All around were satanic representations of President Barack Obama in whiteface, as a Nazi, an African witch doctor, a Marxist, a Muslim, and Che Guevara’s best friend—but Kathy Golya had never felt so good about the new administration as she did right now. It was a day after Representative Joe Wilson’s outburst in Congress, and the South Carolina congressman had given voice to Golya’s inner heart. He hadn’t just said it on the Internet, he had said it to the president himself.
No, it was not the appropriate place, Golya said, but still she glowed with the memory. “It was the first time in my life I felt good, since he got into office. Someone had called him a liar.”
A prim, slender homemaker in her fifties from northeastern Pennsylvania, Golya had come out to a tea party in Scranton with her friend Donna Biscontini to have solidarity with everyone else with strong criticisms of the president. Not really criticisms, actually, but feelings—anger, upset, a sense of dispossession. There had been a kind of revolution in the country with Obama’s election, the women felt. They talked about the president’s “czars.” One of the czars believed that animals should have lawyers to sue their owners. “Animals have more rights than people,” Biscontini said. Another was for forced sterilization. “Who’s that sound like? Hitler,” Golya said. The president was putting himself at a godly level, was her point; he was saying that man controls his destiny, not God. She saw that as arrogance. She mentioned that the president’s wife wore $600 shoes when she was helping the poor.
Golya, who was Kittykat on the Internet, saw her conflict with Obama as a battle of souls. She prayed for the president every day. “For his conversion.”
I asked her if she thought he was a secret Muslim. “Only he knows that; we don’t know that,” she said. “I’m praying for the conversion of his heart.”
That was as charitable a view of Obama as one could find at the rally in Scranton, or in Washington, D.C., two days later. The images were frightening. Obama with a Hitler mustache. Obama morphed to Heath Ledger’s Joker. Obama, Parasite in Chief. Obama the Muslim, Obama the Marxist. Even Obama the Antichrist: Jesus is the Messiah, not Obama.
A burly Pennsylvania correction officer named David McElwee held up a poster of Obama photoshopped as a half-naked African native in a hut with a grass skirt and a bone in his nose. That was Obamacare, “voodoo” health care, McElwee said.
This wasn’t politics, exactly, or at least it didn’t start as politics. It came from deeper down, from a stirring pot of disaffection and resentment that made the president a kind of fantasy villain. They dreamt about him. Obama was, quite literally, their nightmare. “They conjure up all these blood-and-soil feelings about Obama as a stranger, that’s what’s nasty about it,” says David Bromwich, a Yale scholar of literature and political thought.
The force and durability of the conjurers surprised everybody. Last winter and spring, the tea-party protests seemed wonky and anemic, and the anger feigned, and Democrats wrote the demonstrations off as Astroturf grassroots. But in the ensuing months, with the help of talk-show hosts Rush Limbaugh and then Glenn Beck, the attacks became more extreme and more personal, and the emotions caught fire. By July, the town halls had begun, with demonstrations against the president’s health-care-reform initiative, and the far right felt its power. “You can’t put this genie back in the bottle, it doesn’t matter what the corporate media say,” said World Net Daily’s Joseph Farah. At their rallies, this ragtag army exuded confidence that they would plague this president for years, just as Clinton and Bush had been defined by their haters. The liberal media finally began to label the Obama loonies as racist in mid-September, but where had they been all summer?
And where was Obama himself—as the separate reality grew like a second head on the American polity? He was being restrained and professorial, following the conventional wisdom that the crazies would drive moderates into his arms and leave the Republican Party in the wilderness for decades. Democratic operatives still argue this is the case, but the noise on the right has had an effect. The haters, amplified by cable news, had made him seem weak, a stunning achievement by the opposition. Maybe the pragmatism and absence of drama read as passive, and America abhors passive, needing drama. Obama had promised that reason and civility, once reintroduced in Washington, would win the day. But was that another elitist conceit?
A conversation about tactics ensued. Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs dismissed the town-hall madness as the “silly season,” but as it dawned on many Democrats that craziness was not necessarily a disqualifier for participating in the country’s political conversation, it raised private concerns about the limits of Obama’s political gifts. Some wished he had more of LBJ in him. “He’s never been a leader,” said one Democrat. Or, for that matter, more of Richard Nixon. “If I could get one message to David Axelrod, it’s that he should start talking about the silent majority,” said another Democrat.
