The most baleful aspect of the 2012 election is that many Americans are eager to believe ludicrous things about President Obama. In some polling, up to one-third of Americans claim that Obama is not a legitimate president, he refuses to defend America's vital interests, and he is sympathetic to Islamic radicals who want to impose Sharia law throughout the world. Over half of Americans have tagged Obama as a Socialist.
There was already best-selling literature and a fevered Right-blogosphere on these themes when Obama ran for president in 2008, which heated up numerous rallies near the end of the campaign. Today the anti-Obama conspiracy industry is larger and more unhinged than ever, and it has a unifying slogan: "I want my country back."
Obama is a lightning rod for the politics of fear and loathing, which raises delicate choices for Republicans running for president. Mitt Romney, thus far, has treaded carefully in this area, settling for attacks on Obama's purported incompetence and his supposed sympathy for European social democracy. That is not enough for much of the Republican base. Newt Gingrich channels the Republican Right's resentments of the federal government, the elite media, and above all, Obama. But Gingrich's immense baggage and out-of-control egomania make him unelectable. Rick Santorum, thus far, has carved out an anti-Obama spiel that is meaner than Romney's but less conspiratorial than Gingrich's. Every day on the campaign trail, Santorum has to decide how far he should go in stoking his group's visceral antipathy for Obama.
The Republican base has a counter-narrative about who Obama is and how he got to be president. This story emerged from the Right-blogosphere and a flock of bestselling books in 2008 and 2009. For tens of millions of Americans, it provides justification for not accepting America's first black president as a legitimate president.
The early conspiracy theorists in this area specialized in scary descriptions of Saul Alinsky, community organizing, black liberation theology, and Palestinian nationalism, all of which were said to have persuaded Obama to become a radical Socialist. Gingrich often recycles this material, telling his audiences that America unwittingly elected an Alinsky-style radical without understanding that "community organizing" is a cover for anti-American subversion.
But Gingrich realized that the Right's sloppy list of bad things that Obama supposedly believes had a limited reach and didn't make sense. Somehow Obama is a European Socialist and a supporter of radical jihad at the same time; plus, the anti-Obama movement fixated for two years on a loony conspiracy about Obama's foreign birth. For Gingrich, this problem was solved when Dinesh D'Souza, a popular conservative writer, got the cover of Forbes magazine in September 2010 for an article titled "How Obama Thinks." Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck heaped praise on D'Souza's brilliant insight and courageous truth-telling, which helped the book version, The Roots of Obama's Rage, skyrocket to number four on the bestseller list in its first week.
According to D'Souza, Obama does not relate to any tradition or aspect of American history. Even his relationship to the Civil Rights movement is contrived for political purposes, not something that he feels. The key to Obama, D'Souza says, is African anti-colonial rage. Obama is a seething anti-colonialist who views the world from the perspective of his bitter, defeated, deceased, Kenyan father (never mind that he had almost no relationship with his father). In D'Souza's telling, Obama aims to destroy everything smacking of Western colonialism, which explains why he wants to expand the power of government in domestic affairs and diminish American power internationally. Obama yearns for the heroic grandeur of the black Africans who defied their white British oppressors. George Washington pales by comparison, as does the dull world of global summits to which Obama drags himself as president of the United States.
This account is a considerable feat, being more sophisticated (as D'Souza emphasizes) and yet even more ludicrous than the usual conspiracy fare. It seriously describes Obama, of all people, as being consumed by racial revenge, plus bored by the presidency. D'Souza descends to a level of race-baiting that would have embarrassed Lee Atwater or George Wallace, conjuring Obama as a vengefully arrogant type determined to put whitey down and take whitey's money.
According to Gingrich, however, D'Souza's account is singularly profound and convincing. To understand Obama, Gingrich says, one has to understand "Kenyan anti-colonial behavior"; otherwise, Obama is "outside our comprehension," exactly as he likes it: "This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president." Obama, Gingrich says, is "authentically dishonest," a mode of hypocrisy that he learned as an Alinsky-style organizer.
For sheer absurdity, it would be hard to top Gingrich accusing Obama of dishonesty and hypocrisy. But for the Republican base, there really is no such thing as taking Obama-bashing too far.
Gary Dorrien is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union
Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University. His 16 books include
Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) and the recently
published The Obama Question: A Progressive Perspective (Rowman & Littlefield).