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Why conservatives are the most eager to dump Trent Lott as Senate majority leader.

2:45 PM, Dec 18, 2002 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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ANY DAY NOW, the Democrats may come to regret deeply the moment the Trent Lott disturbance caught media fire. It is now a great mess for the Republican party, but one that has the potential to turn into a great opportunity, and one the party should eagerly seize. It is a chance for the GOP to clean up its act and its household, haul tons of old rubbish out of the attic, and banish some shopworn old ghosts. Having begun by delighting the Democrats by seeming to highlight the links they believed existed between racism and the conservative agenda, the furor may end by finally snapping those links, along with a number of sinister theories. And that will be all to the good.

Myth number one has always been that the Republican moderates were the much-put-upon noble soul of the party, while conservatives were the dark, ugly fringe. So who were the people who jumped on Lott first? Andrew Sullivan, David Frum, and George Will, among others. Social conservatives (such as the Family Research Council) roared for his ouster. In no time at all, the entire machinery of the vast right-wing media monster--the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, the New York Post, National Review, and the American Prowler (the online arm of the American Spectator); all the people on whom Al Gore and Tom Daschle blame the woes of the country--had locked Trent in the parlor with a pistol beside him, and urged him to do the right thing. Charles Krauthammer spoke for all of them when he wrote in the Washington Post on December 12: "Trent Lott must resign as majority leader . . . The point is not just what King and his followers did for African Americans, but what they did--by validating America's original promise of freedom and legal equality--for the rest of America. How can Lott, speaking of 'all these problems over all these years,' not see this?" Indeed.

The point here is that all of these people--some of them former liberals, some of them young, and most of them northern--took the civil rights movement exceedingly seriously, especially the parts about individual rights and legal equality, and have put years of their lives and much of their energies into backing race-neutral ideas that expand opportunity. They are sick unto death of having liberals question not just their policies but their morals as well, of having their programs denounced as being not only wrong by the standards of liberals but as being morally tainted by association with what some people did or said forty or fifty years earlier. They are sick unto death of being told that people who cut taxes are KKK members in suits; that people who promote welfare reform are KKK members in suits (although it has greatly reduced black child poverty); that people disturbed by Bill Clinton's malfeasance are . . . KKK members in suits.

They are sick unto death of being told that their ideas are racist old wine in new, race-neutral bottles, that they are the heirs of the racist old south when in their hearts they believe that they are the sons of the civil rights movement, while liberals are drifting back into resegregation , often in the guise of "diversity." They hate what Lott said because it makes it harder for them to promote their agenda; and they hate it on principle, because they are wholly opposed to race-consciousness. Lott and the left may have different agendas, but they both support what the right sees as a very flawed doctrine. Lott has offended conservatives on a ground they defend very strongly. And so they insist Lott must go.

MYTH NUMBER TWO has it that the modern Republican party of Bush, Reagan, and Gingrich was corrupt from the start, having had its beginnings in the Dixiecrat bolt from the national Democrats that occurred in the 1948 campaign. And this is true; but to the same extent, the Democratic party of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy had its beginnings in the southern reaction against Reconstruction that took place following the Civil War. In each case, federal enforcement of civil rights statutes made the party that was out of power the natural home of racist resistance, creating a dynamic in which the remnants of the defeated Confederate nation created a small but rock-solid electoral base. This, however, was not a sure or good route towards national power.