Meanwhile, tea partyers were putting themselves forward as America’s last hope. PRAY FOR TIME, said Margie Souder’s sign in Scranton. What did that mean? It’s a prayer that the movement will not go away before the country is lost to Obama’s godlessness, she said. Well, he prays, too, doesn’t he? “To Allah. Or somebody,” she said, and on the stage, Deborah Johns, one of the movement’s more prominent figures, said, “I do not want a president that bows to the king of Saudi Arabia.”
GO GET EM GLENN, said another sign, referring to the leader of the new movement, pink-faced neotenic Glenn Beck, the Fox talk-show host who was famous for crying and laughing in rapid succession, and exhorting his watchers to prayer. Beck claimed to be bi-partisan—or bipolar, Jon Stewart joked—but his bi-partisanship was that of the period just after September 11, when all but a minority of Democrats supported President Bush. Limbaugh, with his sharp-elbowed political attacks, may have been the de facto leader of the Republican Party, but Beck’s impressionistic style made him the prince of this new dream politics. Beck went non-linear, anti-factual, mixing the Empire State Building in with the Freedom Tower. He merged the community organization ACORN with the Democratic National Committee, suggesting that America had been taken over by a socialist virus that real Americans had to oppose. He was fearful, overwrought, oddly childlike, an unlikely movement father figure. “Our freedom and liberty is so fragile right now, we should whisper her name because too loud of a voice could shatter it,” he said in July.
Nuts. Yet what did that word even mean now? “In the early sixties, you had the John Birch Society saying the same kind of nutty things. It never made it into the mainstream,” says Robert Shrum, the longtime political consultant. “The editors of the New York Times or L.A. Times or Washington Post decided what was going to appear.” Reporter Brooks Jackson of Factcheck.org says, “We used to be gatekeepers, back when there were gates. But now you see elected officials standing up and echoing some of the most bizarre, weird, false information we see on chain e-mails.” The left blogosphere spent a lot of energy refuting the crazies—but even as they refuted them, their alternative reality grew, and maybe their power too.
The birther question has been pressed by about a dozen imaginative activists over the last year—chiefly Orly Taitz, a California dentist, Phil Berg, a Philadelphia lawyer, and World Net Daily, a right-wing online publication. Each built large, and apparently lucrative, followings on the web, and the Republican Party needed the birthers too much to throw them under the bus. Republican identification was near historic lows, 21 percent, and of that number, a goodly percentage were only too willing to accept the worst claims about the president. A Daily Kos survey in midsummer said that 58 percent of Republicans nationwide questioned whether the president was born in the United States. That finding—by a left-wing blog, but still—was echoed by a Public Policy Polling survey of last week saying that 33 percent of New Jersey Republicans believed that Obama was not a citizen—and 14 percent thought he was the Antichrist. “This is nothing new,” says Michael Lind, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, pointing out that “folk conservatism” has been a force in American politics at least since Andrew Jackson.
Joe Wilson wasn’t the only Republican congressman in sync with that culture. Spencer Bachus, Jean Schmidt, Trent Franks, and the inevitable Michele Bachmann, even Chuck Grassley. Few were willing to contradict the birthers. The party simply didn’t have any other engine. At the September 12 rally in Washington, South Carolina’s Jim DeMint, clad in flannel, said he was more comfortable with the people in the crowd than he was with his fellow senators. He stood not far from signs with swastikas, and DON’T TREAD ON ME signs with coiled rattlesnakes. Meanwhile, news reports said death threats to the president were up 400 percent from the Bush years.
Throughout the spring and into the summer, the conventional wisdom was that the movement’s influence would be in inverse proportion to its insanity. Centrist intellectuals like David Brooks, David Frum, and Sam Tanenhaus worried that by attaching itself to a fantasy politics, the Republican Party would forfeit its claim to be able to govern in the real world. It is not the first time that argument has been made. Two generations ago, during the Goldwater campaign, Columbia political historian Richard Hofstadter watched angry and suspicious minds gathering in reaction to the civil-rights movement and the nuclear-test ban and said that “the paranoid style in American politics” was a distraction. The American process works through “consensus” and “comity,” while these folk falsely understood history as a vast conspiracy or a “moral melodrama.” They were never coming in, Hofstadter said—and joked that they should be shipped to mental asylums.
