So by now you might have heard the news that A&E has decided to rescind its suspension of “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson and continue producing the show with him in front of the camera. Is anyone surprised? A&E’s backpedaling only confirms the suspicions many of us had following the network’s initial decision to temporarily cut ties with the head duck: it had nothing to do with disciplining Robertson for making homophobic and racist remarks in a GQ interview and everything to do with generating media buzz, boosting ratings, and peddling more “Duck Dynasty” junk at Walmart. Theirs was a PR stunt akin to DC Comics’ killing off its most beloved property, Superman, in 1993. Did anyone really expect the Man of Steel to remain dead forever?
As if it matters whether Robertson appears on the show or not. His anti-gay, pseudo-Christian comments have already earned him a spot in the pantheon of right-wing folk heroes, slightly ahead of George Zimmerman and just a shade below Ted Nugent. Not only have conservatives as influential as Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal scrambled to Robertson’s aid, but everywhere you look, it seems — especially here in Texas — the patriarch’s craggy, Taliban-bearded mug scowls defiantly on t-shirts, bobble heads, koozies, throw blankets, and other white-trash, truck-stop tchotchke.
More than anything else, this whole duck-tastic chapter in our nation’s ongoing war of ideologies has led me to try to pin down what exactly constitutes an American right-wing folk hero. There are a number of them, including Zimmerman, Nugent, Palin, and now Robertson. What characteristics do these highly-admired conservative figures share other than their political leanings?
A folk hero in general is one who embodies the characteristics, beliefs, and attitudes of a group of like-minded people. Rising from humble beginnings, this person typically confronts some great challenge of his day — social injustice, for example — and somehow finds the courage to do and say the things we wish were in our nature to do and say. Although he is often derided and punished, his words and actions inspire and live on in the collective consciousness of his followers.
For perspective, let’s look at some American left-wing folk heroes. César Chávez immediately comes to mind, as does Rosa Parks and Harvey Milk. Supporters continue to rally around these individuals’ memories because they seemingly came out of nowhere, like a bolt of lightning, to challenge the social norms of their time. They sacrificed their personal security to “be the change they wished to see in the world,” to paraphrase Gandhi (another figure greatly admired by American liberals). Of the three mentioned above, one was assassinated (Milk) whereas another faced persistent plots against him (Chávez). Despite the risk, they were the catalyst that led to the improvement of millions of marginalized people’s lives and, as a direct result, all Americans’ lives — whether they want to admit it or not.
Right-wing folk heroes such as Phil Robertson, on the other hand, are a different breed of “hero” altogether. Instead of facilitating social progress, they emphatically stand in the way of it and are venerated for doing so. Instead of challenging the status quo — whether it be the pervasiveness of gun violence, widening economic inequality, or prejudice against the LGBT community — they perpetuate the myth that all would be right with the world if we just followed the Bible, dismantled the government, returned to the lawlessness of the Old West, armed our teachers, and kept Christ in Christmas.
One of their most fundamental characteristics is that they are celebrated for simply being rebels. Many on the right once held (and continue to hold) outlaws such as Bonnie and Clyde, Billy the Kid, and Jesse James in high esteem because they carried out the American values of freedom and liberty to their logical extreme, no matter the deadly consequences. Modern conservatives have replaced these traditional folk heroes with people like Zimmerman, Nugent, and others, whose outlaw-ish natures excuse their bad behavior in the eyes of their admirers. This explains how Nugent can be declared a patriot for calling on President Obama to “suck on [his] machine gun” and Zimmerman can be turned into a gun rights icon after “standing his ground” against an unarmed teenager. A Fox News poll conducted in July 2013, in fact, found that Republicans largely favor Zimmerman over Obama.
Another characteristic that defines right-wing folk heroes is their woolly interpretation of the Bible to support their beliefs. Phil Robertson and his backers, for instance, defend his anti-gay remarks by saying that he was simply quoting from the Bible. It’s hard to argue against this when it’s clear that none of them has actually read the thing — otherwise, they would see that Jesus, the ultimate folk hero, never said a word about gays or lesbians.
Back in 2010, Sarah Palin went on Bill O’Reilly’s program to suggest that American laws should be based more on the Bible. What does this mean exactly? Has Palin cracked open a Bible lately? If she somehow got her way and new laws were written to reflect fundamental Biblical tenets, not only would the United States suddenly resemble theocratic Iran, but Palin herself would be charged with several crimes such as disobedience and insubordination. The Book of Timothy, for instance, instructs women to “learn in silence with all subjection” and not to “usurp authority over the men, but to be silent.” In the Book of Titus, Paul charges women to be “obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.” As a half-term governor of Alaska — whose residents surely include men — and a loud, talkative pundit, Palin is decidedly out of compliance with these traditional Christian tenets.
Of course, were you to raise these points, conservatives would immediately claim straight white Christian victimhood. They recognize the power of being the underdog, so they’ve artificially cast themselves as the oppressed. What’s a folk hero to do without a challenge to overcome? Call it a new civil rights movement for assholes. As such, Palin has taken a page out of the book of legitimately oppressed people — you know, blacks, gays, Jews, women, et al — and branded herself as a warrior in the completely fabricated War on Christmas. Similarly, Zimmerman isn’t a murderer of an unarmed teen but a victim of gun control activists’ overzealous attacks. Robertson isn’t a racist, homophobic, pedophiliac bigot but a victim of godless liberals’ attempts to silence him.
Finally, to be a successful, right-wing folk heroes must be able to revise history. They must be able to steer our nation’s story in their favor. Both Robertson and Nugent have done this recently with respect to racism. In the GQ interview, Robertson denies its existence as blatantly as former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust:
I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.
Never mind that the blues as a musical genre was born out of blacks working the cotton fields.
Ted Nugent makes similarly revisionist comments:
[R]acism against blacks was gone by the time I started touring the nation in the late 60s.
Speaking about the so-called War on Christmas, Palin claims that our nation’s founders would side with her. Just as it’s clear she’s never throughly read the Bible, it’s also clear she’s never studied the religious attitudes of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and other Enlightenment thinkers who were more than skeptical of Jesus’ divinity. The original warriors against Christmas, in fact, were the early Pilgrims, followed by American Revolutionaries, who discarded many customs perceived as English. Hell, it took a full century following the signing of the Declaration of Independence for Christmas to become a federal holiday.
But such facts only get in the way of Palin’s valiant struggle to maintain the integrity of America’s favorite holiday. Or maybe she just wants to sell more ghostwritten, bargain-bin books.
Just as A&E wants to sell more advertising during “Duck Dynasty,” a goal which might have been compromised without Phil Robertson’s involvement. Just as Ted Nugent wants to sell more hunting and camping gear.
No one can deny that the cult of the right-wing folk hero is strong. The only question that remains is for how long faithful adherents will cling to their heroes before realizing they are only enabling further racism, homophobia, violence, and ignorance.
Joseph Guyer resides in the reddest state in the Union, a wondrous place where pick-up trucks proudly display swinging novelty testicles, fried sticks of butter are deemed safe for human consumption, and female escorts can lawfully be shot for refusing to sleep with you. He firmly agrees with Bill Clinton that there is nothing wrong with America that can’t be cured by what is right with America. You can find him on Twitter @joerobguy.