Editor's note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. He is a consultant to the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN) -- Well, that escalated quickly.
In fairness to my conservative friends, there's noooooo way they could have ever known that their newest hero, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, would let loose a racist rant. It was unimaginable, crazy. Who'd have thought?
Sure, he refused to recognize the legitimacy of the federal government, also known as the United States of America. But so did the secessionists of Lincoln's time, and they weren't racists. No, not at all.
They just believed that some people should own other people and that the determining factor in deciding whether you were master or slave was the color of your skin.
Besides, by what right does the federal gubmint own that land in Nevada? Other than the fact that the federal government bought it and paid for it in 1848. (See the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.) That doesn't mean it's "theirs" or anything, does it?
Bundy said of blacks, "I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro. They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn't get no more freedom. They got less freedom."
On Thursday, he defended his remarks. "I don't think I'm wrong," Bundy told CNN's Bill Weir. "I think I'm right."
So who can blame poor Sean Hannity for looking like a right-wing blockhead for promoting the cause of a guy who turned around and said crazy, racist things? Well, I can.
Let me tell Sean about the Racist: The Racist hates federal subsidies. Not the subsidies that provide grassland to Nevada ranchers at below-market values. Nor the subsidies that bring water to the desert by, say, building Hoover Dam. Nor the subsidies that benefit mining operations in the Silver State. No, the Racist hates subsidies that sap the human soul: like food stamps for moms with hungry children. Especially if those moms happen to be, well, differently pigmented from him.
That's what's so interesting, not about this racist moron but about the Republicans who supported him until he revealed his views on slavery.
Bundy was plainly a nutcase, and the right-wing pundits and politicians should have seen that. He should never have been portrayed as a hero or a victim or anything other than a lawbreaker, a freeloader, a moocher. A taker.
For two decades, he grazed his cattle on land that did not belong to him and refused to pay the landowner. Right-wingers, one would think, would hate that. He refused to respect law enforcement, in fact threatened to take up arms against the peace officers whom Republicans usually trip over themselves to honor. I thought conservatives believed in law and order.
What if, instead of being a right-wing rancher who flouted the law, Bundy was the leader of a left-wing group of college radicals who occupied a government building? Ronald Reagan notoriously said of Berkeley protestors, "If there is to be a bloodbath, let's get it over with. No more appeasement!"
Or what if Bundy had been the leader of the New Black Panther Party? What if he and his followers had, for 20 years, brazenly stolen from the federal government, refused to obey court orders and threatened police with guns? Would Hannity have been duped into defending him? Fat chance.
Or, umm, what if Bundy had been a Muslim, declaring a tiny caliphate on that dusty piece of Nevada? Does anyone really think Fox News would have made a hero of him then?
Bundy's status as a deadbeat welfare queen should have been sufficient for the likes of Hannity to know better than to support him. His threats of violence against American law enforcement personnel should have had Hannity up in arms.
Instead, the right-wing noise machine once more looks like a bunch of dupes and dopes, blindsided when their newest hero turns out to be a racist. It won't be the last time this happens.