Is Herman Cain the 'Great White Hope'?

10/17/2011 09:47 am ET | Updated Dec 17, 2011

Let me begin by stating that, despite my disagreement with everything he proposes and nearly everything he says, from all I know of Herman Cain's life story, he is to be admired. His father worked 3 jobs so he could own his own home, and his mother was a cleaning lady. Cain earned a masters degree in computer science, worked as a ballistics analyst in the Defense Department, turned around Burger King and did a leveraged buyout of Godfather's Pizza that he later sold for a profit.

Having come from where he did, Cain deserves a great deal of credit for what he has achieved in his life. Having come from where he did, he ought not to be criticized for "sitting out the civil rights movement". He kept his head down, worked hard, probably reminded by his parents that he was going to have to make it in a society that was strongly tilted against him.

Although Cain has zero foreign policy experience, so do all of the Republican candidates except Jon Huntsman. Unless there are skeletons in his closet, he probably is not going away in a flash, as did Bachmann and Perry.

Herman Cain has staked out a unique position in the Republican presidential contest. Those who credit his verbal skills, his status as not being a politician, his claims of being a businessman with solutions, and, more recently, the marketing simplicity of his 9-9-9 proposal, are not wrong, but overlook the main point.

Herman Cain's appeal is that he provides the rightwing a free pass on their racist heritage and lingering impulses in a way that no one else can. This is a very important group in Republican politics. He enables a sizeable swath (how large is truly unknown) of them not to feel put upon, lectured to, or looked down upon for those feelings.

In politics, as in life, people rarely remember what you say; they do remember how you made them feel.

Herman Cain makes them feel good.

Like Christie, he talks tough -- but, unlike Christie, he can give a stirring speech. He all but says that black people have only themselves to 'blame' for their economic condition. He sounded an abrupt retreat just for using the word 'insensitive', describing Rick Perry's disgusting racist name for his family's ranch. He talks states rights. He went to an all-black college (OK by those folks, he did not "take the place" of one of theirs, and he knew his place), allowing those with deep segregationist proclivities to feel "separate but equal" is not as evil it has been cast by the media and federal government. He showed them where his gut was when he said that a Muslim could not serve in his cabinet -- it did not matter that he backed down, he made the connection and affirmed their beliefs.

Most importantly, Cain grew up in the South. He did not get the relative benefits of his parents having moved north or west, where racial barriers were not so high or overt. And, he made it.

As he delegitimizes the civil rights leaders and blacks' preferences for the Democratic Party, he absolves white people for their treatment of blacks. Slavery, most everyone now admits, was evil, disgusting and morally wrong (its biblical OK notwithstanding). But, Jim Crow, legalized subjugation... Herman Cain's message is that they should not feel badly about it, and thus there is nothing to remedy.

How will Cain respond when asked the inevitable question about displaying the confederate flag? If he says, as I predict he will, that it is up to each state, and that it represents a culture and a heritage in which some people take pride, he will have won the white Southern vote and created a firestorm in the process. Watch for it. It will bigger than anything else in the Republican primary and will be discussed for months. [Imagine a Jewish president of Bavaria defending flying the swastika in front of the parliament as part of the "heritage of the area in which some people take pride"].

Since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights laws in the mid-1960s, predicting that the Democrats would lose the South for at least a generation because of it, the party of Abraham Lincoln marched right into previously forbidden territory with their 'Southern strategy', providing winks, nods and thinly-veiled assurances to white voters that they are really on their side, and that blacks (and their supporters) were uppity, arrogant, undeserving, demanding and receiving special treatment at their expense.

The media that chronicle and expose them, and politicians that impose upon them, are their enemies. Not just opponents, but enemies, denying their legitimacy, their right to be heard and heeded, and rule.

And, the latter -- rule -- is key. The Civil War destroyed their way of life, including their mastery over black people. The compromise of 1876 ending reconstruction was rapidly followed by the passage of the Jim Crow laws that re-established white rule and, more importantly, black subjugation. The Civil Rights movement upended that 80-year-old tradition, and they have been fighting back ever since.

Just a few examples -- Governor McConnell (R-VA) remembering the Civil War without a single reference to slavery; Senator Trent Lott's (R-Mississippi) reference to better times had people elected Strom Thurmond; even the jovial (and non-racist) Ronald Reagan's attempt, withdrawn only when the media howled, to provide federal aid to a college that outlawed interracial dating.

Although white Southerners and their fellow travelers vehemently opposed Barack Obama's candidacy (Obama lost by huge landslides in Kentucky and West Virginia to Hillary Clinton), even they might have been surprised at the depths of their visceral reactions to pictures of Barack Obama actually occupying the White House. He went to Ivy League schools, he speaks better than they do, he taught law -- the idea that he did this without massive, unfair, help from a system that is still punishing them does not register.

All they perceive Herman Cain having done is make pizzas. Obama cooked up inner-city organizations to get something from them. If Cain became wealthy making pizzas, that is not so difficult to embrace. Don't expect Cain to tout his Masters Degree in Computer Science from Purdue, one of the country's top engineering schools. He will prefer to be thought of as the guy who grew up in Georgia, went to an all-black college, and made a lot of money selling pizzas.

It is why the opposition to the president could be so blatantly anti-American (preventing the American people from working so that Obama can be shown to fail), and so obviously violent (arriving at rallies with firearms). Disloyal, unpatriotic, violent -- all true, but they do not stick. That it has found a welcoming home at a major network, FoxNews, is a national disgrace.

And, of course, the examples with respect to President Obama are "TNTC" (too numerous to count). John McCain was born in the Canal Zone, Mitt Romney's father in Mexico -- but whose birth was questioned when they ran for president? George W. Bush stole the 2000 election -- but whose legitimacy was questioned when he won a near-landslide? Although he had almost no contact with his father whatsoever, Gingrich and Huckabee claimed Obama is best understood as a Mau Mau. George W. Bush read from printed speeches and was unable to handle follow-up questions -- but whose intelligence is impugned because he "uses a Teleprompter" despite being able to handle complicated questions and follow ups, by speaking complete sentences and arranging them in paragraphs? Get the "getting special help" element of that?

Herman Cain's candidacy allows those who believe they are entitled to rule because it is "their country", not racial or ethnic minorities', off the hook for their backlash against feeling disenfranchised and unfairly treated. And, if he peels off just 5% of the black vote that would otherwise go to Obama, he makes the general election that much more challenging.

Herman Cain may be the Republicans' great white hope.