The Republican Party has talked a lot about the need to re-brand, but the Right has pulled off a very successful re-branding of its own by shifting its imagery from the Confederacy to the American Revolution -- while maintaining the same states' rights message and stamping its anti-government ideology falsely on the Framers of the Constitution.
The Right's re-branding can be seen visually in the downplaying of the Confederacy's battle flag, the "Stars and Bars," and highlighting instead the yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flag of the Revolution. This change, in effect, recognizes that many Americans now find images from the slave-owning South and the Ku Klux Klan as racist and unpalatable.
This Revolution War symbolism has accompanied revolutionary-style rhetoric from the likes of Glenn Beck and other right-wing demagogues who agitate their followers into a violent state of mind. A May 1 poll by Farleigh Dickinson University found that 44 percent of Republicans -- and 29 percent of all Americans -- "think that an armed revolution in order to protect liberties might be necessary in the next few years."
Strident Second Amendment claims are another indication of how the Right has co-opted the Founding era to convince millions of Americans that the elected federal government -- and especially Barack Obama, the first African-American president -- must be resisted with violence. This paranoia has fed into the stockpiling of weapons, apparently for use killing police, soldiers and other government representatives once the revolution begins.
However, the Right's claim to be the heirs to the Framers of the Constitution has required a brazen theft of American history, particularly the ideological kidnapping of James Madison, the Constitution's principal architect. In today's right-wing fantasies, Madison has been reinvented as a states-rights ideologue who always wanted a weak federal government.
The fact that the real James Madison -- along with his ally George Washington -- took nearly the opposite position, disdaining states' rights and favoring a powerful central government has disappeared into a fog of right-wing mythology.
This historical hijacking has been carried out with surprisingly little resistance from mainstream commentators who either don't know the history or don't think the fight is worth having. Yet, ceding the historical narrative to the Right has meant that many Americans now think they are following the guideposts that the Framers left behind when they are actually being led in the opposite direction.
A Unified Nation
Madison and Washington wanted a unified nation that addressed the country's practical needs and overcame the rivalries among the states. "Thirteen sovereignties," Washington wrote, "pulling against each other, and all tugging at the federal head, will soon bring ruin to the whole."
Prior to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison told Washington that the states had to be made "subordinately useful."
However, what modern right-wing propaganda has done is essentially replace the Constitution with what it replaced, the Articles of Confederation, which governed the young nation from 1777 to 1787 and indeed had made the states "sovereign" and "independent" and relegated the central government to a "league of friendship."
Madison and Washington were among the pragmatic nationalists who recognized that the Articles were a disaster threatening the fragile independence and unity of the country.
For instance, both Madison and Washington believed the central government needed the power to regulate national commerce, a reform that Madison tried to get added as an amendment to the Articles of Confederation. Washington, who as commander in chief of the Continental Army had chafed under the states' failures to provide promised arms and money for his soldiers, strongly supported Madison's idea.
Washington called Madison's commerce amendment "so self evident that I confess I am at a loss to discover wherein lies the weight of the objection to the measure. We are either a united people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of a general concern act as a nation, which have national objects to promote, and a national character to support. If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending it to be."
After Madison's commerce amendment died in the Virginia legislature -- and as Shays' Rebellion shook western Massachusetts in 1786 while the central government was powerless to intervene -- Madison and Washington turned to the more radical concept of a Constitutional Convention. Here is how historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg describe Madison's thinking in their 2010 book,Madison and Jefferson: