“I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things?” — Cliven Bundy
Brian Kilmeade, Fox News host, spent part of his Monday giving Charlie Kirk’s audience a history lesson. No doubt the MAGA audience thought it illuminating. Everyone else will question his thinking — to put it kindly.
Brian started, while the host giggled, by claiming that without slavery, there would be no United States. The form of his argument was basically: “Southern slavery was bad, but it had a huge upside — and besides, everybody was doing it.”
“We are a country that was born, like every other country, every continent had slaves. In the South, most houses most plantations had slaves. Nobody condones it. But without those slaveowners, we don't have a country.”
It is a classic example of confusing correlation with causation. The colonies had slaves. Today, we are the United States. Ergo, slaves must have been the sine qua non for the creation of the US. This facile thinking raises the question. If slavery had not existed pre-1776, would we still be a British colony? I think we all know the answer.
Kilmeade’s argument was probably an economic one. So, we should ask if slavery was the factor that propelled the US economy to its eventual stratospheric heights. Hardly. If slavery were such a boon, the country would have suffered an economic decline when slaves stopped being slaves. It did not. In fact, Black Americans headed north to drive the US economy in areas where slavery had been largely absent.
More importantly, the economic driver of American prosperity was industrialization — a northern phenomenon. We can still see the legacy of slavery and segregation in the dismal GDP performance of southern states — especially the Deep South — today.
Kilmeade then unleashes the conservative “America, love it or leave it” trope.
“So you make your choice. I mean if you don't like a country, travel — and if you find a place better, stay. And stop messing with our past.”
Patriotism is like owning a house. It does not encourage the citizen to ignore broken things. It demands that you make where you live better. Which means you sometimes have to tear out the rot. Not sit there on a sagging porch, under a leaking roof, grinning vacantly.
When Brian says, “Stop messing with our past,” he means, “Do not harsh my historical buzz with facts.”
Kilmeade then straps on his revisionist armor and revisits his happy place — his youth.
"Now it's like a mission to win the war on history. Because the 1619 project was the formal first salvo. But it has been happening for quite a long time. I mean I'm older than you. And in 1976 I was in grade school and they launched this thing called “Roots.” The most successful mini-series ever — averaged 60 million a night. It was the story of slavery and all its brutality."
There is no respectful debate in MAGA-world. Everything is a war. Further, Kilmeade’s argument is self-defeating. He extols Roots, a groundbreaking 1977 event in US TV history, without asking why there has not been the like since. And more importantly, without considering what the reaction to it would be today.
Ironically, he exemplifies the probable reaction with his hostility to the 1619 Project. It makes you wonder if he has examined Nikole Hannah-Jones's endeavor, as it argues that slaves were an understated driver of the antebellum economy — which is also Kilmeade’s point.
Brian then descends into pure fantasy.
"Nobody was ever ducking our past. I don't know what people are talking about. And nobody ever said “Segregation, not that bad. Slavery, well it happens.” Nobody, Republican or Democrat.”
Schools in America’s third most populous state, Florida, are ducking “our past”. And if Moms for Liberty succeeds, vast swathes of America’s education system will join them in ignorance. Segregation not only has supporters, but plenty of red state legislatures are doing what they can to revive it at the polls.
Then Kilmeade offers up MAGA’s favorite misdirection. “Democrats are the real racists.”
"Especially, because most of these people were Democrats, they kept on pushing to keep it and almost tried to reinstall it in the 20th century. Having said that we've come a long way."
Who is Kilmeade referring to when he says "we've"? And what comprises their journey?
Anyway, white conservatives are America’s preeminent racists. Until Nixon’s southern strategy — advanced by Reagan — they found their home in the Democratic Party. Now, they vote and run as Republicans. Or does Kilmeade think all those good old Bible Belt boys packed up and moved to New York City and Los Angeles?
There was a time when Russell Kirk, Milton Friedman, F. A Hayek, and even William F. Buckley Jr. gave conservatism intellectual respectability. Today, Brian Kilmeade represents right-wing thinking. And Barry Goldwater now seems rational (relatively).
God help us.