Hofstadter was famously wrong. Angry crowds played a large role in our unfolding history. Mobs created movements, then establishment figures channeled the anger into conventional politics, moving the line in their direction. Beginning in the sixties, sympathetic elder William F. Buckley managed to sort out the nuts, and by 1980 ideological conservatives captured the White House under Ronald Reagan and dominated the next era in politics.
Now the mob was back out on the street, in full throat, sounding a little like the New Left of the sixties. Glenn Beck had used socialist and communist designs in his own militant logos (the L.A. Times reported), and Rush Limbaugh railed against the “state-run media.” That old cry on the left, “What is reality?”—as if the consensus were something manufactured by corporate tools—had been picked up by the right wing.
Considering all the free-floating fury against our first black president, it seems a historical accident that Obama did not get Swiftboated in 2008. Indeed, one of the central claims of the new right is that adoring media failed to vet Obama and so they are doing the job now. The Jeremiah Wright story basically went away after Obama’s March 2008 race speech in Philadelphia, even though Hillary and Bill Clinton plucked at the stranger chord—Obama wasn’t a Muslim “as far as I know,” Hillary said. John McCain was himself moved by the ascension of an African-American and restrained nativist resentment toward his opponent. Even as he chose Sarah Palin, McCain held her back, a sideshow, albeit one that often overshadowed the main event and prefigured this summer’s circus. That season of reasonableness may have left the Obama administration too confident in its ability to ignore the smears.
The questions about Obama’s legitimacy exploded this July after angry people at town halls held up their own birth certificates and challenged Obama to produce his own, and Lou Dobbs, who runs a strongly anti-immigration show on CNN, picked up the claim. The birthers were born. But the thread has been with us over a year. Back in spring 2008, nascent Obama haters found Obama too exotic to believe, and began looking around for anything they could get against him. One rumor went that his real middle name was Muhammad.
“We got e-mail queries—‘Has Obama produced a birth certificate?’—back in the spring during the primaries,” says Jackson of Factcheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Center. “I blame the whole birther movement on bad PR by the Obama campaign. They really bungled it.”
In June 2008, the campaign posted a scan of a document called a “Certification of Live Birth” for Barack Hussein Obama II that the Hawaii Department of Health had generated the year before so that Obama could get on ballots nationwide. But it wasn’t a good scan, and the campaign blacked out the number on the document (manipulating it, Jackson says) and not showing the raised seal. The haters said it was a forgery. “We kept pinging [the Obama campaign] about it,” Jackson says, but not for two months did the campaign invite Factcheck.org to its Chicago headquarters to photograph the document and offer much better pictures online.
Not that it made much difference. Where was the vault copy of the birth certificate showing mother and father’s names? What about the height and weight of the baby? “A video of Obama being born in Honolulu with Don Ho playing ukulele in the background would not dispel a thing with these people,” says John Berryhill, an Obama supporter who fights the smears online. “Any additional statement or clarification is a ‘contradiction’ or leaves ‘unanswered questions.’ These are very concrete thinkers who are so fixated on a conclusion that you might as well try to figure out a strategy for converting the pope to Islam. It’s just not going to happen.”
The Philadelphia lawyer is an Obot, the name that Obama haters have given to the Obama supporters who jump into their chat rooms with contradictory evidence. Oddly, a good number of the Obama haters were Pumas—Party Unity My Ass Democrats, who were angered that Hillary had lost the nomination. By the time of Obama’s nomination in Denver, a former Hillary supporter, a Philadelphia attorney named Phil Berg urged on by a Texas investigator who goes by Linda Starr, sued Democratic officials, saying they had a duty to determine whether Obama was a natural-born citizen, or NBC. Berg saw “overwhelming” evidence that Obama was born in Kenya and has accused Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi of “aiding and abetting an enemy.”
What did it matter that two Hawaii newspapers had printed Obama’s birth announcement in August 1961? They’d been hoodooed. The unreality taps into fierce currents, unease about dark-skinned immigrants and worldliness. “I believe he is a secret Muslim,” Starr said. She owed it to her children to expose this, because her ancestors came here before the Revolution. “I believe this country is in my DNA … It is my responsibility not to lose this country on my watch.”
