Rep. Larry Pittman is at it again. He’s wearing his ignorance as a badge of honor and embarrassing the Republican Party, which, in the Age of Trump, is hard to do. But Pittman also represents a significant minority within the GOP. Without them, Republicans would be a solid minority party. In a broader sense, they’re the Roy Moore wing of the party.
Pittman is also clear evidence of the path the GOP took a hundred years after the Civil War. In a tweet last week, Pittman compared Abraham Lincoln to Adolf Hitler, saying Lincoln was just as murderous, just not on the same scale. Pittman makes the accusation that the first Republican president invaded a “sovereign nation” just like Hitler. He never addresses Hitler’s atrocities related to the Holocaust. He may be a Holocaust denier.
In the decades after the Civil War, Southern Democrats adapted a narrative similar to the one Pittman is pushing. They called it the Lost Cause, asserted states’ rights were the cause of the war and bemoaned being invaded by Yankees. By the early 1900s, those unreconstructed Southern Democrats established a one-party system that denied African-Americans the right to vote and implemented the Jim Crow South.
In the wake of World War II and the New Deal, cracks appeared in the one-party South over segregation. As Democrats like Harry Truman began to push for civil rights legislation, Southern Democrats like Strom Thurmond began fleeing the party, first as Dixiecrats and then as Republicans. By the 1968 election, the GOP was openly wooing the racist wing of the Democratic Party. In 1972, Jesse Helms became the first Republican elected to the US Senate from North Carolina since Reconstruction. He did it by running against integration and civil rights legislation and attracting the conservative Democrats who opposed both.
Larry Pittman is the living embodiment of the post-Civil War Democrats who defended segregation and Jim Crow laws. They abandoned the Democrats and became the populist wing of the GOP that believes white America is under threat. They’re the clearest evidence that the party of Lincoln is dead.
Republicans who are condemning Pittman want us to believe that he’s an anomaly. He’s not. He’s part of a faction that keeps the GOP in the majority in the North Carolina legislature. Without them, Republicans would be deep in the minority.
Pittman says out loud what that the faction believes. The rest of the GOP uses dog whistles and conspiracy theories to keep their support. We see it in their voter suppression bills that target African-Americans. We see it in the immigration policies that divide communities and families. We see it in bills like HB2 and Amendment One. It’s the belief that the country was built by and for white Christian families. They may only make up 15 or 20 percent of the Republican Party, but, in a state that’s evenly divided, they make the difference in close elections. And that’s why Larry Pittman will get little more than token criticism by the GOP leadership.