The content of their characterizations
Why conservatives are shifting from pro- to anti-MLK
Rightwing activist Charlie Kirk managed to get some publicity last week by announcing he would come after Martin Luther King Jr. on the federal holiday named for him. Per Wired:
In 2015, Kirk called [MLK] a “hero.”
In 2022, MLK was a “civil rights icon.”
In December 2023, speaking before a group of students and teachers at America Fest, a political convention organized by Turning Point USA, Kirk struck a different tone.
“MLK was awful,” Kirk said. “He's not a good person. He said one good thing he actually didn't believe.”
(The “one good thing” is the Content of Their Character bit, the only MLK quote conservatives appear to know.)
Kirk also denounced the Civil Rights Act as the cause of a “permanent DEI-type bureaucracy.” DEI is, like CRT, one of the current rightwing swearwords they keep trying to get normies to accept as meaningful and fearsome.
If you are accustomed to thinking of politics as the art of persuasion, you may wonder what Kirk is up to here. Ideas like “MLK was awful” and the overturn of the Civil Rights Act are unlikely to sway the general public. Granted, many conservatives believe high-pressure propaganda campaigns are sufficient to mold people’s minds (because they are convinced that’s what liberals have been doing all along). But King’s as close to a sainted figure as America gets. And there is no perceptible groundswell for repeal of the legacy of the civil rights movement.
But I don’t think Kirk’s slurs are meant for the majority of Americans. They’re meant to affect only other conservatives, who currently consider MLK One of the Good Ones but, having embraced the anti-DEI/CRT gospel, are now ready to accept the revised version handed down by cutting-edge leaders like Kirk.
Longtime readers may have seen my semi-regular roundups of rightwing MLK Day prattle. The majority of those op-eds, columns, and posts have been ham-handed efforts to retrofit rightwing ideas to MLK’s vision, usually based on that Single Authorized MLK Quote, but sometimes with modish twists (e.g. in 2018: “‘Hey President Trump,’ wrote Siraj Hashmi at the Washington Examiner, ‘MLK Day would be a good time to criticize the FBI’”), absurd misappropriations (2012: “Ole Perfesser Instapundit celebrated MLK Day by denouncing ‘corrupt and racist’ gun controllers…”), or just plain bullshit (Jeff Jacoby, 2019: “As MLK Foresaw, Racism in America Has Been Largely Overcome”).
I should also mention the 2010 rally Glenn Beck held at the site and on the anniversary of King’s I Have a Dream speech. (“‘The theme of MLK’s speech was economics and that of [Beck] today will also be economics,’ said Erick Erickson of Red State, though he admitted that ‘the destinations of the speeches are different…’”). In a way that was the apotheosis of this conservative approach to King: Trying to capitalize on his popularity by claiming his legacy for themselves.
In recent years, though, I’ve also noticed some less friendly rightwing reminiscences of MLK. Some of them just quote him out of context, as in this 2015 effort to make him look like a Nazi. Other recirculate an old FBI claim that King watched a guy commit rape and laughed about it (with no evidence, natch).
And in 2022 popular rightwing insult comic Steven Crowder did a whole number about how King wasn’t all that, as I wrote at the time:
MLK’s “[a riot is the] language of the unheard” comment blows Crowder’s mind — even though he runs enough of the speech for an intelligent person to see the context for it. “See, and that’s the problem,” says Crowder, “it’s the open-endedness to it, because what is justice, because right now people are saying injustice is too many Asians at Stanford so let’s burn down a Walgreen’s.”
…there’s a lot of talk about King’s “crack whores,” as if he were Darryl Strawberry, and one of Crowder’s white sidekicks goes, “Look, I get it, there was so much injustice, I have no idea how I would feel, but I probably wouldn’t burn down or rob a local store owned by other black people in my community.” You don’t say.
I said then that the rightwing MLK appropriators “with their winking subterfuges that reveal a tiny bit of embarrassment at what the racism of their audiences forces them to do, are on their way out, and guys like this are on their way in.” Kirk’s announced hit suggests I was onto something.
Because after all, we’ve already seen conservatives go from at least pretending to love democracy, morality, and even diversity to embracing Trumpism, which celebrates their opposites — why should they make an exception for MLK?
Again, most of us aren’t going to fall for it — but I can easily imagine other conservatives slowly climbing down from their previous pro-MLK posture and eventually accepting his new characterization as a villain to blame for the anti-white racism they imagine themselves to suffer from today.
Normal people will not be swayed but, as I’ve also said, conservatives have stopped caring what normal people think, and are counting on fascism rather than electoral majorities to impose their vision on America. No, I don’t think Kirk and the rightwingers who’ll roll with him are trying to change our minds; they’re just creating a new orthodoxy for the regime they hope to create, in which the Civil Rights Act and everything like it is an error to be eradicated.
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