Race flickers in and out of Berg’s conversation. He says he’s a lifetime member of the NAACP, but that Democrats were hell-bent to get a black president and that he never knows how black people are going to respond when they see his card, Obamacrimes.com. Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race left him cold. “That was the one where he threw his grandmother under the bus. His white grandmother,” Berg said, referring to Obama’s statement that his own grandmother feared blacks in the streets of Honolulu.
Last December, Phil Berg held a press conference at the National Press Club and met up with a California dentist-cum-attorney named Orly Taitz. With her blonde helmet hair, heavy eye makeup, and baton twirler’s figure, Taitz has been called the lost Gabor sister by Jon Stewart. Taitz got here by way of Russia and Israel. She likens Obama to Shabbatai Tzvi, the false messiah of Jewish history, and the godless Soviets she’d escaped.
“I’ve been there, done that. There’s a real danger of coup d’état if somebody who is unlawful takes over the government,” she says.
The campaign to delegitimize the president was burgeoning even as Obama was inaugurated. “The right went from zero to 100 in about three weeks,” Eric Boehlert of Media Matters says. For all its loopy free association, the movement was following a historical playbook. Clinton provides the most recent model for how a margin could catalyze the mainstream. Remember that the Arkansas troopers had gotten together in that first spring, 1993, to talk about Clinton’s past. The Travel Office fiasco was in the spring, and Whitewater started to percolate. Vince Foster died in July, and the story never went away.
When Taitz attended a machine-gun shoot in Knob Creek, Kentucky, it seemed an echo of the militia movement of the Clinton nineties. For his part, Phil Berg seems eager to channel Ken Starr. Sitting at a lunch place in Philly, Berg dreams about deposing the president and exposing him as a fraud.
“I’d try to lay a foundation. First of all, ‘Where were you born?’ Some people say, ‘How can you ask him that question? He doesn’t know when he was born! He was a little baby!’ I say, please—I don’t remember being born, exactly, but … I know I was born in a certain place, a certain hospital. And we’re not dealing with a stupid individual. He knows what’s going on, he knows he’s not legit. So I would lay the foundation.”
His fantasy questions get more elaborate. How did you afford to go to Pakistan during college? What passport did you carry? Who financed you?
At Berg’s side was another birther, Henry, whom Berg had saved from jail in Family Court that morning on allegations of failing to pay his former wife $8,000 in child support. Henry is in construction. He’s lost work to immigrants but has a ready smile. I asked him why is he into this stuff.
“I was in the Navy for six years. I caught the tail end of the Vietnam War … I did my six years … There’s a million other guys out there like me. Well, to have somebody just walk in and throw the Constitution on the ground like it’s a piece of crap. What are we fighting for if someone from another country can walk in here, take over the damn presidency, and none of us has the stones to stand up for it?”
Lest there’s any doubt about birthers being part of the base, the Republican National Committee was buying a mailing list from the organization, World Net Daily, that was putting up billboards asking, WHERE’S THE BIRTH CERTIFICATE? World Net Daily editor Joseph Farah concedes that Obama was probably born in Honolulu but speculates that his parents weren’t the parents he says he had. Farah points to a purported record he’s put online showing that Obama’s putative mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, then 18, enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle on August 19, 1961. “How do you give birth on August 4 and wind up in class fifteen days later? It’s inexplicable. The flight from Hawaii to Seattle in 1961 took nine hours. An extraordinary story. Implausible.”
At least Farah is up-front about the hatred. “I don’t like Obama. I make no secret of it,” Farah says. “I don’t think he has a redeeming quality in his soul. I’d like to see him turned out of office as soon as possible. We don’t know who this guy is. He’s a total mystery. His life story as told in his autobiography could be a total sham.”
Another Farah contributor was onto the autobiography as a sham. Jack Cashill, a Kansas City writer, was so blown away by the writing of the book he did not believe that Obama had done it himself. He became convinced that former Weatherman Bill Ayers had written it and that this undermined Obama’s central achievement prior to the presidency: as a wordsmith. Being a writer, I found Cashill’s theory at least plausible: “But JFK had help, didn’t he? Didn’t Ted Sorensen write Profiles in Courage?”
