Hereditary Traits

Bigoted taunts by the children of GOP honchos have everything to do with politics.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake answers questions from reporters after a vote on the Budget Control Act July 29, 2011 at the Capitol in Washington, DC.
Then-Rep. Jeff Flake in 2011

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Thursday, BuzzFeed Washington, D.C., bureau chief John Stanton published a pair of articles calling out the sons of two separate Republican members of Congress for racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, sexist, and homophobic social media accounts.

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake’s teenage son, Tanner, went by the name “n1ggerkiller” in an online game, and posted YouTube comments using the word “nigger” and calling Mexicans “the scum of the Earth.” On his Twitter account, he made prolific use of the word faggot and called his friend a “Jew” for stealing a joke.

A few hours after the Flake story appeared, Stanton reported that Nevada Rep. Joe Heck’s son, Joey Heck, had posted equally stomach-turning comments to his Twitter account. In addition to his repeated use of “faggot” and “nigga,” he made anti-gay and anti-Mexican remarks, saying NFL quarterback “[Mark] Sanchez can hop the border faster than he can throw the ball” and retweeted “There are gays everywhere. Maybe that’s gods way of thinning out the population because faggots can’t have babies.” Being a politically minded young lad, he also commented that ABC’s Martha Raddatz should not have been a presidential debate moderator because she’s a woman and that Mitt Romney made Barack Obama his “slave” in a presidential debate. Heck also said that Obama’s main accomplishments as president were promoting the sports of “spear chucking and rock skipping. The sports they do in his home country…”

Several journalists wondered aloud if we should be paying any attention to the rantings of dumb, racist kids who happen to be children of major Republican politicians. After the Flake revelation, Daily Caller political reporter Alex Pappas tweeted, “Why is this news?” It wasn’t just conservative journalists asking. Nick Baumann of Mother Jones said that although the behavior was unacceptable, he hated the idea of journalists monitoring a kid’s tweets. In the Slate office, a few staffers were equally skeptical that these tweets by a couple random punks had larger implications. “I don’t think you can read political bias into this,” one editor said.

While it’s true that dumb kids saying racist things on social media isn’t a particularly shocking news story, I think there is something about present-day conservative politics worth taking away from these cases. It’s something that most of us already knew and something that occasional Slate contributor Tom Scocca articulated wonderfully in an article on this site last fall. Namely, that there is a not insignificant portion of the GOP electorate that exists as a fever swamp of racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-immigrant hatred, and bigotry of all sorts. Obviously not all Republican politicians and voters, or not even a majority of them, are racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-immigrant bigots. But it’s a sizable enough constituency that a key part of the Republican message is to use coded—and sometimes not so coded—language to appeal to this crowd. As Scocca wrote right before last November’s election:

“For more than four years, without pause, Republicans have been campaigning and propagandizing against an imaginary Obama. At the most grotesque end of the fantasies, he is a foreign-born, anti-colonialist Muslim. In more reputable precincts, he is a power-mad socialist and a dumb affirmative-action baby, promoted all the way to the presidency by a race-crazed, condescending liberal elite.”

The dog whistles to this constituency usually involve subtler terms such as “welfare,” “handouts,” “illegals,” “food stamps,” and “Obama phones.” But very often you’ll have local, state, and sometimes national officials exposed for explicit racism. It seems like it has become a monthly occurrence that an elected Republican either forwards some horrible racist chain email about President Obama or makes some horrible racist off-the-cuff remark. (For a few examples of this from the past year, see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

To read Tanner Flake and Joey Heck’s online posts is to see the powerful strain of bigotry that exists within a certain sector of conservative politics. It’s true that children of Democrats can be just as wretched as children of Republicans and can do equally idiotic, terrible things. (See the news of Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu’s son, Connor, being arrested on charges of drunk driving and hit-and-run driving or any one of Al Gore III’s repeated arrests for driving under the influence and reckless driving.) But when bad Democratic kids behave badly, they’re way more likely to drive 100 mph while drunk than to say the president chucks spears. Likewise, you rarely ever see Democratic officials getting in trouble for passing on horrible, racist chain emails or making horrible racist remarks. This has everything to do with the political differences between the two parties and their voters.

Again, Republicans aren’t all racist. But the party actively cultivates racists as voters. Which means that some portion of the Republican electorate, as well as Republican officials, are racists. When a kid literally lives in that political environment, he has a greater chance of being caught up in the extreme end of it. If all of your friends are Republicans and even a small subgroup of Republicans are racist, homophobic bigots, then you’re more likely to associate with racist, homophobic bigots and become one yourself than if you’re hanging out with liberal, crunchy kids.

In the case of Flake and Heck, you may be able to see a family lineage in their tweets. Although he did recently say that a Republican presidential candidate supporting gay marriage is inevitable, Jeff Flake has a long history of anti-LGBT stances. Joe Heck, meanwhile, won the support of self-appointed “birther queen” Orly Taitz for his congressional campaign in 2010. While you can’t choose who supports you, you can send him or her signals. When Heck’s campaign was initially asked whether he recognizes Obama as a legitimate president, the campaign refused to answer, instead telling  the Las Vegas Sun that “the people of Southern Nevada are far more worried about keeping their jobs and their homes, and putting a stop to reckless spending in Washington.” Heck’s spokeswoman eventually clarified to Politico that he had not sought the endorsement and didn’t consider himself a birther. But Taitz’s public profile is evidence of the type of racial animus within the GOP that I’m talking about, and her support of Heck is evidence that Republicans count these people among their voting base.

If you’ve won the support of birthers, don’t be surprised when your son makes comments about Obama being a Kenyan spear-chucker. Likewise, if you’re so adamantly opposed to equal rights for gay people, you shouldn’t be shocked when your child is exposed as a raging homophobe. Those Twitter feeds did not read like they were written by kids who were rebelling against their parents’ Republicanism, but by kids who were embracing an extreme version of those Republican values.