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Breitbart at Rest

Andrew Breitbart, the brash, conservative media warrior, died a few days ago. He was by all accounts a wonderful husband and father, as good a friend as one could wish for. To his family and friends this was everything. But we didn’t live in his private world; outside of it his domestic virtue should count for very little. His personal qualities have been given far too much space in print. It should be a question, for his fellow citizens, of his legacy to their country, and Andrew Breitbart, who trafficked in race-baiting, character assassination, and prevarication – anything that stole attention – has left us a foul inheritance.

He won most of the attention he has received through – appropriately for the internet age – ugly rants, two misleadingly-edited videos and some photos a congressman’s genitals. In 2010 he released a video of USDA official Shirley Sherrod giving a speech to the NAACP, in which she talks about her reluctance, at some point in the past, to help a white farmer receive assistance. The Obama Administration, in a fit of nervous cowardice, fired her, and the NAACP rebuked her publicly. But the video was a snow job, purposely manipulated so that the actual point of Sherrod’s story – that she was wrong to judge the farmer by the color of his skin and thankfully helped him – was lost in the shouting.

David Frum, a former Bush Administration official, and a forward-thinking conservative much-maligned by the Republican core, has written one of the best post-mortems:

This indifference to detail suffused all of Breitbart’s work, and may indeed be his most important and lasting legacy. Breitbart sometimes got stories right (Anthony Weiner). More often he got them wrong (Sherrod). He did not much care either way. Just as all is fair in a shooting war, so manipulation and deception are legitimate tools in a culture war. Breitbart used those tools without qualm or regret, and he inspired a cohort of young conservative journalists to do likewise….

And this is where it becomes difficult to honor the Roman injunction to speak no ill of the dead. It’s difficult for me to assess Breitbart’s impact upon American media and American politics as anything other than poisonous. When one of the leading media figures of the day achieves his success by his giddy disdain for truth and fairness—when one of our leading political figures offers to his admirers a politics inflamed by rage and devoid of ideas—how to withhold a profoundly negative judgment on his life and career?

Especially when that career was so representative of his times?

This is exactly right. But Frum takes the popular Breitbart-as-a-happy-warrior thesis too far:

Because President Obama was black, and because Breitbart believed in using every and any weapon at hand, Breitbart’s politics did inevitably become racially coded…

Yet it is wrong to see Breitbart as racially motivated. Had Breitbart decided he hated a politician whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, Breitbart would have been just as delighted to attack that politician with a different set of codes. The attack was everything, the details nothing.

Suddenly Breitbart has been robbed of his agency; Frum doesn’t usually produce language as equivocating as “did inevitably become,” but I think in this case it is mere politeness – he has, after all, just spent a thousand words speaking ill of the dead. Yet the reason most of Breitbart’s ideological fellow travelers either staunchly defend or conspicuously ignore his worst offenses is that if they were to admit he was a racist it would follow that a large swath of their audience were the same sort of people, because Andrew Breitbart was a popular person. This, as much as his dishonesty, is why he is emblematic.

Breitbart was not, however, as popular as Rush Limbaugh, who once played a song called “Barack the Magic Negro” to guffaws from his audience. The latest incident was earlier this week, after a Georgetown student testified at a Congressional hearing in favor of insurance coverage for birth control. Limbaugh – who adds misogyny to Breitbarts misology – called her a slut and a prostitute, and suggested the next day that if he was going to pay for her sex she should send him a videotape.

Over at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehasi Coates offers this up as more evidence that the dominant trait of the conservative movement is, arguably, cruelty.

There is a way of conveniently marginalizing Limbaugh as a “radio host” who doesn’t really speak for any aspect of the present conservative movement, or any element of the GOP electorate. It’s a strange position given Limbaugh’s immense popularity, the timidity elected Republicans show when asked about his comments, and the prominent role he’s been given in the past at C-PAC. The deference he enjoys stands in stark contrast to his apparent status as an old uncle who just happens to say incredibly cruel things which say nothing about the greater family.

I would complicate this slightly by saying that the dominant trait of the conservative movement is actually insecurity, which manifests itself most (and more and more) frequently as cruelty, of the sort that Breitbart practiced and his boosters wish to paper over. The demographic and cultural shifts America is undergoing will force the Republican party to change or die: our skin is getting darker; we are becoming more tolerant and less religious. Many people find this frightening, and communal abuse is a balm for demographically threatened adults, as it is for children in a schoolyard. Children, though, don’t vote.