MSNBC's UnCivil War on the Right

April 11th, 2011 10:55 AM

MSNBC’s new slogan may be “Lean Forward,” but the brazenly left-wing cable network does a lot of looking back – to the 1860s.

April 12, 2011, will mark the 150th anniversary of the bombardment of Ft. Sumter in South Carolina – the beginning of the American Civil War. As Americans observe this milestone, they’ll hear a lot of words they only vaguely remember from U.S. History class – terms like “secession,” “states rights,” “nullification,” “contraband,” or “Dred Scott.”

Not MSNBC viewers. To them the language of the Civil War is remarkably familiar, since the network’s liberal hosts and guests never miss an opportunity to associate today’s conservative movement with the Confederacy, secession, slavery and racism.


Led by Chris Matthews, MSNBC’s prime time hosts – Ed Schultz, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell and Keith Olbermann (and Cenk Uygur, Olbermann’s replacement) – are obsessed with drawing modern parallels to the politics that tore the nation apart a century and a half ago. The election of the nation’s first black president, their theme goes, has awakened – especially in the South – the latent Confederate sympathies and secessionist tendencies of conservative America.

So MSNBC contributor Melissa Harris-Perry said conservatives romanticize the Confederacy as time “where black people knew their place.” Olbermann accused conservatives of “sanitizing secession” to ignore slavery. Matthews suggested that opposition to ObamaCare had “Republicans on the right talking like antebellum southerners,” and called appeals to federalism as “code” for racism. Lawrence O’Donnell characterized Arizona legislation as a “new sort of secession bill.” Maddow stressed that it was “important that Republican governors keep” commemorating Virginia’s role in the Civil War, and guest Julian Bond wondered at Virginia’s “canine-like affection for the Confederacy.”

Those are just a few examples. MSNBC commentators:

  • Saw threats of secession in states’ lawsuits against ObamaCare, and
  • Turned casual or even joking references to secession into weapons against the right.
  • Compared laws cracking down on illegal immigration in Arizona and Texas to Reconstruction and Jim Crow.
  • Repeatedly suggested that official commemorations of the sacrifices of Confederate soldiers, and any mention of the Civil War that didn’t emphasize slavery was conservative and Republican politicians “playing to the base.”
  • Characterized expressions of dissent from Washington, which MSNBC found so patriotic during the Bush administration, as “treasonous” under Obama.

Who Fired First

In 1861, it was the secessionists who fired on Sumter, but this time the first shot came from New York, just a few months after President Obama was sworn in.

The Culture and Media Institute studied two years of MSNBC transcripts, from Jan. 2009 to Feb. 2011 and found the first accusation in that period on April 15, 2009. On that evening’s “Countdown,” Keith Olbermann played video from a speech Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) gave at a Tea Party rally. Olbermann told guest James Moore, “Governor Perry obviously stopped just short of endorsing secession and told reporters today that Texans might at some point get so fed up that they would want to secede.”

He went on to cite a much maligned Department of Homeland Security report that “concluded that lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent right-wing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat to the United States.” Governor Perry, Moore concluded was, “fomenting the kind of unrest, this civil unrest.”

Perry was a favorite target for Olbermann and his colleagues. On April 8, 2010, “Hardball” host Chris Matthews wondered, “Why are Republicans in the south like Rick Perry talking secession?” On June 21, 2010, Olbermann described Perry’s “almost secessionist fiscal guidance” of his state and carped that, despite an $11 billion budget deficit, Texas spent $888 million to rewrite history textbooks “to glorify more Confederate figures in the Civil War.”

Perry wasn’t the only southern conservative governor MSNBC caricatured as a neo-Confederate. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell had failed to mention slavery in a statement proclaiming Confederate History Month in the Old Dominion. He later issued an apology and condemned the institution of slavery. But that didn’t stop Olbermann and guest Julian Bond of the NAACP from raking him over the coals on April 7, 2010.

Bonds observed to Olbermann that “they seem to have a canine-like affection for the Confederacy [in Virginia]. The fourth Republican governor in a row has issued a proclamation honoring treasonous insurrection against the government of the United States, actions which all over the world would be called treason.”

