Faust in the Desert: Why Serious Politicians shouldn’t Play with Cliven Bundy

It looks like Rand Paul was wrong about Cliven Bundy after all. All the way back on Tuesday, Paul saw Bundy as a symbol of the nation’s discontent with big government.

“That kind of absurdity coming from the federal government is why people get angry,” Paul said, speaking of the government’s insistence that Bundy pay his grazing fees. “This needs to be administered closer to home so we wouldn’t have, I think, such outrageous overstepping by authorities.”

But things are different today. Rand was willing to tolerate Bundy saying things like, “I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.” And he was willing to look the other way while Bundy’s supporters pointed their guns at federal officials and advocated the violent overthrow of the United States. Boys, after all, will be boys. But apparently, Bundy is also a racist who says that African-Americans “abort their young children, [and] put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton.”

I’m shocked too. I mean, here’s a guy who doesn’t believe that the federal government exists, being openly supported by people who want to start a shooting war with federal troops in order to hasten the Apocalypse, and it turns out that he has extremely offensive and downright kooky views about race? Yeah, couldn’t see that one coming.

Political parties in the modern era are not coherent ideological units; they are coalitions put together to win elections.
Michael Austin
Rand Paul, apparently, was just as shocked as I was. And after spending the better part of the week holding Bundy and his followers up as patriots justly upset with the federal government’s overreach, Rand has (quite rightly) denounced Mr. Bundy’s statements as offensive, adding, “I wholeheartedly disagree with him.”

This is good to know, since, had Paul expressed the same sympathy for Bundy’s views on race as he expressed for his views on revolution, the good Senator would now be rooming with Governor Chris Christie on the Island of Misfit Former Frontrunners.

But this whole incident exposes a fracture in the Republican base that has been growing for six years and could prove fatal to the party’s chances to carry national elections in the future. The problem goes like this: the faction that has been providing most of the grassroots support for Republicans since the election of Barack Obama in 2008 is made up of very angry, motivated people whose views are absolutely repulsive to an overwhelming majority of Americans.

Some sympathy is in order. They are coalitions put together to win elections. Most Republicans do not want to overthrow the government. But the few who do are very good at galvanizing support among the politically disaffected. They are good at seizing headlines, shaping agendas, and getting out the vote in primary elections.

For the GOP, this has been at best a mixed blessing. Had it not been for the overwhelming support of the tea party in 2010, Republicans would not have captured the House. On the other hand, had it not been for Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Richard Murdock, and Todd Aiken, they would almost certainly now control the Senate.

I predict that Republicans will ultimately lose big if they try to fan the flames of resentment represented by Cliven Bundy and his followers. People who are extreme enough to think that it is OK to point guns at government employees and advocate armed rebellion will almost certainly believe other extreme things as well. They will often be racists and sexists and other disturbing things whose power to galvanize opposition will far exceed their power to control themselves.

It is the typical Faustian bargain — to try to harness the power of the devil without being destroyed by it yourself. This never works out very well for the Fausts.