Sunday, February 21, 2010

Why They Hate Obama

A few days ago, The New York Times published a featured piece on the rising Tea Party movement that is sweeping over America. Although the article contained many valuable insights into the type of person who chooses to associate with this organization, the most telling portions of that paper's analysis came in these paragraphs:

The ebbs and flows of the Tea Party ferment are hardly uniform. It is an amorphous, factionalized uprising with no clear leadership and no centralized structure. Not everyone flocking to the Tea Party movement is worried about dictatorship. Some have a basic aversion to big government, or Mr. Obama, or progressives in general. What’s more, some Tea Party groups are essentially appendages of the local Republican Party...

Local Tea Party groups are often loosely affiliated with one of several competing national Tea Party organizations. In the background, offering advice and organizational muscle, are an array of conservative lobbying groups, most notably FreedomWorks. Further complicating matters, Tea Party events have become a magnet for other groups and causes — including gun rights activists, anti-tax crusaders, libertarians, militia organizers, the “birthers” who doubt President Obama’s citizenship, Lyndon LaRouche supporters and proponents of the sovereign states movement.

It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny. This narrative permeates Tea Party Web sites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos. It is a prominent theme of their favored media outlets and commentators, and it connects the disparate issues that preoccupy many Tea Party supporters — from the concern that the community organization Acorn is stealing elections to the belief that Mr. Obama is trying to control the Internet and restrict gun ownership. trumpets “exclusives” reporting that the Army is seeking “Internment/Resettlement” specialists. On, bloggers warn that Mr. Obama is trying to convert Interpol, the international police organization, into his personal police force. They call on “fellow Patriots” to “grab their guns.”

Mr. Beck frequently echoes Patriot rhetoric, discussing the possible arrival of a “New World Order” and arguing that Mr. Obama is using a strategy of manufactured crisis to destroy the economy and pave the way for dictatorship.

At recent Tea Party events around the country, these concerns surfaced repeatedly.

Many Americans are frightened of the Tea Party movement - not only liberals such as myself, but moderates, independents, and even a growing number of conservative intellectuals (like David Frum and Richard Cohen). All of them are correct in feeling grave apprehension, although I fear they are mistaken as to why they ought to. What is worrisome about the Tea Party movement isn't the radicalism of their doctrine, or the ease with which they fall prey to absurd conspiracy theories, or their tendency to lap up the rhetoric of vapid demagogues like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. All of these things, though legitimately disturbing, have easily identifiable precedents in American history: Paleoconservative ideas can be traced as far back as the days of Robert Taft and Homer Capehart, outlandish conservative conspiracy theories about the left have existed since the heyday of the Antimasonic party; and when it comes to charisma, eloquence, and sheer malevolence, Palin and Beck have nothing on erstwhile right-wing stemwinders like Joe McCarthy and George Wallace.

No, when it comes to maniacal right-wing hatred of everything and everyone liberal, the Tea Party movement of today is not that much different from its predecessors. The antecedents of the Tea Partiers could be found denouncing Thomas Jefferson as a Jacobin, Andrew Jackson as a madman, Abraham Lincoln as a tyrant, and Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton as Socialists and/or Communists (apparently they ran out of epithets in the 1930s).

So why should today's Tea Party movement cause such consternation? It is because, unlike its predecessors, it doesn't seem to coalesce around any single issue. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with their agendas, the right-wing populist movements of times past were at least able to unite around specific subjects, and thus manufacture organizations that at least possessed the semblance of ideological consistency. Anti-Jacksonians focused on his opposition to Nicholas Biddle's National Bank; haters of Lincoln harped about the Railsplitter's positions on states' rights and slavery; adversaries of Roosevelt focused on the New Deal and, later on, the prosecution of the Second World War; and right-wing enemies of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson would denounce their expansions of New Deal policy (via the New Frontier, Great Society, and War on Poverty) and their support of civil rights for African-Americans (they also accused Kennedy of being a lackey for the Vatican).

