Be Careful Who You Idolize

Republicans got burned by giving Cliven Bundy instant hero status.

Rancher Cliven Bundy poses outside his ranch house west of Mesquite, Nevada, on April 11, 2014.

A brand champion that backfired, big time.

By + More

The Republican pols who got burned by their willful association with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy have someone other than themselves to share the blame: “American Idol.”

Bundy has attained instant fame by tussling with the federal government over grazing fees. Bundy doesn’t want to pay them. (Who does?) But instead of doing what many of the rest us do when writing out the check to the IRS or for college applications or fishing licenses or anything else we’re obligated to pay for, Bundy just refused. Not only has he refused to pay fines for allowing his cattle to graze, illegally, on federal lands, but he had a group of armed supporters defending him, forcing a standoff with U.S. agents.

In other circumstances, and at a less crazy time in American history, Bundy might have been seen for what he is: a thief. He is deliberately and defiantly stealing from the federal government. Any of the rest of us would be arrested and charged, just as we would be arrested and charged for stealing from the local deli. But the anti-government sentiment in the country right now turned Bundy into a sort of Rosa Parks of the … what? The free grazing movement? The brave fight to avoid paying for things because you think you’re entitled to use them for free?

[Read blogger Jimmy Williams on how Cliven Bundy's racism isn't new.]

Legions of libertarians and conservatives, including some prominent public officials, seized on Bundy’s “case” to make their own collective case about forcing ranchers to pay to use the resources on federal lands. Reasonable people can have a reasonable conversation about what right the public has to use federal lands, and what, if anything, they should pay for it. Calculated lawlessness is also sometimes an option, as long as it’s genuine civil disobedience. And the courageous people who practice civil disobedience do so ready to go to jail for their principles. Trying to goad federal agents into a gunfight is not civil disobedience; it is a watered-down version of something that is really, really illegal – the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Kudos to the federal agents for refusing to be provoked.

Then Bundy revealed his true colors. In a New York Times story (which is also supported by a video of the event), Bundy says, "I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro. I’ve often wondered: Are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom."

The GOP lawmakers who had helped turn Bundy into a folk hero immediately sought to distance themselves. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky tweeted, “Cliven Bundy's remarks on race are offensive and I wholeheartedly disagree with him.” A spokeswoman for Nevada Sen. Dean Heller says the GOP lawmaker “completely disagrees with Mr. Bundy's appalling and racist statements, and condemns them in the most strenuous way.” And Fox News host Sean Hannity, who had been lauding Bundy’s efforts, called the comments “beyond repugnant … beyond despicable [and] beyond ignorant to me.”

[See a collection of political cartoons on the tea party.]

That’s all well and good, but how did Bundy become such an instant hero in the first place? It’s emblematic of a broader societal trend, the American Idol-ization of our country. No longer does anyone – a singer, a housewife who may or not be “real,” or even a candidate for federal office – have to actually earn the right to achieve fame or adoration. What drives that status now is marketing. Bundy was not vetted before anti-government forces and their sympathizers turned him into an icon. He was too good a brand, too delicious a symbol.

Unfortunately for the sensible wing of the Republican party, their own brand suffers when someone like Bundy hitches himself to their wagon. And despite the rightful condemnations from GOP stalwarts, damage has already been done to a party which already has a problem getting votes from African-Americans. The Bundy issue takes the problem to another level, much as failed Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin did when he talked about “legitimate rape.” It’s not just the offensive rantings of an individual racist or misogynist. It starts to poison the party well.

GOP candidates and leaders can (and likely will) argue that Bundy’s comments are the isolated ravings of an individual racist. But the episode threatens to become an Akin moment, casting the party as intolerant and divisive.

The GOP lawmakers and opinion-leader were right to denounce Bundy vehemently. But they should have checked him out before aligning themselves with him from the start. The damage has already been done.