In July, Obama’s clumsy criticism of the Cambridge police’s arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates gave his critics a cudgel. Glenn Beck said that Obama was a “racist” who doesn’t like white people. And one of the tea partyers, George Hutchins, a North Carolina congressional candidate, said, “America is a great nation due to our diversity, but only when this diversity is voluntary.”
The hard core was small in number but their influence was magnified. The Republican Party was married to these people because Republican identification was now so low. Republican congressmen were afraid to speak out against the birthers because they were the faithful. Representative Trent Franks told a town hall in rural Arizona that he had considered suing Obama over the birth certificate, and Congresswoman Jean Schmidt of Cincinnati whispered to a birther that she agreed with her at a tea party in September. “Spencer Bachus [of Alabama] has personally identified seventeen socialists in the Congress,” says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann has described Americorps as creating “mandatory … reeducation camps for young people”—echoing a theme of Glenn Beck’s.
In September, the craziness broke. The furor over Obama’s elementary-school speech—was he indoctrinating young minds?—became a reality trap when the speech turned out to be anodyne, even conservative in its ideal of self-reliance. The Republicans’ attempt to bring town-hall rules to the Congress for the president’s speech seemed to backfire when Joe Wilson supplied an entirely different cable story line.
Obama had built a defensive line for civility and reason, and it was starting to hold. He spent parts of the next week reinforcing it aggressively. One of the premises of his campaign was that reason—that elitist tool—was a kind of acid that would erode the divisions between us. But maybe reason wasn’t enough; maybe you couldn’t just turn the other cheek. On 60 Minutes, he dared the right by saying he would “own” health care when it is passed. He told factory workers in Lordstown, Ohio, “I’ve got a ton of fight in me … I’m skinny, but I’m tough.”
Bob Shrum was optimistic, from an electoral standpoint. The Republicans were banking on negativism and failure, and though “we have got to get through a very perilous passage right now,” if Obama could turn the economy around, that is all that matters. The consequences could be a 1964 election, LBJ-Goldwater, overwhelming. And if all the questions the radical right raised about Obamacare were shown to be phantasms, Republicans will have walked into a giant political trap, Shrum says.
“This will turn into a sideshow and backfire. People will see that there is no rationing, no death panels, and it will bring reaction against the people who told us that.”
Thirty percent of the country hated Roosevelt, and that number never really went away, Shrum points out. Ultimately, FDR made hay of this rage. In a 1936 campaign speech in Madison Square Garden he castigated the right as “organized money” and declared: “I welcome their hatred.” Shrum says it took FDR four years in office to arrive at a “progressive confrontational politics.”
Meanwhile, the right is ready. Confrontational politics is all it has. The movement is supple. It changes its message every day. It was fighting back on the racism—there were four black faces on the stage in Scranton that day. When I asked the tea partyers where Obama was born, they got annoyed. “It doesn’t matter now,” one said. “You’re trying to make us into birthers,” said another.
The birthers were an embarrassment, but they had done vital political work: they’d given the right-wing movement a soul, however ugly and false. The right didn’t like the idea of a consensus American culture, and its passion had exposed that notion as a romance of the Obama era, albeit one many of us share.
When Rush Limbaugh talked about "two Americas," he wasn't wrong. The haters' focus on Che Guevara, Saul Alinsky, and Bill Ayers was a kind of projection. They were radicals, and the sixties provided the readiest role models. They were determined to be the counter-counterculture, and they weren't going away.