The next evening, Matthews noted McDonnell’s apology but said it came “only after sending out the dog whistle to those [Confederate President] Jefferson Davis fans out there.” He also mentioned that “many people believe” McDonnell left out slavery on purpose in order to “solidify his base and perhaps win himself a place on the ticket next time around as a conservative counterpoint to Mitt Romney.” (One of those who believed was Zachary Roth from the left wing blog Talking Points Memo. Roth told Matthews’ colleague Rachel Maddow that same week that McDonnell was playing to a “shrinking base.)

Southern Republicans, Matthews said, were “talking like real Confederates.” And, as if there weren’t enough proof that he equates conservatism with slavery and secession, he cited a GOP congressman from North Carolina who wanted Ulysses S. Grant removed from the $50 bill and replaced with, in Matthews’ words, “someone closer to the Confederate heart: Ronald Reagan.”

Ed Schultz made it plain while talking about a Charleston, S.C., “secession ball” marking the 150th anniversary of the state’s vote to leave the Union. On Dec. 13, 2010, Schultz said, “Conservatives in South Carolina are celebrating the destruction of the United States.” In case viewers weren’t sure who deserved scorn, he repeated a few moments later: “So next Monday, sipping that mint julep in the uniforms of an army that fought against the United States, southern conservatives will honor people who shed blood to protect slavery.” (italics added)

Meaningless Skirmishes

The MSNBC crowd likes the “Confederate” weapon so much that they appear to look for any excuse to use it.

On Jan. 17, 2011, Olbermann took issue with Fox News host Glenn Beck’s account of the building of the Washington Monument and launched an attack complete with name-calling. “It wasn’t until 1879, 14 years after they defeat the side ‘Father Cough-Beck’ would have supported in the Civil War, that construction was resumed …” (‘Father Cough-Beck’ is a reference to Father Coughlin, a populist of the 1930s known for angry rhetoric and opposition to President Roosevelt.)

Simple political analysis hasn’t been immune. When, in discussing the Florida Republican primary on March 3, 2010, “Hardball” guest Wayne Slater suggested candidate Charlie Crist look to Texas’ primary for inspiration, Matthews pounced: “He might ask for Florida to secede from the union, too.” That was followed by this odd thought:

By the way, guys, I don`t think you can pull – let me try Alex on this. I don`t think you can pull the secessionnumber above the Mason/Dixon line. I think that has a peculiar geographic appeal. I don`t think Ohio can secede from the Union. These guys fought for the Union. I don`t think it is really credible.

On April 12, 2010, Matthews and his guest, liberal Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, were discussing the next presidential election. The GOP, said Matthews, were “going to begin their campaign for 2012 by locking up the Solid South again on the right.”

“First thing,” Robinson said, referencing Virginia’s McDonnell, “declare Confederate Heritage Month.”

Damn the Facts! Full Speed Ahead!

The gang at MSNBC is skilled at finding racism where none exists. And they like to deck it out in Confederate gray. 

In a March 29, 2010 discussion of the Tea Party’s fervent rejection of President Obama’s big government policies, Matthews goaded guest Melissa Harris-Perry into calling racism (not that Harris-Perry needed much goading. A professor of African-American studies, and a columnist at the far-left magazine The Nation, she’s an MSNBC contributor.)

“If a southern whiteguy had been president and had pushed the same agenda,” Matthews asked, “would they be as angry?” Harris-Perry prevaricated, and never did give a straight answer. Later however, she rejected the Tea Party’s self-drawn parallels to the War of Independence. “It`s not a situation of the Revolutionary War,” she said. “This is much, much closer to the Civil War.”

On the Feb. 23, 2010, “Countdown,” Harris-Perry didn’t need to be goaded. Rush Limbaugh had called ObamaCare “a civil rights bill” and “reparations,” and suggested it was about “income redistribution and class envy.” Olbermann, of course, cried racism. But to Harris-Perry it reflected not one but multiple kinds of racism, some of which “feel very old, very sort of Confederate versions.”

On March 29, 2010, Olbermann was incensed that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour had dismissed memories of Jim Crow in the south as no longer meaning “diddley.”

Holy cow, really? Diddley? … Barbour`s only playing dumb, of course. He knows exactly what he`s doing. The Tea Partiers throughout the country and the Republicans in the south are playing to several despicable groups who, at best, aren`t comfortable with black people, period. And he knows it.

