Rick Perry hoped to do more for the cause of states’ rights than any president since Jefferson Davis. He openly opposed Social Security and Medicare as federal encroachments on state prerogatives. He blamed the Supreme Court for dismantling long-ago discredited limits on the federal government’s power to regulate labor, civil rights, the environment and other matters the states are ill-suited to protect. Indeed, in many ways, Perry’s preferred system of government more closely resembles the Confederate Constitution used by rebel states during the Civil War — which included strict limits on the central government’s power — then it does the Constitution of the United States.
Yet Perry departed from the Confederacy’s radically decentralized vision of government in one essential way — he was not a white supremacist. Indeed, Perry’s outspoken conservatism, his hostility to the federal government and his famous gaffes often obscured one of his campaign’s more honorable goals. Perry embraced the states’ rights rhetoric so often used by American racists to veil their true goals, but he also explicitly warned his fellow Republicans away from direct appeals to racism. Perry’s central pitch, in other words, was a government much like the Civil War’s Confederacy but without its vicious bigotry.
And his pitch failed. As of Friday, Rick Perry has suspended his campaign for the presidency.
Perry As Anti-Racist
Even setting aside Perry’s states’ rights rhetoric, the former Texas governor is an unlikely standard bearer against racism within the Republican Party. Early in his political career, Perry hosted friends, supporters and his fellow lawmakers at his family’s hunting camp in west Texas. The camp’s name included an infamous racial slur which begins with the letter “n.” Perry also supports superficially colorblind policies, such as voter ID, which disproportionately impact people of color. No one would confuse Perry’s record on race with that of a civil rights hero such as Rep. John Lewis (D-GA).
Nevertheless, Perry repeatedly criticized his fellow Republicans for alienating minority voters.
As governor, Perry signed legislation permitting undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at Texas universities. Ten years later, during a 2011 Republican presidential debate, he defended this legislation against an onslaught of nativist attacks from his fellow candidates — and levied a sharp moral attack against nativism in the process. “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own,” Perry said, “I don’t think you have a heart.”
Perry continued to warn his fellow Republicans against the kind of racially charged attacks on immigrants that characterizes GOP frontrunner Donald Trump in what may be his last speech as a national political figure. “We can secure the border and reform our immigration system without inflammatory rhetoric, without base appeals that divide us based on race, culture and creed,” Perry said in his speech announcing that he was suspending his 2016 campaign. “Demeaning people of Hispanic heritage is not just ignorant, it betrays the example of Christ,” according to the former Texas governor. “We can enforce our laws and our borders, and we can love all who live within our borders, without betraying our values.”
In a speech delivered last July, Perry also declared that Republicans have “lost our moral legitimacy as the party of Lincoln.” Though Perry did not abandon his previous support of states’ rights — he maintained that “state governments are more accountable to you than the federal government” — the former governor also admitted that his own focus on disenpowering the peoples’ representatives in Washington caused him and his fellow Republicans to ignore racial injustices. Perry labeled himself “an ardent believer in the Fourteenth Amendment, which says that no state shall ‘deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” and he confessed that “too often, we Republicans, me included, have emphasized our message on the Tenth Amendment but not our message on the Fourteenth.”
Perhaps most remarkably for a candidate who wants to shrink the federal government down until Social Security and Medicare can be drowned in a bathtub, Perry also admitted that federal officials must still protect against racial discrimination — “There has been and there will continue to be an important and a legitimate role for the federal government in enforcing civil rights.”
This understanding that racial justice depends on the guiding hand of Washington is very much at odds with Perry’s broader views on federal power. The title of Perry’s 2010 book, Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washington, speaks for itself. In it, Perry calls for strict constitutional limits on the federal government’s power to enact laws on subjects ranging from health care to guns to the environment to education and labor.
On federal education laws which enjoy the support of Republicans, Perry writes in Fed Up!, are a “perfect example of Republicans losing sight of the fact that perfectly laudable policy choices at the local level are not appropriate (much less constitutional) at the federal level.” Recent attempts to rein in Wall Street, do not show the Constitution “the appropriate respect,” according to Perry. The former Texas governor labels the New Deal “the second big step in the march of socialism,” and he blames the Supreme Court for allowing New Deal legislation to take effect “by abdicating its role as the protector of constitutional federalism.”
Yet, even as Perry tries to declare much of the 20th and 21st centuries unconstitutional, he still exempts one of the nation’s most important civil rights laws from this purge. “The Civil Rights Act” of 1964, Perry writes, “which, among many things, prohibited private discrimination in so-called public accommodations, such as hotels and restaurants, was the glorious fulfillment of the principles of the Declaration of Independence and, ultimately, the intent behind passage of the Reconstruction Era amendments.”
This is a surprising statement, to say the least, to find in a book that otherwise paints federal legislation as if it were an betrayal of our nation’s most sacred principles. Nevertheless, it goes to the heart of Perry’s proposal for a non-racist confederacy. The concepts of states’ rights and white supremacy have so long been intertwined that the former is often viewed as a code word for the later, and yet Perry explicitly tried to divorce these concepts in the most comprehensive window he has provided into how he would have behaved if elected president.
For the moment, however, Republican primary voters do not simply seem uninterested in Rick Perry the former candidate. A plurality of them appear eager to elect his mirror image. While Perry urges his party to make peace with Spanish-speaking immigrants and their descendants, Trump launched his campaign by claiming that Mexican immigrants are rapists. Trump also wants to place restrictions on citizenship that closely resemble those established by the Supreme Court’s pro-slavery Dred Scott decision.
And yet, for all that Trump’s rhetoric appeals to white nationalism, Trump also rejects Perry’s radical assault on the federal government. The billionaire real estate mogul explicitly promises to “protect your Social Security without cuts” and to “protect your Medicaid.”
Perry, in other words, made precisely the wrong political bet when he began to lay out his vision of federal power. Polls show that only a tiny minority of Republicans favor cuts to Social Security and Medicare. If Trump’s potentially fleeting success in the polls is any indication, moreover, much of the Republican base isn’t particularly interested in Perry’s efforts to shy the party away from racism.