“It’s like if Che Guevara had written Profiles in Courage,” Cashill says, seizing on the left-wing revolutionary hero whose image crops up with surprising frequency on posters in the tea-party rallies. “If people had known before the election, 1960, not only had JFK not written Profiles in Courage but his old man bought him the Pulitzer Prize, that would have cost him the election.”
Then Cashill injected the race issue. He said he had been embarrassed to buy Obama’s book in the Detroit airport, but the black clerk had been gushing and thrilled. What did race have to do with authorship?
The Obama people at first thought that the birthers would simply go away or, maybe even better, lead the Republican Party into the light of truth, where the party would continue to shrivel. That didn’t happen.
Robert Gibbs twice addressed the birther issue when he called on World Net Daily’s Lester Kinsolving at daily briefings. In May, Kinsolving said that 400,000 people had signed a petition demanding the president’s birth certificate, and Gibbs doubled over laughing. “I certainly hope by the fourth year of our administration that we’ll have dealt with this burgeoning birth controversy.” Later, Gibbs joked, “I will seek to interview whoever brought the president into this world,” before urging Kinsolving to dig up the “noble truth” that Obama was born in Hawaii.
The Obots took the movement more seriously, even fearfully. On Politijab, a pro-Obama website, a group of assiduous Obots set to work to debunk the stories about Obama out of concern that they will take on a life of their own. Or worse. “It only takes one armed lunatic to create a tragedy,” one Obot said to me.
Obama’s people were more restrained. “It seems that at any official level, the strategy settled to the simple principle of ‘Please don’t feed the animals,’ ” Berryhill says.
Where was Obama, as the alternate reality grew like a second head on the American polity?
The fact that the administration and much of the media ignored them just confirmed the Obama haters’ belief that Obama and his allies are out-of-touch, big-government elitists. The tea partyers sought a return to deep tradition and personal liberty. They were against the czars and all the Ivy League résumés, they blamed Obama for replacing their sampler America with a multicultural new world order. Glenn Beck constantly quoted Founding Fathers in his campaign to “take our country back.” Back where? A sign at the Scranton tea party said, the answer to 2009 is 1776. Nearby, Margie Souder said that Martha Washington reached for the Bible every morning to navigate her life.
Sometimes Beck was in tears, sometimes his voice went off in that skittering laugh. Or he was telling people to get down on their knees to pray for the country. He fulfilled Richard Hofstadter’s famous dictum at the onset of the Goldwater movement 45 years ago that right-wing radicalism was produced by economic dislocation and “status anxiety.” Hofstadter was offended that Goldwater was crowding the public square with “amateurs” and “provincials,” “ultras and cranks.”
The Hofstadter theory that American politics moves forward through “consensus” and “comity” and “harmony” is surely attractive to Barack Obama, who broke into the national consciousness with a speech promising to end the opposition of red and blue states. But where’s the evidence of that transformation?
The right-wing movement that Hofstadter believed would never get into the White House did just that. For roughly 40 years, from Richard Nixon through George W. Bush, a coalition built on conservative orthodoxy was the “sun” of American politics, while the Democratic left was the lesser “moon,” as Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times’ “Week in Review” and Book Review, writes in his new book, The Death of Conservatism. Tanenhaus says that this conservative orthodoxy found many a mainstream political lodging along the way, from Senator Joe McCarthy to Newt Gingrich to Pat Buchanan and Tom DeLay.
“Channeled into the normative institutions of electoral politics—its parties, its campaigns, its candidates,” Tanenhaus writes, the conservatives “seldom took to the streets.” They didn’t have to. Now they do.
The sun and the moon have switched places, and Obama is trying to mobilize a majority on the basis of reasonableness, cool pragmatism, and the power of facts. Is that his fantasy?
Building a movement on madness presents another kind of challenge, and by mid-August, the birthers, at the height of their influence, were coming apart. Berg’s group went so far as to sue Taitz’s group in federal court in Philadelphia, with each side saying the other was wittingly or unwittingly helping Obama. “It’s East Birthistan versus West Birthistan, the paranoia has turned in on itself,” said Obot John Berryhill.
The center of Berg’s suit concerned threats made by Taitz’s former ally Ed Hale on his Internet radio show against Berg and some of his cohorts.