This isn't to say that a plethora of other groups didn't coalesce around the right-wingers who opposed those previous presidents; any movement, to be effective, needs to expand beyond the parameters of the initial issues that brought it into existence and open their arms in welcome to a wide range of other interest groups and ideological factions. That said, no matter how diverse any such coalition became, there was ultimately a single issue or set of issues that served as a nucleus, a rallying point, at the center of the larger organization. The fact that this is transparently not the case with the Tea Party movement disturbs me to no end. While their organizations are rife with subscribers to the most noxious conspiracy theories about Obama - that he is a socialist, that he wasn't born in this country, that he is a secret Muslim - no single one of those convictions, no matter how absurd, has seemed to define any of the rallies and organizational meetings that take place for the Tea Partiers. Although they claim to oppose Obama's health care reform plan and economic stimulus package, these movements sprang into existence before any details about his policies in either area came to public light -and even after those details were released, Tea Partiers became notorious for being woefully misinformed as to their contents. Indeed, Tea Partiers could be found before Barack Obama was even elected president, such as when Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher confronted Obama on how his tax policies would destroy "the American dream", or when wrathful citizens would shout out their desire to murder then-Senator Obama in the middle of then-Governor Sarah Palin's speeches.

What it comes down to is this: the Tea Partiers don't really have a "movement" at all. At least, they don't have a "movement" in the sense that the leftists who wanted to end the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, or the right-wingers who wanted to illegalize abortion and ban gay marriage, possessed a movement. They are, rather, a hodgepodge of right-wing zealots - some new to politics, some not-so-new, and more than a few claiming to be new when they are not - who don't seem to be united on any single subject except for one - the fact that they really, really hate Barack Obama.

The obvious question that no one seems to ask is, in light of the absence of any clear and consistent reason, why do the Tea Partiers hate Barack Obama? Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the ideas of past right-wing populist movements, at the very least they hated their liberal leaders for specific, clear-cut reasons (albeit ones that history has usually deemed either shockingly idiotic - such as claims that FDR and JFK were Communist traitors - or morally abhorrent, such as despising JFK and LBJ for helping African-Americans). The fact that the anti-Obama movement seems to have, as its fundamental objection, WHO OBAMA IS and instead of what they believe (accurately or inaccurately) Obama will do, it becomes increasingly clear that the elephant in the room - the one explanation that so many of us have on the tips of their brains, but are afraid to articulate - needs to be voiced.

Jimmy Carter put it best:

I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African-American.

Later on, he elaborated:

When a radical fringe element of demonstrators and others begin to attack the president of the United States as an animal or as a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler or when they wave signs in the air that said we should have buried Obama with Kennedy, those kinds of things are beyond the bounds.

I think people who are guilty of that kind of personal attack against Obama have been influenced to a major degree by a belief that he should not be president because he happens to be African American.

It's a racist attitude, and my hope is and my expectation is that in the future both Democratic leaders and Republican leaders will take the initiative in condemning that kind of unprecedented attack on the president of the United States.

I know that it is hardly chic to quote Jimmy Carter. Fortunately, I also have an observation from John Avlon, a Republican political worker who served as speechwriter to Rudy Giuliani's 2008 presidential campaign (and who we can thus assume wishes that the erstwhile New York City mayor was occupying the White House right now):

Race has always been a fault line in American politics but what I believe is at work here is something more subtle than simple racism, and it is what I call the birth of white minority politics... I think there is an anxiety underneath this that President Obama represents the rise of a multicultural elite and the rise of a non-white majority in America. If you talk to many of these protestors in the field, one of the dates that keeps coming up is 2050, which is the date the US census estimates that there will be a non-white majority in the United States.

Predictably, some of my conservative friends have expressed resentment at my characterization of their Tea Party counterparts. Without exception, they have tried to argue that it is the ongoing economic crisis, rather than a hatred of Obama's melanin concentration, that causes their animosity toward the president.

