The Corner

‘Thugs,’ Politicians, and Race

Over at the Daily Beast, Jamelle Bouie has a theory. “Richard Sherman Is Right,” he argues, “Thug Is the New N-World” [sic]:

From Trayvon Martin to Richard Sherman to President Obama, the use of the word ‘thug’ has become the right wing’s not-so-subtle way of insulting African Americans.

Say what you will about Richard Sherman, the outspoken cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, he’s right that the word “thug” has become an “accepted way of calling somebody the N-word.” You saw it, for instance, during the Trayvon Martin controversy, where defenders of the shooter, George Zimmerman, were quick to label Martin a “dangerous thug” for ordinary teenage behavior, like cursing or smoking marijuana.

The same is true of the right-wing fever swamps, where “thug” is the favored insult for Barack Obama. It comes quickly from the mouths of Rush Limbaugh—who is quick to call the president a “Chicago thug”—Michele Bachmann—who attacks anodyne political behavior as “thuggery”—and Karl Rove, who told Fox News that the president looks like “some kind of political thug” because of comments he made about the Supreme Court.

Beyond this, the conservative blogosphere is filled with people who routinely describe Obama as a “Chicago thug” or attack him for bringing “Chicago politics” to the White House.

Obviously, you can’t attribute all of this to racial animus. But there’s no question that the word “thug”—and it’s modifier, “Chicago”—has a distinct racial connotation, and is meant to convey a particular image—of Obama as a menacing young black man. And indeed, it would be naive to say that the Limbaughs of the world aren’t aware of this, especially when they’re happy to accuse Obama of all sorts of anti-white racism.

Suffice it to say that Bouie’s attempt to transfer this argument to the political sphere is a mistake, resting less on actual evidence and more on a classic “there’s no question . . .” assertion that is a favorite of people who wish primarily to attribute sinister motives to those they dislike. It is certainly true that conservatives “routinely” describe Obama as a “thug.” It is true, too, that they like to talk about Chicago.” (Which, remember, is where Obama is from, and where his first chief of staff is now mayor.) But Bouie is absolutely wrong as to why they do this, and the primary upshot of his short post is to leave the reader suspecting that he could profit from reading some views that disagree with his own.

Despite the author’s apparent belief that “Chicago” carries “a distinct racial connotation,” the word has in fact been a synonym for corruption, violence, and union shenanigans for more than a century now: from Al Capone, through the election of John F. Kennedy, to Rod Blagojevich and beyond. Long before Barack Obama was so much as a glint in the DNC’s eye — long, even, before the end of segregation — Americans were using “Chicago” to mean “unpleasant” or “dishonest.” Perhaps it would have helped Bouie if he had imagined “Chicago” as carrying a similar reputation as, say, New Jersey? And perhaps, had he got this far into the thought process, he would have noticed that New Jersey’s governor — a white, male Republican, no less — comes in for precisely the same treatment as has the mixed-race Obama, both within the “fever swamps” and without.

The left-of-center New York Daily News recently described Christie like this:

In the best possible light, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie built a top staff of lying thugs who threatened lives and safety to serve his political ends. If not, Christie is a lying thug himself.

For good measure, the Daily News also called him a “monster.” Why? Well, because Christie had abused his power — or, at least, presided over an abuse of power. And when politicians do this, that’s what we call them. Routinely. As Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College in New York, told Reuters in January:

“The problem for Christie is that this feeds into the pre-existing narrative that Christie is a bully, that Christie is a thug,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College in New York. “If I’m running in a primary in 2016, I’m going to be saying, ‘Do you want President Vindictive?’”

Jonathan Weil, of Bloomberg View, agreed. Having established that New Jersey politics is corrupt, Weil argued that while one hears the word “bully . . . tossed about all the time,” but that “if the Hoboken allegations are true,” Christie “is not a bully but a thug.” There is a difference, Weil said. When one is explicitly using the government to advance one’s party’s agenda and to punish one’s enemies — the accusation that is thrown at President Obama, remember — then one becomes not a bully but a “thug.” Funnily enough, he didn’t mention race.

Wendy Kaminer, in The Atlantic, drew the same distinction:

But withholding a reward, like money for a bridge to nowhere, is a lot more benign than withholding an entitlement or a necessity—equal access to the governor and emergency disaster aid. If allegations by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer and others are true, then Christie wasn’t the usual wheeler-dealer using rewards in order to enable compromise. He was a thug, which meant that the costs of defying him were high but the costs of not defying him even higher.

This seems to be a reasonably uncontroversial accusation, based upon a shared understanding of a word. In John Dickinson’s Slate piece, for example, the editors pulled out and featured a comment that establishes that “thug” is used in precisely the racially neutral way and descriptive way that you’d imagine: “Christie’s problem,” Martin Snyder wrote,

is that the very best scandals speak to the existing underlying stereotypes about a pol; Clinton was a hound long before Monica, Nixon was shifty long before Watergate, and Christie was a thug long before the bridge.

The word has been used across local media, too. The Daily Record asked, ”Is Chris Christie the ‘Thuginator’?,” while an editorial on Christie’s press conference, published in the Mercury, argued that

It was a remarkable denial from a man who has built his political career . . . by being a bully. Some might call his in-your-face style “brash” or “pugnacious.” A more accurate term would be “thug.”

As for the “fever swamps” to which Bouie refers? Those exist on both sides of the aisle. How about this comment from a New York story on Chris Christie, posted by a user called “KillUglyRepublicans“:

If it walks like a thug and talks like a thug and snarls like a thug and bellows like a thug and threatens like a thug and emotes like a thug and seeks revenge like a thug, then it’s probably: 

 

a) a thug. 

b) Chris Christie 

c) a thug named Chris Christie 

d) Chris Christie aka The Trenton Thug 

e) all of the above 

If Bouie is going to argue that, for whatever reason, this word shouldn’t be used by people when a black president is believed to be behaving in a certain manner, then that is a separate argument. But that’s not the one he made.

For the record, George W. Bush came in for his fair share, too. Per Gore Vidal, Bush was not just a “thug” in a “gang,” but a “monkey,” too. 

The people don’t matter to this gang. They pay no attention. They think in totalitarian terms. They’ve got the troops. They’ve got the army. They’ve got Congress. They’ve got the judiciary. Why should they worry? Let the chattering classes chatter. Bush is a thug. I think there is something really wrong with him. . . .

I was brought up in Washington. When you are brought up in a zoo, you know what’s going on in the monkey house. You see a couple of monkeys loose and one is President and one is Vice President, you know it’s trouble. Monkeys make trouble.

Historian Michael Parenti didn’t just call Bush a “thug,” he called him

“the biggest thug” ever to occupy the White House . . . adding that most post-World War II U.S. presidents have also acted like “thugs.

To continue:

His “thug” list includes Presidents John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Conspicuously absent from his list are Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Jimmy Carter.

What the thugs have in common, Parenti says, is their dedication “to a U.S. global interventionist policy” and support for “gargantuan, bloated, criminally wasteful military budgets” to execute those interventions.

Golly.

Perhaps the best description, though, comes from Robert Parry, a former Newsweek and AP reporter:

Back home, Americans who ask too many annoying questions or don’t demonstrate the right attitude toward government leaders can expect to encounter the hostility of an incipient police state, a thug nation that reflects the pugnacious arrogance and the contempt for dissent that is the stock and trade of the nation’s current two-term President.

Parry is referring to George W. Bush. But this sentence could have been written by any number of conservatives who feel the same way about President Obama. The word “thug” could have been used, too. Maybe, just maybe, it has its own meaning . . . ?