Two weeks ago, conservative columnist Mark Steyn linked me to the likes of MSNBC’s Chris Mathews and Lawrence O’Donnell for comments the three of us made about the demographics — and the racial messaging — at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
After strangely starting out with a rant about “American alcoholism” — his is one of the most poorly written and circuitous arguments I have ever encountered in my life (Martin Amis once declared that Steyn “writes like a maniac”) — the Rush Limbaugh wannabe accused us “white liberals” of hearing “racist dog whistles” blown by the Republican Party (and conservative pundits) whenever President Barack Obama comes under criticism.
Mathews and O’Donnell are big boys and can defend themselves, so I’ll stick only to the defamations hurled directly at me. Steyn — whose anti-Islamic frothing has made him something of a hero in the rightwing blogosphere — found it particularly offensive that I referred to the GOP convention as the “Gathering of Pasty White People” and for mocking Clint Eastwood’s political acumen.
For the latter charge, I stand my ground, along with just about everyone else who watched the convention, including Romney’s advisers. But for describing the Republican conventioneers in Tampa as “pasty,” let me acknowledge my error. I was trying to be “clever” or “witty” in my remarks, when what I really wanted to do was draw serious attention to what was, for me, a troubling demographic of Republicans gathered in Tampa. And whenever I could stomach watching the proceedings on television, the gathering in Florida looked, quite frankly, like a congregation of Pillsbury Dough Boys, often times in cowboy hats. But by making fun of them — and I did that — I undercut my message.
While the GOP did its best to diversify those Republicans speaking at the rostrum — Susana Martinez, Condoleezza Rice and Marco Rubio delivered among the very best speeches in Tampa — the lineup of speakers obscured what were overwhelmingly “white” demographics at the convention. It was a shameful representation for what was purportedly the convening of a major national political party. The optics told the story. It did not look in any way like America to me.
Let us not forget — as Steyn most certainly failed to mention — that wonderful moment in Tampa when two convention attendees tossed peanuts at an African-American CNN camera operator, while hurling the venomous line: “This is how we feed animals.” Of course, gross and vicious as it was, this incident got mostly swept under the rug. But it underscores the culture of racism in the Republican Party — these people felt comfortable doing that in a sea of whiteness and presumed they could get away with it, that it was an accepted behavior in Republican political culture.
Indeed, four years earlier, a more ominous incident took place, during Sarah Palin’s incendiary acceptance speech at the Xcel Center in Minneapolis. When Palin targeted the “permanent political establishment” and “the Washington elite” and “the media,” many convention delegates broke into an angry chant of “Shame on you!” directed in general at the media pit and, in particular, at PBS commentator Gwen Ifill — one of the few African Americans in a sea of white faces at that convention. Palin watched over the chant in delighted approval.
The fact of the matter is — and what Steyn’s focus on “dog whistles” thoroughly and utterly obfuscates — that overt and bald-faced racism has found itself institutionalized in the modern Republican Party. We needn’t have our audio sensors recalibrated to detect them — they are overt howls that every American can hear and see.
Indeed, the Republican Party has all but abandoned people of color in this country, save when it orchestrates a façade of racial diversity as it did on occasion in Tampa. But the real numbers tell the tale that Steyn and others would rather dismiss.
The recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll revealing that Mitt Romney was garnering zero percent of the African-American vote in the current election — that’s right, nada — also revealed that Democrats were leading Latino voters by a 2-to-1 margin. Even Jeb Bush has acknowledged that Republicans have failed to make inroads with Latinos, once viewed as a demographic swinging toward the GOP.
Moreover, the Republican Party has supported voter identification requirements in several swing states, the sole — and stated — purpose being to limit people of color from participating in the democratic process. As Doug Preisse, chairman of the Republican Party in Franklin County, Ohio, recently declared: “We shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban [read African-American] voter-turnout machine.”
Steyn also launched a ridiculous attack at my book The Lies of Sarah Palin, which was No. 1 on Amazon’s “Bestseller” list for political biographies for several weeks. One of the things I pointed out in my book was that when Palin accused then-candidate Obama of “palling around with terrorists” and of not being “a man who sees America as you see America,” she unleashed the hounds of racism in this country and in the Republican Party. She became the first serious candidate for national office since George Wallace to give both body and voice to the vulgarities of American right-wing talk radio and the pernicious racism that fuels it.
Was I the only one that thought so? Hardly. As I noted in my book, Douglass K. Daniel, an editor of the Associated Press’s Washington Bureau and hardly a “liberal” ideologue, wrote a scathing indictment of Palin’s attack entitled “Palin’s Words Carry Racist Tinge.” Palin, Daniel asserted, was trying to fire up “a faltering campaign” — and charged that she had crossed the line with “a racially tinged subtext.” “Whether intended or not by the McCain campaign,” he concluded, “portraying Obama as ‘not like us’ is another potential appeal to racism.”
Dog whistles? I don’t think so. As MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry recently noted, “it’s a pretty bad analogy.” All one needs to do is read but a small sampling of the racist rants on the internet to get a sense of what’s fueling this more-coded rhetoric on the hustings. Last year, when California Republican Jules Manson tweeted “Assassinate the fucken nigger and his monkey children,” it was astonishing how quiet the Republican Party leadership was in response to this violent racial bigotry. “They’re 12 percent of the population,” Rush Limbaugh once growled famously. “Who the hell cares?” And the Republican Party leadership shivers in his wake.
All of which reminds me of the latest Romney gaffe involving another slice of the American electorate, this time of the “47 percent” variety — those who “are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims…” We know who Romney’s referencing, what he’s doing here. These aren’t dog whistles. The only people who don’t hear them are those with racial mufflers on.
And, of course, now there are “empty chair lynchings” in the hinterlands.
As I noted at the outset, Matthews and O’Donnell are fully capable of defending themselves, but as an American of Irish-Italian descent, I’m proud to have been lumped in with them on this issue. The three of us understand the nature of “white privilege” and are outraged by the degraded, racialized composition of Republican Party rhetoric and policy platforms. As a wise man once noted, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Only a blabbering fool like Mark Steyn could deny the swirling hurricane.
Award-winning writer and filmmaker Geoffrey Dunn’s best-selling The Lies of Sarah Palin: The Untold Story Behind Her Relentless Quest for Power was published by Macmllan/St. Martin’s in May of 2011.