“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.
The hearing was part Coen brothers, part Tarantino, a comedy of grotesque threats, in which half the participants were pretending they were tough guys and half were pretending they were quaking in fear. Berg brought up one witness after another who was afraid of Ed Hale and his radio friends. “Don’t laugh. When I get in my car, I put my key in the ignition, I turn it and run. I’m afraid it’s going to blow up,” testified Lisa Liberi, Berg’s assistant, a petite blonde.
The judge seemed to find Berg’s accusations implausible. “So far, you’re a little bit off course, Mr. Berg. You’re not making a lot of inroads.”
“They’ve threatened to kill us,” Berg ally Lisa Ostella testified about Taitz’s followers. She was so afraid that she had brought her children to the courthouse that day. “They’ve threatened to put us down, they’ve called us poisonous snakes and rabid dogs and Satan’s followers.”
The judge said he would take the issues under advisement. Outside in the hallway later, Ostella got back on message. She said the birth-certificate issue has made Obama the laughingstock of the world.
“We have Russian subs right off the East Coast right now. This undermines his authority. The Politburo is going to say, ‘Who are you? You’re not a legitimate president.’ ”
Hale’s threats were directed not only at his birther colleagues. Barry of Alaska, an Obot who’s a 747 pilot, showed me this e-mail from Hale:
“hey Barry, my group just reported to me that they know who you are, where you live at and even have your phone number. They are asking me to let them visit you, but I told them to hold their horses. Now if you and I cam come to a understanding, you leave me alone and I will leave you alone. Now you fuck with me and they will fuck you up. Got it sonny boy. BTW, I would be very cautious when I answer the door, can never tell who it will be and if it is my friends they will have company with them, maybe Remington, glock, or even old Winchester will be with them… Ok your choice buddy, leave me alone or it’s fucking bye bye to Barry baby.”
I asked Hale about the e-mail to Barry. “I have never threatened anyone with physical harm,” he said.
This was the real concern raised by the haters. Violent fantasies, even cartoonish ones, as these seemed to be, have a way of turning real. Nancy Pelosi has likened the hateful rhetoric boiling up during the health-care debate to the anti-gay reaction that formed against the gay-rights movement in San Francisco in the seventies, culminating of course in the murder of mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk. Before John Kennedy was assassinated, right-wingers in Texas accused him of “treason.” Today’s Obama haters throw that word around more often than the left had thrown around Fascism. At an Obama town hall in New Hampshire, a man carried a gun along with a poster of a DON’T TREAD ON ME snake with the legend IT IS TIME TO WATER THE TREE OF LIBERTY, referring to the Thomas Jefferson quote about renewing the republic with blood.
Ed Hale was obviously a bullshitter, but he took it way too far. A minute after he said he’d never ever threaten anyone’s life, he said, “My biggest villain right now is Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. Those jackasses should be found guilty of treason, stood up against a wall, and shot.”
At the height of the tea-party moment in late August, 250 people jammed into a steamy VFW hall in Queens, and Phil Orenstein, a Beckstepper, said, “This is starting a tremendous movement … This awakening, what we call an awakening in America … It is the beginning of a great new movement in America.”
The mood of the hall was angry and sour. With one or two exceptions, the folks were white. Several carried don’t tread on me flags, a man in a black suit shouted that the government regarded him as a terrorist because of his love of the Second Amendment, and a featured speaker, a young birther, jounced her fourth child against her hip as she said, nearly shrieking, that government social workers had asked her about whether she was a homosexual when she was getting government-paid medical treatment. Outside on Braddock Avenue, a woman with a sign cried out to another, “Send them back to Mecca!” Maybe referring to all the Asians in the neighborhood.
All kinds of hate was playing through the anti-Obama movement. Rush Limbaugh made anal jokes about Barney Frank. Confederate-flag stuff showed up in the crowds, and Ed Hale regularly called Michelle Obama a “gorilla.” In his book The Obama Nation, Jerome Corsi characterizes Obama’s family as “strangers,” saying that the president’s mother “chose another Third World prospect for her second husband, a second man of color to be her mate.” Slimy. But not shocking.
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.