How a Racist Email Reveals the Grand Old Party Has Become a Petty Affair

It's no great insight to point out it's a tough election year for the Republican Party. The presumed front-runner is uninspiring at best; his rotating cast of challengers are wildly off-putting to wide swaths of the electorate.

It's no great insight to point out it's a tough election year for the Republican Party. The presumed front-runner is uninspiring at best; his rotating cast of challengers are wildly off-putting to wide swaths of the electorate. But for all the hours of analysis spent sussing out how the GOP arrived in this place, a federal judge in Montana offered this week what is perhaps the most succinct explanation.

On Wednesday, District Court Judge Richard Cebull admitted to sending around an email that jokes about President Obama being the mongrel child of a white mom's drunken night of misbehaving. Some things can't be paraphrased, so here's the joke itself, courtesy of USA Today:

"A little boy said to his mother; 'Mommy, how come I'm black and you're white?' " the e-mail joke reads. "His mother replied, 'Don't even go there Barack! From what I can remember about that party, you're lucky you don't bark!' "

Ok, we've already established that Barack and Michelle Obama make some white people very crazy. As Akiba Solomon wrote, one tires of having to learn the names and lives of each of "bumblef@#k politician" who makes a childish remark about the Obamas. But in this case, Cebull's gross joke is less significant than his explanation for it.

"I can obviously understand why people would be offended," Cebull has acknowledged. Rather than obfuscate on the racist content, he offered this explanation for why he'd forward something he knew to be offensive: "I didn't send it as racist, although that's what it is. I sent it out because it's anti-Obama."

And there you have it. His response illuminates the tragic story of today's Republican Party: It stands for nothing. The formerly Grand Old Party has devolved into a small, petty affair defined by a thoughtless defense of greed, the cynical deployment of xenophobia and a blind hatred of Barack Obama.

We've seen all three ideas, such that they are, on the main stage of the GOP primary, too. Mitt Romney's slippery positioning and repositioning of himself rightly creeps out many movement conservatives. But the real issue is that there remains no larger idea, no defining set of principles governing his life of both public and private work.

Frank Rich wrote recently that Romney does in fact have an animating core, but it's one he's horrified about revealing--being a member and funder of the Mormon Church. Perhaps that's true. I'd add that the only core idea Romney has in fact articulated is greed. His signature achievement in life is amassing personal wealth for himself and for his colleagues at Bain Capital. Or, at least that's the achievement he seems most proud of. Sure, he's tried--failingly--to argue that he was creating jobs at Bain. But his wealth remains the most significant item on his resume. As he said last weekend, after the "couple of Cadillacs" gaffe:

"If people think there's something wrong with being successful in America, then they'd better vote for the other guy," Romney said. "Because I've been extraordinarily successful, and I want to use that success and that know-how to help the American people."

We'll skip past the long debate of whether wealth-creation through moving money around is either sustainable for the economy at large or terribly relevant to the needs of working families. The point here is that it speaks volumes about today's Republican "establishment" that Romney's the best candidate it could produce in 2012. The party and its leaders appear to be out of ideas that go beyond making sure government doesn't get in the way of a small number of individuals amassing personal fortunes.

Meanwhile, the far right of the party lurches between the craven self-promotion of people like Sarah Palin and the deeply felt but deeply troubling ideas of people like Rick Santorum. The point isn't that their views are too "radical"; the mainstream news media's obsession with moderation isn't actually shared by many Americans. Rather, it's the substance of their radicalism that's the problem. They promote a politics of fear and division, and they're proud of it. From faith to race to sexuality--and certainly where all those sticky issues meet--the conservative movement inside the GOP doesn't actually stand for anything. It stands firmly, loudly and frighteningly against letting people who think, live and look differently from themselves into the public square.

These two faltering sides of the Republican Party today are unified by one thin thought: hatred of President Obama. Some of that hate is driven by racism, to be sure. But I think Cebull's onto something in his painfully honest guilty plea for his ridiculously racist joke. It's also because they don't have much else to talk about.

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