wake of protests throughout June, Buchanan supported President Obama’s strategy of undercutting Iranian hard-liners by taking America out of the equation, saying he thought Obama was behaving “like a president of the United States.” There’s also Buchanan’s tendency to be startlingly frank about what he’s thinking and what he believes. Later in the same segment, Buchanan shrugged, “I put democracy far down the line. I think a devoutly Christian, conservative, traditionalist country—even if it’s a monarchy—is fine with me.” Scary, but really kind of refreshing at the same time.

And, though Buchanan has long been, as the president is fond of saying about petty dictators, “on the wrong side of history,” that doesn’t mean one can ignore his cultural heft. Buchanan is also arguably one of the most important living American political figures—he served in the Reagan, Ford and Nixon administrations, and it was his mind that helped develop the racially divisive Southern strategy that would become a successful Republican blueprint for years to come.

So is there anything Buchanan could say to get himself kicked off the air? Probably not. As long as his prejudices are expressed in relatively polite fashion—without the use of an obvious racial epithet, for example—he can skate by.

And really, that’s why MSNBC should keep Pat Buchanan. Not despite his regressive views—but because of them. Social pressure has expelled the expression of ideas like Buchanan’s from polite company, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of people who agree with the things he says. He remains on the network because, sadly, there’s still a market, an audience for his views that nod knowingly whenever his pensive scowl appears on the screen. And Buchanan says what a lot of these slick, groomed Republican press flacks are really thinking. Many of these conservatives won’t cop to believing, as he does, that America is “committing suicide” through the abortion of white babies and an influx of “Asian, African, and Latin American children;” there’s a silent minority that agree with many of his views. (A good example of this projection is the bromantic camaraderie between Buchanan and Hardball host Chris Matthews over the Ricci case—Matthews invites Buchanan to talk affirmative action precisely because he can express the kind of white resentment that Matthews himself might get in trouble for admitting.)

In recent years, the GOP has made attempts—some sincere, some not—to reach out to communities of color. These have failed, largely because a substantial amount of the GOP’s shrinking base sees the nation the way Buchanan does, as being destroyed by outsiders who aren’t real Americans. This remains true even as American demographic trends promise certain doom for the party as it currently exists. As long as that’s the case—and as unpleasant as it may be—progressives should hope those reactionaries have a voice. To the extent that Pat Buchanan is hurting someone, it isn’t liberals, Democrats or even people of color. It’s the conservative cause. If anyone should really want Buchanan to be fired from MSNBC, it’s the leadership of the Republican Party.

I think this is about right. The greatest trick the Republican Party ever ginned up, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, was crafting a language that enabled its candidates to talk directly to racist white voters, stroking their resentments and their prejudices, in a way that passed for reasonable among those who didn't want the headache of calling them on it. When David Duke tried to cross over into mainstream politics in the late 1980s, he spoke that language and sounded just like Ronald Reagan or George H. W. Bush; he was cast as beyond the pale not for anything he said but because there were old photos of him wearing a sheet, so there was no way the media could tell themselves that he was just talking that way for the votes; everyone knew he meant it.

Buchanan really means it, too. As his various memoirs attest, he believes in tribal thinking, in which one group is always pitted against another and loyalty is paramount, and he belongs to various tribes which include white men, Catholics, and the working class. He saw the Cicil Right Movement as a scheme to rob working-class white guys of automatic first consideration at hiring time; his flirtations with something akin to Holocaust denial seem to have their basis in his thinking that there's a battle on over whether Jews deserve credit for having suffered more under Hitler than non-Jews suffered under Stalin. When he says that he prefers the "old bigotry" to the way we behave now because it was there was less "hypocrisy", he's saying that he doesn't even believe that society at large, or most of the people in it, can be non-racist, not really; people are just pretending so they can fit into a society whose priorities are all screwed up, just as Howard Stern thinks that, if people weren't repressed or pretentious, nobody would pretend to ever think about anything but big boobs and ca-ca jokes.

The real question may not be, what could Buchanan say that would make him an unwelcome presence on cable news, but how has he gotten away with what he's said so far? After all, one little "Macaca" routine was enough to get George Allen's political career nipped in the bud, and rightly so. I think that the secret to the free pass that Buchanan seems to carry in his pocket is probably just the mainstream media overlords see him as one of them--not really a politician, even if he does like to run for president from time to time when he has nothing else doing, and not one of those show-boating talk radio guys, like Don Imus or Michael Savage, who are in the outrageousness business, but a guy who's spent the bulk of his career as a TV talking head and is one of them by heart. When Buchanan was running for president in 1992, the rules threatened to change, and the media cautiously dipped a toe into the possibility that it would start holding him accountable for what he said, but then it backed off. As Michael Kinsley, who co-hosted a CNN show with Buchanan for a good while wrote at the time, the sentences Buchanan said sure looked bad, but he knew the man from all those hours at work, and the man always seemed nice and friendly, so how could he judge him to be anti-Semitic?

This is the downside of our demonization of bigotry, the common assumption that racism is so bad that it can't be a real part of someone who has other likable qualities. (You see this in the comments at the Media Matters piece, from people who write that they'd changed their minds about ol' Pat because they'd heard he hated Bush and his stupid war, but then they heard him talk some shit about Obama or whatever and realized that Buchanan hadn't changed at all and that if he hated Bush, it must have been for the wrong reasons. Really, folks, it's possible for someone to have disgusting racial views and be right about other things. God knows it's possible for a racist to hate George W. Bush, even for the right reasons. Racists hate bubonic plague, too.) The fact is that, because of his work history, Buchanan could show up at MSNBC with a swastika carved into his forehead and erect a burning cross on the set during a live broadcast, and as long as he's a good guy to get a drink with later, the rest of the media will make excuses for him. And there'll be one person on the cable news roster who, even as he rails against the inadequacies and blunders of the Republican Party, can serve as its honest face better than he knows or they wish.

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