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Wanna Know Why Republicans Can't Give Up Calling Obama 'Not American'? They've Got Nothing Else.

07/28/2014 11:24 am ET | Updated Sep 27, 2014
  • Ian Reifowitz Author of 'Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity'

Obama hits the stage at a campaign rally in Ames, Iowa, in front of a massive United States flag.

When you've got nothing of substance to say, just say that the President of the United States isn't a real American.

Generally speaking, I support recycling. In this case, not so much. You may have read earlier this week that Rep. Steve King, (R-IA), brought back one of his party's golden oldies. You know, the one about how President Barack Obama is, for some reason or other, just not a real American. At an anti-immigration rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, King offered some musings on this theme.

[Obama's] vision of America isn't like our vision of America. That we know. Now I don't assert where he was born, I will just tell you that we are all certain that he was not raised with an American experience. So these things that beat in our hearts when we hear the National Anthem and when we say the Pledge of Allegiance doesn't beat the same for him.

If you remember when he was a candidate for president he was standing at the front of a row of Democrat [sic] candidates for president down at Tom Harkin's steak fry. The rest of them, when they played the National Anthem, had their hand over their heart. But Barack Obama was standing with arms down his side dangling -- while the National Anthem was being played. Now, what was that about, was it an act of defiance? I don't think so. Some thought so.

Before we start unpacking this [insert your own noun here], the last line of the recording makes clear the broader topic King was discussing. "Now we have our challenge, we have a challenge of an invasion that's pouring people across ..." Given the rally's focus on immigration, it is clear that King is referring to the refugee crisis on our Southern border.

What King is saying -- not implying, but stating directly -- is that the president's response to the crisis reflects the fact that he doesn't really care about America at all, because he isn't a real American, the kind whose heart beats the right way when the national anthem plays or when a crowd recites the Pledge. And of course there was the birther reference. You knew there had to be a birther reference.

Oh, and I loved the part where King brought up that "some thought" President Obama was engaged in an "act of defiance" toward our national anthem, but of course he, being a reasonable man, didn't think so. You know what else? "Some say" Steve King is a hateful person whose divisive rhetoric stands contrary to everything America should represent. Oh, and I agree with them.

To be sure, Steve King is far from the first Republican to talk this way about President Obama. Where to begin? Well, how about with the most recent Republican presidential nominee and newly crowned "party elder" Mitt Romney. On December 7, 2011, he said: "I don't think [President Obama] understands America." On July 17, 2012, Romney stated of the president that "his course is extraordinarily foreign." That same day one of his top surrogates, former New Hampshire Governor and George H.W. Bush Chief of Staff John Sununu, more directly attacked Obama's Americanness, saying: "I wish this president would learn how to be an American." This from the candidate and campaign that bore the standard of the Republican Party in the last election.

What about those over whom their party chose Romney? Oh, they got into the muck on this as well. On September 11, 2011, Newt Gingrich condemned Barack Obama's "Kenyan worldview." The New York Times op-ed board rightly criticized both Romney and Gingrich for their 2011 shots on Obama's Americanness, scoring Romney's remarks as being not quite as offensive as Gingrich's, but "close" nevertheless.

Another 2012 also ran, Rick Santorum, had this to say on June 28, 2010: "Obama is detached from the American experience. He just doesn't identify with the average American because of his own background. Indonesia and Hawaii." Matt Bai characterized this as, "a dubious remark, heavy with racial implications." Additionally, on December 31, 2011, less than a week before his victory in Iowa, Santorum accused the president of having engaged in "absolutely un-American activities."

One who didn't run in 2012, but may in 2016, is Mike Huckabee. On March 2, 2011, the former Arkansas governor asserted: "[President Obama] has a different worldview and I think it is, in part, molded out of a very different experience. Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary Clubs, not madrassas." Huckabee was then asked whether he believed that there "may be some fundamental anti-Americanism in this president," and answered "that's exactly the point I make in [my] book." Huckabee may have a reputation as a genial guy, but this is among the worst things any politician of national stature has uttered about the president, and that's saying something.

The parallels between Steve King's remarks from this past week, and those of Romney, Gingrich, Sununu, Santorum, and Huckabee are all too clear. It is important to note that some Republicans, including John McCain and Jon Huntsman, specifically rejected the idea of questioning Obama's patriotism or Americanness. All too many Republicans, however, were happy to do so.

Going beyond Republican candidates for national office opens up a whole universe of truly awful things right-wingers have said. But the most awful was this, written by former Washington Times editor Wesley Pruden:

It's no fault of the president that he has no natural instinct or blood impulse for what the America of "the 57 states" is about. He was sired by a Kenyan father, born to a mother attracted to men of the Third World and reared by grandparents in Hawaii, a paradise far from the American mainstream.

I've written about these particular slurs of Pruden's elsewhere:

Pruden here clearly defined Obama as outside the circle of America because of his "blood" and "natural instincts," and painted him as foreign and exotic, "outside the mainstream." The use of "sire," a term typically used to describe the breeding of horses or, in popular culture, the process by which vampires reproduce, suggests something unnatural or even nonhuman about Obama. Pruden's highlighting of Ann Dunham's two "third-world" husbands plays on old racial tropes, whereby women in interracial sexual relationships must be somehow morally suspect. In sum, the statement is a bald attempt to 'other' Obama.

The cryptic-seeming mention of "the fifty-seven states" alludes to a verbal slip Obama made on May 9, 2008: "It is wonderful to be back in Oregon. Over the last fifteen months, we've traveled to every corner of the United States. I've now been in fifty-seven states? I think one left to go. Alaska and Hawaii, I was not allowed to go." The context of the remark makes clear that Obama meant to say forty-seven states (fifty minus one other unnamed continental state plus Alaska and Hawaii). Pruden's mention of the remark is almost certainly a dog-whistle reference to a rumor, spread via email during the campaign, that Obama's "fifty-seven states" comment unwittingly revealed that he is, in fact, a 'secret' Muslim because there are fifty-seven member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Not only does Obama lack American blood, apparently also he's a Muslim vampire. Words fail.

The question remains: Why do Republicans come back, over and over, to this kind of thing, to peddling a cocktail of fear mixed with hate? They've got nothing else. They can't sell their right-wing policies as actually working because there's no data to back that up. They can't even sell their policies as logical because, well, they aren't.

So what can Republicans do? Get people afraid. Afraid of "them," the brown president and the brown hordes at the border. In reality the people at the border are refugees and children. To Republicans, that doesn't matter and it certainly doesn't inspire compassion. Steve King's anti-immigration ally Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) has been harping about the supposed "diseases" these children are carrying.

This is all about fear, about making people afraid of what America is becoming, of what America already is. Republicans are counting on the fact that fear makes people do stupid things. Like voting Republican.

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