Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin started taking some heat after Right Wing Watch called attention to his Values Voter Summit speech, in which he suggested that the election of Hillary Clinton might require conservatives to shed some blood in order to preserve American freedom, referencing the well-known Thomas Jefferson statement, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
Bevin responded to the criticism by suggesting that his remarks were being misrepresented: “Any intelligent person can understand the message I delivered,” he said in a statement. Bevin told a reporter at the Lexington Herald-Leader that his comments were about "military sacrifice" and the need for Americans to back the “thousands of men and women in uniform fighting for us overseas.” But, as journalist Matthew Yglesias wrote, Bevin’s actual speech “is completely at odds” with that claim, which The Atlantic’s David Graham called “pure spin.” Bevin, noted Yglesias, was “clearly talking about patriots winning back liberty from the tyranny of Democratic Party governance.”
Bevin has urged his Twitter followers to listen to his entire 15-minute speech. Fair enough. We took another listen, and it doesn’t support Bevin’s after-the-fact explanation. Bevin’s focus was on pushing on culture wars in the U.S., about which he promoted the Religious Right’s narrative that liberals are enemies of freedom who are out to silence Christians:
You wonder, how does this happen? You look at the opportunities for us to be silent. You look at the degradation of things that are happening in our society. You look at the atrocity of abortion. So many have remained silent. It’s a slippery slope. First we’re killing children, then it’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Now it’s this gender-bending kind of don’t ask, don’t be a, don’t be a, you know, a bigot, don’t be unreasonable, don’t be unenlightened, heaven forbid. Just keep your mouth shut. I encourage you young people, step up and be bold, don’t keep your mouth shut.
Bevin emphasized the urgent need for social conservatives to be passionate and active in this year’s election:
I asked you at the beginning, why are you here? I’m guessing in some measure because you’re worried. You are concerned for the direction of this nation. Perhaps you want a better America, I’m guessing you do. How badly do you want it? Do you want it as badly as the people who came over here on rickety boats, risking their lives for the very freedoms we so apathetically disregard and take for granted? Do you want it that badly? Do you want it as badly as the men who, if they were lucky enough in the winter of 1776 to even own shoes, ate their shoes to keep from starving to death? Do you want it that badly? Do you want it as badly as… young men who stepped off transport carriers on Omaha Beach, knowing that they wouldn’t be likely to get more than ten yards up that beach, seeing their buddies…Do we want it that badly? I tell you if we don’t want it that badly, we don’t deserve it.
Who are we to think that somehow our generation is going to be the first generation to benefit from all the sacrifices that others have made without giving some modern-day equivalent of our own lives, fortunes and sacred honor? Step up! Be bold. This is not a time to have a spirit of timidity, but of power, of love and of what? Discipline. Discipline requires an intentional amount of proactivity on our part, to take in but to give back, to make calls like you’ve never made calls, to knock doors like you’ve never knocked doors, to alert people, to sound the alarm, to be the watchmen on the wall because it doesn’t do us any good if we see and we do, because we sit on the wall, what is happening in America and we keep our mouths shut. Sound the alarm! Sound the trumpet! Wake up! Wake others up!
Now, there’s no problem with Bevin exhorting people to take an active role in the political process. The problem, as we reported previously, is that Bevin said that if conservatives aren’t successful fighting for America ideologically, and Hillary Clinton gets elected, conservative activists and their children and grandchildren might have to make it a physical fight:
Somebody asked me yesterday, I did an interview and they said, “Do you think it’s possible, if Hillary Clinton were to win the election, do you think it’s possible that we’ll be able to survive? That we would ever be able to recover as a nation? And while there are people who have stood on this stage and said we would not, I would beg to differ.
But I will tell you this: I do think it would be possible, but at what price? At what price? The roots of the tree of liberty are watered by what? The blood, of who? The tyrants to be sure, but who else? The patriots. Whose blood will be shed? It may be that of those in this room. It might be that of our children and grandchildren. I have nine children. It breaks my heart to think that it might be their blood that is needed to redeem something, to reclaim something, that we through our apathy and our indifference have given away.
Bevin made comments similar to those in his Values Voter speech in an interview with LifeZette this week in which he warned Never Trump conservatives, “Falling on one’s sword in principle and dying in a remote corner of the battlefield as the war rages on serves no purpose whatsoever.” In the interview it is also clear that Bevin is talking about the potential for violence if conservative culture warriors aren’t successful politically:
"We’re at a crossroads in America, is what we hear, Bevin said. "But I truly believe that it’s a fork in the road, that it’s not really a crossroad — we don’t have multiple choices — we’re going to go one way or we’re going to go the other way," he said.
"The values, the Judeo-Christian principles upon which this nation was built upon which Kentucky itself and its constitution was founded are under assault intentionally and unintentionally," he continued.
…"We’re at a fork in the road and we going to go towards a more godless, more corrupt bureaucratic, more authoritarian approach or we have the opportunity to do something different," he said.
"Our founding fathers knew and said that the roots of liberty are watered by the blood of tyrants and the blood of patriots," Bevin said. "If we don’t step up when we have a chance to engage ideologically, philosophically, politically — then we will ultimately find ourselves forced to the point that as a people we will be forced to shed the blood of both tyrant and patriots."
"Could we recover, conceivably so, but it will come at a price that none of us would want to bear nor would we want our children or grandchildren to bear that and that is why this election matters so so much," said Bevin.
Bevin’s comments, of course, are not made in a vacuum. They come after years in which Tea Party activists portrayed President Obama as an America-hater who wants to bring down the U.S. And they come in the context of Religious Right leaders arguing that equality for LGBT people is an attack on faith and freedom.
Anti-government activists have used Jefferson’s “tree of liberty” phrase as warning to the federal government on issues ranging from health care reform to gun control to public land use. In fact, Timothy McVeigh was wearing a T-shirt with that quote on it when he was arrested 90 minutes after bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jay Bookman said Bevin’s comments contained “layers of dangerous nonsense.” Wrote Bookman:
In the past few weeks we’ve seen people go all but apoplectic because a black football player simply declined to stand for the national anthem. We’ve seen demands that Colin Kaepernick be fired from his job; Donald Trump even suggested that Kaepernick leave the country.
Yet here we have an elected leader, raised to one of the highest positions of authority in the land, publicly advocating armed insurrection as a valid and even necessary response to political defeat. This isn’t some powerless, frustrated 20-year-old spouting off, this is a 49-year-old governor who has raised his right hand and solemnly sworn to “support the Constitution of the United States” suggesting that violence may be the only recourse of patriots should someone other than his choice be elected president under the terms and processes laid out in that same Constitution…
This is dangerous, volatile and profoundly irresponsible. It is the paranoiac gutter talk of the worst recesses of the Internet given voice by a person in power to an apparently receptive audience in our nation’s capital, and down that path lies disaster.