So let`s follow his logic for a moment and McDonnell`s original logic. When talking about the confederacy, table slavery issue for a moment. How about we just focus on secession, and the threat and use of violence, and the refusal to acknowledge a lawful and uncontested democratic election because you didn`t like who won? In 1860 and 1861, that put you in the confederacy. In 2010, that puts you in the Tea Party.

Barbour got in trouble again in late 2010 for his association with a group historically linked to segregation in the South. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow brought on Harris-Perry to further explore Barbour’s supposed racism.

“The reality is that in former Confederate states, where there was a secession from the United States, we allow a revisionist history to enter in as quickly as a decade after the Civil War. What we are seeing now you know is simply a reaping of the continual whirlwind of this kind of misguided history,” she mused. “I mean, I grew up in a school system that called the Civil War ‘The War of Northern Aggression’ or ‘The War Between the States.’ So, it’s not necessarily some sort of deliberate process. It is, in many ways, just the southern way.”

“Existential anxiety” is also currently the southern way, according to Harris-Perry. “It is a fear that the country is going to be so fundamentally different because of the realities of census changes, because of the realities of power changes, because women and people of color and now gays in the military, all have these sort of growing equal rights.”

On Dec. 21, 2010, Matthews again asked Harris-Perry if opposition to Washington was “really a reaction to Barack Obama being president?” This time she was ready with the answer Matthews wanted.

“There are some people right now with this kind of anti-federal government perspective who are doing nothing more than a kind of Confederate – Confederacy rising again narrative. And it really is about racism and anti-immigrationism and white supremacy.”

Illegal immigration is another issue where liberals on MSNBC saw racism and traced it back to its supposedly southern roots. On “The Ed Show” Jan. 6, 2011, Rep. Luis Gutierres, (D), Ill., a pro-illegal immigration radical equated supporters of a bill limiting birth right citizenship with the rebel holdouts in the Reconstruction South. “Look, the Confederates that were left over after the Civil War, they put special laws on African-American and black slaves.”

Federalism? Them’s Fightin’ Words!

Just as any opposition to Obama’s massive spending is “racist,” any evocation of principled federalism gets MSNBC’s liberals hand-wringing over a renewed Civil War. On “The Last Word” for Feb. 4, 2011, Lawrence O’Donnell called an Arizona bill to create a state committee to review federal laws for constitutionality a “new sort of secession bill.”

Chris Matthews in particular has tried to de-legitimize opposition from the state level, obsessing over “secession talk” more times than can be mentioned in this article.

The suits filed by numerous states declaring ObamaCare’s individual mandate a violation of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution has had Matthews hearing “Dixie.” When, on December 12, 2010, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli explained that if the federal government can command that an individual purchase a product, there’s nothing “left that the federal government can’t reach.”

Matthews responded, “Well, this is going to appeal to the Civil War buffs from the south who love this stuff. You’re really playing to the nullification crowd, it seems to me.”

Nine days later, Matthews decided federalism was a cover for racism. “So is all this talk about states’ rights we’re hearing now,” he asked Rep. Bennie Thompson, D – Miss., “nullification, secession, all this babble – is it just another code for ‘We don’t like civil rights?’

That night, Matthew’s “Let Me Finish” segment ending the show was dedicated to musing over conservatives’ alleged desire to pick “this incredible anachronistic fight that sounds like the Civil War all over again.” To Matthews, there was “something malicious” in the mere use of the words “secession” and “nullification.”

He wondered “why all this talk is creeping in now. Why are we hearing voices raised against the federal government, as if this were 1860 instead of a century and a half after the horror of those words?”

His answer, of course is racism. “This states’ rights thing” was all about “the same thing it was about last time, about substituting states’ rights for individual rights.”

And that wasn’t the first time Matthews his “Let me Finish” editorial segment to charge conservatives with pining for slavery and rebellion. On April 8, 2010, he mourned that “The Party of Lincoln” had become a refuge for racist Dixie-crats “talking about states’ rights and honoring the Confederacy.” Lincoln, assumedly, would have been an Obama Democrat today.

Never Call Retreat

MSNBC continues to attack conservatives as secessionists, slavery-sympathizers and devotees of The Lost Cause. Their campaign will only intensify as milestone anniversaries of Civil War events occur over the next few years, and as opposition to the Obama administration’s big-government agenda continues to stiffen. They’ll use any excuse to de-legitimize conservative opinion as racist, divisive and even treasonous. Even as they “Lean Forward,” at MSNBC, it will always be 1861.