Before he decided to pop off about how "the negro" was possibly better off on the plantation than on the dole, I had no specific reason to believe Nevada rancher and inveterate moocher Cliven Bundy was a racist. (A brooding British heartthrob, perhaps, but not a racist.)
But if I had been consigliere to Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Dean Heller, Sean Hannity, or any of the dozens of conservative celebrities who rallied to Bundy's defense when the government came calling, I'm 100 percent certain I would've told them to back off. Don't hug that guy. It won't go over well. It's hard to put this delicately, but a tax-protesting, government-rejecting, gun-toting white rancher from the Old West is fairly liable to say and believe some pretty uncouth things, including about race. I didn't know Bundy was a racist until Thursday, but I was utterly unsurprised by the revelation. I doubt other liberals were terribly shocked either.
By contrast, many, many conservatives—even conservatives with presidential ambition—were caught completely flatfooted. They either didn't consider the risk, or lacked the intuition and judgment of their peers who managed to avoid falling into the Bundy trap.
And I think that tells us something about the racial blinders problem I wrote about earlier this month.
When certain conservatives object to liberal characterizations of the American right, and when they bristle at suggestions that conservative policies draw some of their political vitality from unreconstructed racists (or resentful white voters, or anything other than ideologically pure freedom fighters) they aren't playacting.
At some point, to those conservatives, willful blindness to the political power of white conservative populism became unwillful. As far as they were concerned, anyone arguing that, say, welfare-state opposition or tenth-amendment fetishism derived any political support from racist whites was trafficking in racial McCarthyism. Perhaps at some point they had assumed a defensive crouch to protect themselves and their tribe from an uncomfortable reality, but eventually they grew comfortable in it.
The flip side of that kind of motivated reasoning is the development of a trusting kinship with anyone who, like Bundy, claimed to be pushing upward against the stomping jackboot of government. After all, they couldn't possibly be racist!
If the conservatives at Fox News and on the right flank of the Republican party had suspected that rallying to Cliven Bundy's defense would backfire, they probably wouldn't have done it. But it never even occurred to them.
Instead, they set about intentionally turning Bundy into a figure of national import—a cause celebre. They made him into a story, hectored the media to cover his fight with the Bureau of Land Management, drew partisan battle lines, and proceeded with confidence that his struggle would redound to the benefit of the right in some way.
But the moment they learned of his comments on Thursday, they set about chastising the same media for paying any attention to the guy.
Hello Republican candidate for Senate … are you prepared to denounce racist Clive Bundy? <3 The Media— Charlie Spiering (@charliespiering) April 24, 2014
If your only goal in politics is to make a name and a buck for yourself by exploiting paranoia, then the Bundy meltdown isn't a big problem. But for the right as a whole, it is symptomatic of a very big one. This isn't the behavior of movement leaders who have made clear-eyed assessments of their constituent subcultures. These aren't the comments of an ally who had any doubts about what his allegiance might entail.
Steven Colbert perfected the role of a self-deluded conservative who's blinded himself to the existence of race and racism in American society. Liberals love the act because the conservatives Colbert parodies really do gloss over the roles race and racism play in American life. He's exaggerating, but he cuts very close. Conservatives, on the other hand, can't stand it—not so much because they think he's wrong about conservatism, though they do, but because they think he's wrong about the country, and is tarnishing conservatism with his own analytical error.
But he isn't making an error. Cliven Bundy proves his point.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.