WASHINGTON — If we didn’t already know this, here’s what Herman Cain’s regrettable campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has taught us: Black Americans are as capable of ugly and inexplicable prejudices as any other group. Our collective history as victims of ugly and inexplicable prejudices has not made us immune to the virus of bigotry.
So you knew that already? So did I. Still, Cain’s reflexive animosity toward law-abiding Muslim Americans has served as an unnecessary reminder.
In a recent appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” Cain told host Chris Wallace that the U.S. Constitution gives Americans the right to ban any mosque they don’t want built nearby. Having spoken out specifically against a planned mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn., Cain seemed oblivious to the fact that the people attempting to build the mosque are also entitled to First Amendment protections.
A retired Georgia businessman turned rightwing talk radio host, Cain had been building to that preposterous and discomfiting moment since he emerged on the campaign trail. In March, while attending a gathering of conservatives in Iowa, a reporter for a progressive blog, ThinkProgress.org, asked him, “Would you be comfortable appointing a Muslim, either in your cabinet or as a federal judge?” He said flatly, according to ThinkProgress, “No, I will not.”
That revealed not only deep-seated prejudices hardly befitting an American president but also an unsettling ignorance about the U.S. Constitution, which tea party supporters like Cain claim to venerate. There is no religious test for political office in this country. The Founding Fathers were attempting to steer their new republic away from the blood-soaked waters of state-endorsed religions.
While he flirted briefly with sounding more reasonable on the issue of Islamic Americans and their religious freedom, he couldn’t resist, in the end, reverting to nutty notions — common enough among paranoid ultra-conservatives — about Sharia law and an Islamic mandate to convert infidels. All the while, he insists that his bigotry bears no comparison to that he experienced as a boy growing up in the Deep South.
Cain was never going to win the Republican nomination. He’s politically inexperienced, ignorant about major policy issues and hardly highly-regarded among the big-time donors he’d need to fund a serious run. He enjoyed a brief boomlet among the GOP’s tea-party-adoring social conservatives, but he’s been eclipsed by their latest star, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Wisc.) It’s hard to see how Cain is more than an after-thought by the time the GOP primaries start next year.
But his candidacy will prove costly. He will leave the campaign trail having tarnished not only his personal reputation but also having contributed to the GOP’s difficulties with voters who are not white Christians. Ironically, Cain has managed to worsen the problems that the party has reaching outside its homogenous ranks.
Indeed, he perfectly illustrates the GOP’s current moment — an ever-shrinking tent of narrow-minded know-nothings who insist that those who come inside pledge absolute fealty to their most ludicrous pronouncements. As a black man, for example, Cain draws enthusiastic applause from rightwing audiences for his insistence that the tea party movement holds not a shred of racism. Perhaps Cain really believes that, but it sounds like the price of admission.
Moreover, he has enthusiastically castigated President Barack Obama, a tactic unlikely to lure many black voters, who take great pride in the nation’s first black president. Cain has not only cozied up to birthers, but he has also questioned Obama’s manhood, telling The New York Times that the president isn’t “a strong black man.”
Cain should have represented a breakthrough for the Republican Party, which hasn’t had much success luring substantive black men and women to its presidential trials. The GOP’s most memorable black presidential contender has been the clownish Alan Keyes.
As the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, Cain has serious business credentials. He should have taken the time to develop a substantive platform so he would have had more to sell than clichés about taxes, disrespect for Obama and Islamophobia.
Instead, he became one more member of the GOP’s lunatic fringe. Oh, well. I guess the fringe needs diversity, too.