By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
Larry Elder—the Republicans’ best chance to replace California Governor Gavin Newsom in last week’s recall election—was trounced. Perhaps his backers thought Elder, an African-American as well as a public personality, would fool enough minority voters to cut into Newsom’s votes despite Elder’s reactionary politics.
If the votes against recalling Newsom had failed to reach 50 percent of votes cast, the challenger with the highest number, no matter how small, would have become governor. But the recall, a right-wing maneuver, was defeated by a whopping 64 percent.
With that election over, aside from heaving a sigh of relief, why should I waste digital ink on Larry Elder?
There are two reasons. First, though only 36 percent of all votes favored recalling Governor Newsom, 47 percent of those votes went to Elder, and he may well use this first foray into politics as a springboard to try again. After losing last Tuesday, Sept. 14, he told KMJ Radio in Fresno, “I have now become a political force here in California in general and particularly within the Republican Party. And I’m not going to leave the stage.” Though Elder’s political views and antics are abhorrently clownish, today’s clown may win tomorrow’s election. We’ve seen it before. If we discount the Larry Elders of the world, we do so at our peril.
But I also have a more personal reason for writing about Elder. Larry and I were in the same class at the University of Michigan Law School. And though I did not know him well, we shared one conversation that always stands out strongly in my mind when I think of him.
It was 1974. We were in our first year of law school, standing in a hallway, talking with another first-year classmate. I mentioned that I had two third-year friends who were about to graduate and were having trouble finding jobs. And I expressed fear, worrying what would happen if I spent three years there and couldn’t find a job.
The classmate we were talking with said, crassly, “What’s the matter with them? Don’t they know how to sell themselves?”
Larry retorted: “Some people can’t afford a suit. Some people have to go to an interview in blue jeans.”
I loved Larry for that response. His comment about the plight of a person who could not afford a suit for an interview suggested a sympathetic understanding of the human condition—that not everyone has the wherewithal permitting them to “sell themselves.” That some people don’t have the support allowing them to get ahead, but that everyone needs it.
How on earth did the fellow who seemed to understand that need become the man who wrote The Ten Things You Can’t Say in America, calling for abolishment of the IRS; passing a regressive national sales tax; and ending welfare, Social Security, Medicare, and corporate taxes? Not to mention Larry’s desire to eliminate affirmative action, even though he had benefited from it himself when he was admitted to Brown University under an early affirmative action program.
One would expect the man who understood the plight of a person who could not even afford a suit for an interview to understand that anyone who succeeds in life needs help from someone along the way. Instead, according to Publishers Weekly in 2000, Larry claimed that people have become a nation of “victicrats,” blaming their problems on others, demanding special treatment, and refusing to accept personal responsibility. This attitude reeks of Ayn Rand’s extreme and phony doctrine of selfish individualism, so it should be no surprise that Larry is a registered Republican who professes himself a libertarian in philosophy.
It appears that, despite understanding the unfairness of the world—or maybe because he recognized it—Larry made a choice to take our crass classmate’s words to heart, selling himself to the public as an exotic attraction in the realm of the far right: an ultraconservative talk radio host who is Black.
Larry developed his brand through his radio program, The Larry Elder Show; newspaper and online columns carried by far-right publications like World Net Daily and The Epoch Times, and a number of books promoting his ultraconservative political views. He also did a stint as a so-called judge handing down so-called moral judgments on the television series Moral Court, not to be confused or compared with shows like The People’s Court which, through application of real law to small claims cases educate the lay viewer about how the court system works.
Currently, Larry works for Salem Media Group, described by NPR as one of the most powerful broadcasting companies in conservative media. According to NPR, Salem openly acted as Larry’s backer in the recall race.
In his climb up the right-wing ladder, Larry has ensconced himself with, as well as promoting, the worst of the worst. He fostered the career of Stephen Miller, who became former President Trump’s architect of the Nazi-like separation of immigrant children from their parents. In a 2020 interview on NPR, journalist Jean Guerrero said Elder had told her that he had invited Stephen Miller on his radio show as a guest a total of 69 times before Miller was even out of high school.
Larry was an early supporter of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential candidacy and follows the party line, claiming he does not believe Biden won the 2020 election fairly and that it is unfair to blame Trump for the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
Becoming an opportunist who makes big bucks by tying his fortune to fascists and coup-mongers is reprehensible. But Larry’s positions about Black people amount to a denial that is pathological. It is hard to believe there is no element of self-hate in them or even some unconscious death wish.
Despite the attacks on Black churches, police murders of unarmed Black people, and attacks on Muslims, Sikhs, Asians, Hispanics, and Jews, Larry opposes hate crime legislation.
According to AP, he has said: “All they want Black people to think about is oppression, that you are under siege, that you are a victim. Really? In 2021, after we elected the first Black president?”
But that first Black president, Barack Obama, was subjected to virulent racism while he was in office—much of it coming from members of Larry’s Republican Party as well as Donald Trump, the would-be dictator Larry supports. Furthermore, when you can’t walk down the street, drive a car, or call a police officer to your house without a fear that law enforcement will kill you, there is reason to feel “under siege,” and a need to take action. Yet Larry has called Black Lives Matter a “bogus” movement.
I wonder what Larry thinks would happen if he got stopped by the police on a deserted road late some dark night. Does he think he will be exempt from the treatment given other Black men? Does he think the policeman will recognize him and say, “Oh—you’re one of us,” shake his hand and send him on his way?
On a July 18 episode of The Candace Owens Show, Larry topped himself, saying of reparations for slavery: “When people talk about reparations, do they really want to have that conversation? Like it or not, slavery was legal. Their legal property was taken away from them after the Civil War, so you could make an argument that the people that are owed reparations are not only just Black people but also the people whose ‘property’ was taken away after the end of the Civil War.”
In answer to Larry’s attention-seeking legal sophistry, one could easily respond that those who lost the Civil War were trying to overthrow the lawful government of the United States and should not only have lost their slaves, but should have lost their freedom—been prosecuted and sent to prison.
But the real question is, even if one could make the theoretical argument Larry made, why did Larry choose to make it?
Having tied himself to the far right, does Larry feels he must make the most of it and follow that line through to the end? Does he think that the right wing, which I presume currently pays him handsomely, won’t ultimately turn on him when they no longer have a use for him? Does he think he’ll just ride the wave and get his until then?
Perhaps someone needs to tell him that when you sell away your soul—the essence of who you are—you no longer have a core to sustain you when that fall comes.
I have no answer to my questions of how and why the Larry I remember from law school became a Trumpian caricature—only the speculation I’ve aired here. Larry’s mother was a Democrat and his father was a Republican. Maybe the two ways of being were at war within him and his father won out. Or maybe I misread one comment as speaking for the man’s character. Nevertheless, I can’t shake an affectionate respect for that young man of my memory and a regretful sorrow at what he became.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.