It keeps happening: “Conservatives” claim Martin Luther King, Jr. would agree them. King family members and historians rebut the claim. Conservatives continue to believe in fake history. Smart people end up despising conservatives, who clearly have no evidence to support their views. The moral authority of King is elevated because even political opponents pay tribute to him. Since King was a socialist, conservatives legitimize their enemies.
The latest conservative to fall into this trap is a man who should know better: Steve Bannon. In an otherwise interesting interview with the BBC, he said King would be “proud” of Donald Trump because of the low unemployment rate for black Americans. “You don’t think he’d be proud?” Bannon asked. “You don’t think Martin Luther King would sit there and go: ‘Yes, you’re putting young black men and women to work’?”
King would never have said that. First, he would have been in lockstep with the swarms of blacks who are incapable of saying anything good about our “racist” president. Second, he explicitly argued for redistribution of wealth, government-guaranteed jobs and income, and described his work as a “class struggle.” Lower unemployment for blacks in a capitalist economy would be a side issue for him.
King would not have supported any program of colorblind conservatism or civic nationalism. He criticized whites for not starting a “mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance,” thus anticipating today’s endless struggle sessions about “white privilege,” “institutional racism,” and “colorblind racism.”
King’s children never let anyone make him out to be colorblind. His daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, said Mr. Bannon was wrong to think her father would have approved of Mr. Trump. She said King would “be extremely disturbed by the climate created by leaders, who have emboldened people to easily express and demonstrate cruelty, predominantly toward people of color and immigrants,” adding that her father would not use the term “illegal aliens,” because it is “degrading and does not reflect his belief that we are all a part of the human family.”
Martin Luther King, III, eldest son of the civil rights leader, was more restrained, saying he was sure Mr. Bannon “means well” but “what he’s saying is not accurate.” He criticized conservatives whose knowledge of the elder King seems to go no further than “I Have A Dream,” and pointed out his father explicitly supported race preferences. “They [conservatives] choose little tidbits of what he said and not the full message in its totality,” he added.
However, as Mr. King, III noted, conservative respect for his father makes it easier to spread the full, more radical message: “The good thing is at least they’re talking about him. I think we have to work to help them understand and interpret truly what he said and what he meant.”
Race realists know all about the real Martin Luther King. He was a socialist and didn’t trust the market. He wouldn’t support modern conservatives; he would surely have opposed candidate Trump as fiercely as he opposed Barry Goldwater: “I have no alternative but to urge every Negro and every white person of good will to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that does not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.”
Conservatives either don’t know this or pretend not to know it. Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck evoked Martin Luther King at the “Restoring Honor” rally in 2015 to promote the tea party movement. The Heritage Foundation promotes King’s “conservative legacy.” David French at National Review argues that “MLK Day is a reminder that the escape from tribalism and white supremacy is a multi-racial enterprise, and its greatest leaders have recognized the enduring power of individual responsibility, not collective guilt.” Mr. French and other conservatives can promote the King myth only by ignoring what he said.
A new generation of leftists, by contrast, is not indulging in protective ignorance. They no longer need to conceal Martin Luther King, Jr.’s communist links, revolutionary beliefs, or his demand that wealth be systematically transferred from whites to blacks to make up for past discrimination — what I call “racial socialism.”
In a piece called “Martin Luther King, Economic Radical” at the Huffington Post , Dr. Obery Hendricks approvingly quotes King’s call for “a radical redistribution of economic and political power” and speculates that this is why unknown capitalist forces may have had him assassinated. In the Guardian, Cornel West blasted those who promote a “sanitized” King legacy. The professor defended King as a “radical,” and cited his fear that “whites in power” could put blacks into “concentration camps.” In January 2018, even Teen Vogue praised King’s eventual “departure from his colorblind rhetoric.” These and other accounts of the “radical” King are closer to the truth than the fantasy version of King campaigning for tax cuts alongside Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.
Some conservatives may believe praising King undermines his extremism by promoting the “colorblind” King, rather than the real one. Others may believe they have to praise him in order to get a public hearing at all, burning a pinch of incense before the memory of America’s patron saint. Perhaps this is what Mr. Bannon thinks he is doing. He may even think that by promoting President Trump’s economy — with King’s blessing — Republicans could crack the monolithic black Democratic vote.
Yet there is no evidence this is working. It is as if conservatives are trying to create a distinction between a “good” colorblind civil rights movement that ended segregation and was supported by many Republicans and a “bad” movement of black nationalism and identity politics that Republicans oppose. The problem is that the key figures involved in both movements — John Lewis, Thurgood Marshall, King, and most others — all supported black racial preferences. Most blacks think the purpose of politics is to promote their racial interests. If there is inequality in favor of whites they argue for equality. If there is inequality in favor of blacks, they argue for inequality. They support whatever benefits them.
Oddly enough, Mr. Bannon seems far less hostile to white identity politics abroad than he does in the United States. “Let them call you racists,” he said to French National Front supporters during the last election. He praised Hungarian leader Viktor Orban as “Trump before Trump,” a man who is “saving his people.” Yet in the United States, Mr. Bannon has predicted doom for the Democrats because of their focus on “identity politics,” as if European nationalism is not a form of identity politics.
In the Untied States, Mr. Bannon’s beloved “economic nationalism” worked in the last election because it attracted white working class voters, not because it won an unprecedented Republican share of non-white voters. If mass immigration continues, Republicans will not be able to win national elections, no matter how much enthusiasm they generate from whites in such place as Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Mr. Bannon almost certainly knows this. And he wouldn’t even have to cross the Rubicon and explicitly promote “white nationalism,” but he gains nothing by denouncing white interests. He ought to stop pretending Martin Luther King was something he was not, or that people won’t search the internet to find out what he really was. He doesn’t have to attack King; just ignore him, they way Republicans typically ignore W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, and other black extremists.
If Mr. Bannon is serious about building a political movement of the sort he praises in Europe, he must recognize the legitimacy of white identity — or at least not attack those who do. A political force can be met only with countervailing force. Endorsing the myth of Martin Luther King’s moderation only makes the American Right look foolish. Constantly shouting the truth is not always the best campaign tactic, but it’s better than proudly declaring what you know to be a lie — especially when you can be rebutted by 13-year-old girls who read Teen Vogue.