Colin Powell’s former chief of staff Larry Wilkerson argues that Eric Cantor’s defeat has limited national significance
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. And welcome to this latest edition of The Wilkerson Report.
We’re now joined by Larry Wilkerson. He’s the former chief of staff of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary, regular contributor to The Real News.
Thank you so much for joining us, Larry.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks for having me, Jaisal.
NOOR: So, Larry, obviously the buzz in Washington and around the country really is the defeat of Eric Cantor in this historic defeat. Never before has a sitting House majority leader been defeated in a primary election. And he was defeated by a Tea Party challenger. What do you make of this?
WILKERSON: First I have to say that I’m elated. I’m a Republican, but I never liked Eric Cantor, never liked his positions, never liked his ambition, never liked the way he pursued his policies [inaud.] both personal and professional. So I’m elated, as a Republican, that he’s been defeated.
The second thing I make of it, and probably more to your question, is that, number one, the Republican Party is in disarray. It’s been in disarray for some time, but there are more manifestations of it that I hope at least get the leadership and fundamental Republicans who have chafed at this problem the Republican Party has, get their attention, and we start doing more to fix the party, so to speak.
But secondarily, it also, I think, indicates the disarray that the Tea Party is in, because you have Tea Party people, candidates all across the country who are doing poorly, and then you have one here in Virginia, in a district where Republicans should win quite easily, mostly due to gerrymandering, and all of a sudden we have a Tea Party guy winning against, as you said, the House majority leader.
So there are two reflections that I have on this. One is the Republican Party’s disarray, and the other is (counterintuitively, perhaps, given the victory in Virginia) the Tea Party’s disarray.
NOOR: And what do you make of the forces that helped propel this challenger, David Brat, to this victory? Now, we know that a lot of the right-wing talk show hosts–Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh–backed this challenger, David Brat. And what kind of forces do they represent in the country?
WILKERSON: I think you have to discount the talk radio influence, except at the margins. I’m not saying it wasn’t influential, but at the margins, because, let’s face it, poll after poll shows that those watching talk radio like Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh and so forth are overwhelmingly over 65 years old. Now, those people go vote, though, while people, younger people, like my students at William & Mary [incompr.] don’t often go vote. So that’s an important part of the electorate.
But you also have to consider this is Virginia. This is Virginia, and this is the heart of [incompr.] from 1808 to 1860. And that might seem funny to go back to that period, but it’s not at all. This is what bred nullification. This is what bred opposition to the New England desire for tariffs. This is what bred secession. This is what bred, in essence, the Civil War. It’s the same group of states, in many respects, who are generating some of this political tension today. And because those states flocked overwhelmingly to the Republican Party when they got tired of segregation, desegregation, school busing, and so forth and everything that went along with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and because the Republican Party now has many of those people within its ranks, the Republican Party finds itself a party of that group.
And I’m not stretching the historical analogy to say that the same kinds of tensions that rendered this nation from 1800 to the Civil War and then in the Civil War came to a bloody rendering aren’t still operative today. You hear the same kind of things coming out of some of these states, some of these regions that you heard during that time.
And so I’m not surprised at all at what happened to Eric Cantor. In fact, two days ago I predicted he was going to lose. And I was over on the Hill yesterday talking to some Republican staffers–and indeed some members, Republican members–about Iran, and I got disbelief when I said something like that. I thought he was going to lose because of the uniqueness of this particular area in Virginia.
Immigration probably had something to do with it, but there again you have a reflection that this part of Virginia is very different from the rest of the nation on that issue, because the rest of the nation, in poll after poll, shows that it wants something done about immigration, something equitable and fair done about immigration. If it had a large impact in this district, then it says that those people in that particular district, at least those who voted for the Randolph-Macon economics professor who won the primary against Cantor, those people have a different view on immigration than the majority of the nation. But that doesn’t surprise me. Remember, this is the heart of the old South.
NOOR: And, Larry, I want to end on this note. So you sort of, you know, kind of–I wouldn’t say discount, but you downplay the influence of, you know, the right-wing talk show hosts. But do we know where the big-money Republicans like the Koch brothers–if they played a role in this race? And does this also signify a willingness of powerful, wealthy forces to take the party, the Republican Party, to the right, even if it does mean embracing a policy that might lose in the short-term if on the long-term, whether it be 2020 or a later date, whether they can get a much more radical right-wing candidate in power?
WILKERSON: This is a worrisome trend, I admit. It’s a worrisome trend I’m watching in Europe. It’s a worrisome trend in my own country. But I’m not that concerned about it yet here, because I think what we’re seeing is a backfire on some of the rich people like the Koch brothers who’ve been backing the Tea Party. They were backing it not because they believe in ultra right wing solutions to problems; they were backing it because essentially they thought it would be a wonderful camouflage for what their ultimate purpose is. And their ultimate purpose is to protect their wealth. It’s a wealth defense party, if you will. Check the Tea Party out. Over half its members are millionaires. So they’re using this very populist movement to masquerade behind or to keep alive their own desire to pursue conservative issues that protect their wealth. And this has backfired on them in some respects. I think it probably has the potential to backfire on them in the future.
Is it going to allow them to put a right-wing–what you’re insinuating–a really ultra right wing person in the White House? I don’t think so. I don’t think the American people are going to allow that to happen. I’d like to think the Germans, the Austrians, the Poles, and a host of others, the Ukrainians, who are wrestling with this same phenomenon developing within their own ranks, are the same way. But I’m quite certain in America we’re not going to elect an ultra right wing person to put in the White House. Explode a nuclear weapon in a major American city, a dirty bomb in a major American metropolis, and we might have a different proposition. I think then we might have some real problems keeping our Republic.
NOOR: Well, Larry, what about, like, an economic meltdown, you know, double-digit unemployment rates like you’ve seen in Europe, where in countries like Spain the unemployment rate for young people under the age of, like, 30 is, like, close to, like, 40 or 50 percent? What if we see that, another economic recession, in the U.S.? Could we see what’s happening in Europe, a shift to the far right, also happening here?
WILKERSON: I still don’t think that’s going to happen here. I just don’t think the political forces can align for that to happen. I may be wrong. I hope I’m not. I think the bulk, the collective spirit of the American people, if you will, is more sensible than that. There are plenty of idiots out there, plenty of Luddites out there, plenty of ignorant people out there, to be sure, but I think collectively the American people would not allow that to happen.
I could see–as I said, I could see a real problem if we had a major declaration of martial law after a major, catastrophic terrorist attack or something like that, but that’s a totally different avenue, I think, to tyranny, if you will. I just don’t see that happening.
I think what we’re going to see is the Republican Party is going to perish or get its act together. And since I’m still a Republican, I hope it’s the latter.
NOOR: Alright. Larry Wilkerson, I want to thank you so much for joining us. And I’m sure many of our viewers would also share your sentiments and your hopes.
And I want to apologize for our viewers for the connection issues. We are trying to resolve those.
But Larry Wilkerson, Republican, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, thank you so much for being with us.
WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.
NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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