When it comes to the dark history of racial politics in America, the modern-day Republican Party constitutes a case study in cognitive dissonance. Reince Priebus, current chairman of the Republican National Committee, recently blamed President Barack Obama for GOP operatives' race-baiting methods.
Yes, you read correctly: Priebus blames Obama for the racist tactics used by Republicans. The irony inherent in such a premise is so ridiculous that it amounts to intellectual malfeasance.
During an interview with CNN's Candy Crowley on State of the Union last Sunday, Priebus answered questions about the plans of a conservative super PAC to use race-infused ads featuring President Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, as a means to sway voters in the upcoming 2012 election. Instead of addressing the issue with the dignity of a statesman, Priebus resorted to hyperbole.
"I know how it works. It's the Democrats and Barack Obama that want the story out there. He wants the story to play out in the media," Priebus said. "This president's got a bigger problem, and his problem is, no matter what he puts out there, no matter what distractions he puts out there, he can't change the truth and escape the reality of where we are in this American economy."
As head of the RNC, Priebus sets the message and tone, so his apparent disconnect from reality on the sensitive issue of racism concerned Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
"I don't understand how you can blame the target and still believe you speak with any degree of logic," Cleaver told The Root. "The issue of race has already raised its unprincipled head. I guess this year Republicans are going to blame President Obama for being black — which generated the proposed ad. There are gasoline-toting individuals out there, waiting to start a fire. These Neanderthals are going to be used by people who know better, and that's the sad part about this. They are Paleolithic politicians who know that race-baiting still works."
Melanie Roussell, press secretary for the Democratic National Committee, described Priebus' statement as "awfully rich." "There is actual evidence in the proposal commissioned by Joe Ricketts that he specifically dedicated $10 million to negative adverts," she told The Root. "And while Mitt Romney gave a very tepid repudiation, I've not heard [Chairman Preibus] repudiate these attacks at all. I'd like to hear if Priebus thinks there is a place in our political discourse for this kind of character assassination."
The proposal in question, put together by infamous GOP media strategist Fred Davis, is called "The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama." It came to light through a New York Times investigative report that revealed the strategy of the GOP-aligned Ending Spending Action Fund, a super PAC backed by TD Ameritrade founder and former CEO Joe Ricketts, a billionaire whose family holdings include the Chicago Cubs. Ricketts, a longtime supporter of conservative candidates, has pledged $10 million for an anti-Obama attack-ad campaign and has given money to every single 2012 GOP presidential candidate.
The proposal claims that the president misled the nation by presenting himself as a "metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln" and suggests hiring an "extremely literate, conservative African American" to be used as a pawn and media surrogate for the GOP, attacking the president throughout the 2012 election cycle. It calls for running commercials linking Obama to incendiary comments made by his former pastor — whose race-infused sermons made Wright a polarizing figure in the 2008 campaign.
"The world is about to see Jeremiah Wright and understand his influence on Barack Obama for the first time in a big, attention-arresting way," according to the proposal. Brian Baker, president and general counsel of the super PAC, admitted to the New York Times that "Joe Ricketts is prepared to spend significant resources in the 2012 election in both the presidential and congressional races."
What makes the exposure of Ricketts' proposal so important is that it shamelessly articulates the Republican strategy and playbook of the past four years: namely, to use latent racial animus as a way to achieve a 21st-century-style white redemption akin to the vicious disenfranchisement that removed newly elected African-American legislative officials from office in the post-Civil War era. That redemption invalidated votes of freedmen and opened the door to Jim Crow and all the racial disparities that still plague America's sociopolitical consciousness.
Ricketts tried to renounce the race-based tactics, despite one document that conveys his explicit preliminary approval to draft it. Presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney held a press conference last Thursday, saying that he disapproved. "I want to make it very clear: I repudiate that effort," Romney said. But he isn't blameless, as reports quickly surfaced that he, too, engaged in the wink-wink, nudge-nudge nod to racial animus.
Last February, in a radio interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity, Romney invoked the same racialized dog whistle that Davis planned to employ. In an effort to paint President Obama as an "other" lacking in traditional Christian values, Romney opined, "I'm not sure which is worse: him listening to Reverend Wright or him saying that we … must be a less Christian nation."
Like Priebus, Romney failed to rise above the fray. He gave a halfhearted repudiation of Ricketts' plan by failing to disavow his own comments from February. "I stand by what I said, whatever it was," he told reporters. And in so "standing," Romney has proved that he, too, is not above race-baiting in order to gain the White House. Romney even sought to conflate the Ricketts campaign with the new Obama ads questioning the former governor's record at Bain Capital.
This is the Twilight Zone that the modern Republican Party has created: a world in which the ascent of the first African-American president has made it acceptable for conservatives to cry foul and play the victim. The double standards are everywhere in our political culture.
Rick Santorum was given a pass for saying, "I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them other people's money." Newt Gingrich never apologized after he quipped that he would go to the NAACP and tell African Americans that they shouldn't be "satisfied with food stamps." Vicious attacks from conservatives seeking to undermine President Obama's authority and legitimacy are visible, from South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie!" during the State of the Union address to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's finger in Obama's face on the tarmac.
It didn't take a super PAC proposal to show Americans that race is always and everywhere the subtext of so many of the GOP's attacks on Barack Obama.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.