The extravagant tributes conferred by the conservative establishment on the onetime civil rights leader and longtime Atlanta Democratic congressman John Lewis are as ineffectual as they are utterly tasteless.
Lewis’s moments of fame came when he accompanied Martin Luther King, Jr., on his March on Washington in 1963, demonstrating for what became the Voting Rights Act. They then fatefully crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965, leading to a clash with police in which Lewis sustained serious injuries to his head. Whether or not one approves of the Voting Rights Act, no one should question that the black protesters were treated brutally and that what happened to Lewis was inexcusable.
Lewis later made a career out of this inexcusable treatment on Bloody Sunday, holding a congressional seat in Georgia’s overwhelmingly black 5th District from 1987 until his death. The media, including—or especially—Fox News, presented Lewis as an exemplary “man of principle.” I heard this phrase so often from authorized conservatives that after a while I came to think of it as a form of doxology. One editorialist at the neoconservative Boston Herald balked at the idea of renaming the Pettus Bridge in Selma, which still bears the name of a “racist” Confederate commander, for the deceased Lewis. Although this gesture, it has been suggested, might help morale what with the town’s sagging economy, the editorialist complains that renaming the bridge might not be enough. More grandiose ways must be devised to honor the civil rights leader.
This genuflecting from the right comes despite the fact that is impossible think of anything Lewis did in Congress that would please a non-leftist. He played the race card against Republicans and attacked Trump with extraordinary ferocity as a “racist,” particularly in a widely noted speech on July 17, 2019. Lewis also refused to go to Trump’s inauguration and worked tirelessly to get him impeached. Although Trump never hesitated to fire back, it was clear that he was going after someone who loathed him profoundly and who thought he was a dangerous white racist.
Lewis also railed against the Confederate Battle Flag almost as obsessively as National Review Editor Rich Lowry and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)—as a hate symbol that should never be publicly displayed. Curiously, Lewis and King had once considered that battle flag as a symbol for the black civil rights movement. Lewis also became an enthusiastic backer of the LGBT cause, although his venerated mentor Martin Luther King had expressed views on homosexuality that would nowadays cause him to be canceled, even by Conservatism Inc. Apparently, principles change even for the impeccably principled, but not so for Lewis’s righteous indignation, which continued to erupt.
Now that I’m on my rant, let me mention that my lifelong conservative heroine Phyllis Schlafly received nothing like Lewis’s sendoff when she died four years ago in her nineties. Not surprisingly, the lying media sneeringly chronicled the passing of this aged reactionary who believed in fixed gender roles and other Hitlerian notions. But Conservatism Inc. was almost as silent about Phyllis’s passing, and one might imagine that Phyllis would have had to be a black leftist to be treated with the week-long adulation accorded to Lewis. National Review Contributing Editor Jonah Goldberg did note her passing in in a mixed assessment that began: “I had my disagreements with the legendary conservative activist.” It appears that Jonah couldn’t forgive Phyllis for backing Donald Trump.
Although the marathon adulation bestowed on Lewis gave multiple occasions for virtue signaling, it’s unlikely to have changed many votes on the right. Those who supported Lewis politically are not about to join the GOP because of Fox News’s not-very-subtle pandering. One would have to be invincibly dumb not to see the ulterior motives behind this grandstanding. Although some blacks may vote for Trump in November, it’s doubtful they’ll be doing so because of Fox News’s endless tributes. These black Trump voters are probably religious Christians, threatened inner-city businesspeople, and policemen. They would most certainly not be progressive, leftist Democrats like Fox-contributor and eulogist Richard Fowler, who seems to hate Trump as much as he revered Lewis.
Another obvious reason Conservative Inc. put on its politically correct display last week was to engage in its customary game of triangulation. Media conservatives feel driven to show friends and associates on the left that they are not like those bad reactionaries whom good moderate conservatives shun. These good people care for most of what the left does, but in a more moderate, less confrontational way. The fact they can virtue signal on what we are assured is a conservative channel or publication makes anything they say right-wing by association. As my acquaintances assure me, if something appears on Fox, in National Review, or in The Wall Street Journal, it must be right-wing. Why else would it appear there?
To his credit, President Trump is not dissembling about his venomous defamer. He sent his condolences in characteristically sloppy English to the family of the deceased congressman and then declined to pay his respects to Lewis’s casket. This may have been Trump’s moment of dignity.
(Correction: the original version of this article incorrectly cited in its second paragraph the year of the March on Washington as 1964, rather than 1963.)
Paul Gottfried is editor in chief of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is also the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years, a Guggenheim recipient, and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.