Unfortunately, that assertion is confronted with reality (which as Stephen Colbert once observed, has a well-known liberal bias). Our current recession began in December 2007, more than a year before Obama took office, and the meltdown that turned it into "The Great Recession" took place in September 2008, more than four months before Obama was inaugurated (and two months before he was even elected). Prior to that, the man who occupied the Oval Office was none other than George W. Bush. If the Tea Party movement's primary cause is our nation's economic woes, then why were they so silent when this calamity first befell us? For that matter, why were they indifferent to the countless warning signs that had existed for years regarding the detrimental economic impact of Bush's deregulatory, anti-labor, and pro-plutocratic policies (such as negative job growth, stagnant wages, disproportionate distribution of wealth, and an exploding deficit)? Most important of all, why - despite failing to take serious umbrage at the fact that Bush ignored our impending economic calamity for most of his presidency, and horribly bungled it when it became a meltdown during the last four months of his tenure - did the Tea Partiers only begin to assemble in protest of Obama? Even more, why were they so quick to materialize in protest of Obama LESS THAN ONE MONTH after he had taken office, brandishing claims even at that early time that the economic crisis was somehow his fault?

Here is an excerpt from one of my blog articles that pretty succinctly sums up why I entirely dismiss every claim made by Tea Partiers of legitimate ideological disagreement with President Obama:

Defenders of the Tea Party movements that I personally know will claim that they oppose President Obama's expansion of the power of the federal government; but why do they object to Obama's economic stimulus package and health care reform initiatives, while having remained strangely silent during the far more dangerous expansions of government power that took place during the Bush years (the Patriot Act, the dishonest war in Iraq, the wiretappings, the politicized firings of federal judges, the retributive outing of undercover intelligence officers)?

Then I will hear that Tea Party protesters are concerned about the growth of the budget deficit. But if that is the case, then why do they gloss over the fact that the deficit grew 89% during the administration of George W. Bush (to say nothing of 189% during the reign of right-wing beau ideal Ronald Reagan)?

This is not the first time that I have found myself frustrated by the faulty logic of the grassroots Tea Party movement. Here is an excerpt from a conversation that I had with Kevin Brettell a few months ago:

Take, for instance, the "Tea Party" protesters who claim that they are "true conservatives" who never liked George W. Bush but now object to the taxation policies of Barack Obama. If that is really the case...

Then where were they when Bush spent trillions of dollars on an unnecessary war in Iraq?

Where were they when millions of dollars meant to help New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina were used on - well, we still don't know what?

Why didn't they get up in arms against Bush when he squandered Clinton's budget surplus early in his presidency on a tax cut that primarily benefited the rich?

The fact of the matter is that the so-called real conservatives didn't have a slight problem with George W. Bush when he flouted the principles on which they stood (or if they did, they were surprisingly silent about it), and only began distancing themselves from Dubya when his political stock began to plummet during his second term (although they couldn't get enough of him during his first term, convenient revisionism aside). Obama, on the other hand, they began to oppose almost from the first day he took office.

Note: While I strongly disagree with Ron Paul and his son Rand (growing favorites among Tea Partiers) on most substantive issues, they are the only prominent individuals on the extreme right who criticized George W. Bush AT THE TIME OF HIS PRESIDENCY for the violations of conservative principles that now cause them to lash out at Barack Obama. If nothing else, they deserve respect for not being hypocrites, and the benefit of the doubt insofar as their ideological sincerity is concerned.

The rest of the conservative movement, and especially the Tea Partiers, had no problem when George W. Bush trod upon the Constitution of the United States and the fundamental conservative principles of limited government, fiscal responsibility, political accountability. They didn't object to the faltering economy as it reached critical mass during his watch, and they never complained about the encroachments of our basic liberties that ACTUALLY occured while he was in power. Indeed, it wasn't until Bush's approval ratings began to dip that these conservatives realized that "by much dragging of chestnuts from the fire for others to eat, his claws were burnt off to the gristle, and he was thrown aside as unfit for further use". That is why we now see them engaged in the politically convenient act of distancing themselves from him - although even now, though, the presence of "Miss me?" pro-Bush paraphernalia makes it clear that the temporary parting-of-the-ways between conservatives and Bush is coming to its end.

So why is it that these conservatives were silent when a white Republican ACTUALLY created an overly-powerful executive branch and CAUSED an economic crisis, but they managed to organize protests against a black Democrat whom they can only claim is committing abuses of power by LYING and whose worst sin is INACTIVITY in the midst of an economic crisis, as opposed to actually causing it? Why is it that they opposed Obama BEFORE he had even become president, and even now can't seem to find a single consistent reason or coherent argument in favor of WHY they dislike him so much?

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
- John Adams

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