A few months ago, I spent a Sunday morning in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart on Thomas Road in East Phoenix, just on the cusp of the immigration flare-up over racial profiling and Arizona's repressive law called SB 1070. It was quieter then -- a weathered 39-year-old Mexican in a wool cap with a New York Mets logo named Roberto Valdez told me of his trek across the desert to seek work in Phoenix as a day laborer. Weeks earlier, Mexican day laborers like Valdez had been harassed on the weekends by angry white nativists, but in March of 2010 the nativists had moved on. Many had joined the Tea Party, and some were campaigning for GOP anti-immigration zealot J.D. Hayworth for U.S. Senate. Why waste time on "the Other" Roberto Valdez, when America now had "the Other" daring to occupy the Oval Office in the person of Barack Obama.
Five months later, the American political debate -- in a time of crushing 9.5-percent unemployment, record foreclosures and bankruptcies, and climate change linked to catastrophes from Moscow to Pakistan to Iowa -- has been hijacked over the arcane question of whether to allow an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan. The controversy is stunning -- but it should not be. The national brouhaha over the $100 million Muslim Park51/Cordoba House proposal is not an anomaly but rather the culmination of an alarming downturn in America's mood, its discourse, and even our former ambitions as a beacon of religious and political tolerance. In 2010, a large swath of the American public -- led by ratings-mad media mavens and immoral politicians like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin -- had declared out all-out war on "the Other" in America in all its alleged forms, from immigrants to Muslims to non-white aides working in the West Wing of the White House, and of course the president himself.
And it is threatening to rip America apart in a way that we have not seen in 145 years.
Over the last year, I traveled across the country seeking the sources of right-wing outrage and anger in the Obama era as I researched my new book -- The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama -- that will be published at the end of the month. What I discovered was fear -- some of it innate and much of it whipped up by high-def hucksters on TV and in talk radio and even in the corridors of political power in America. Much of that fear centered on one simple fact: that America is increasingly becoming a non-white-dominated country. While many Americans take no issue with that, the prospect of an America with an increasingly non-Caucasian face is a deeply disturbing one to millions of people -- people for whom a unified and traditional culture is a source of solidarity and comfort, even -- according to some sociologists -- a bulkhead of immortality.
In the mid-2000s, an anti-immigration frenzy took root across right-wing talk radio. It seemed largely a matter of entertainment and most likely changing the subject, since the George W. Bush presidency was at low ebb because of Iraq and Katrina. The increasingly paranoid conversation about the threat from brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking people grew in a way that was completely disconnected from realities, that immigrants were growing the economy in places like Arizona and Nevada, that crime rates among immigrants were quite low, and that these arrivals were paying more in taxes than they received in services.
But the bottom line was that for many, reports that whites will be a minority of Americans by the year 2050 carried the shill ring of an alarm bell. But this concern about the submersion of a dominant white culture in America spiked prematurely in 2008 with the political rise of Obama. In researching the book, I spoke with many conservative voters who talked of their "discomfort" the first time they watched Obama speak on television, who said that in particular they were alarmed at the future president's use of the specific word "transformation." These voters were egged on by political "leaders" like vice presidential candidate Palin, who didn't just voice traditional policies differences with the Democrat but accused him of "palling around with terrorists."
It is no surprise that by mid-2009 I was hearing from the leader of the anti-Obama group, the Delaware 9-12 Patriots, that the 44th president of the United States "is absolutely not American" while his neighbors were screaming at town hall meetings: "I don't want this flag to change. I want my country back!" These rank-and-file citizens were often echoing what they heard in a 24/7 right-wing media bubble of ratings-driven irresponsibility -- outlandish neo-McCarthyite allegations that Obama had Commies and Maoists working in the West Wing, Glenn Beck's notorious claim that the president has "a deep-seated hatred of white people" and, perhaps more tellingly, of "white culture," and most recently radio's Rush Limbaugh's bizarre charge that Obama is probably the "best anti-American president the country's ever had."
In this paranoid environment, the president looked as much "the Other" as the day laborer Roberto Valdez in the Wal-Mart parking lot. High-employment and the destruction of the working class in America is increasingly demanding a scapegoat, and the right-wing media and an increasingly erratic GOP establishment is more than happy to direct people's palpable anger down the economic ladder. The result is something like the most un-American piece of garbage legislation that most of us have seen in our lifetime -- Arizona's racial profiling law SB 1070, whose sponsors admit they were seeking to drive Mexican immigrants out of the Grand Canyon State in droves, which is exactly what is happening.
But the modern-day American Diaspora is only the beginning. Once the Pandora's box of emotion and rage against "the Other" has been opened so wide, it is almost impossible to close. Now the backers of Arizona's hideous law want to rip apart the 14th Amendment -- the one that ended slavery, once a high point of American history, especially for the extinct brand of Republican that drafted it -- in order to prevent children of Mexican immigrants from becoming American citizens. The xenophobia has reached the point where a U.S. congressman took to the House floor -- with zero supporting evidence -- to charge that terrorists had a scheme to breed future U.S.-citizen bombers in maternity wards here.
Which brings us to the present crisis: Mosques in America. It should tell you something that the backlash against Muslims practicing their faith in America is far greater in 2010 than it was in the months immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. That's because the political firestorm with its epicenter in lower Manhattan really has nothing to do with 9/11 or its aftermath and everything to do with "the Other," and the awful forces and fears that have been unleashed in the last couple of years -- fears that craven politicians like Gingrich, Palin and the formerly rational Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota are eager to surf into the White House in 2013. If the Manhattan mosque controversy were really about our 9/11 sensibilities, how does one explain the opposition to other Islamic houses of worship from Tennessee to California to Staten Island?
America, we are in for the bumpy political ride of a lifetime. It will take enormous courage for defenders of two centuries of religious freedom and tolerance toward both religious and economic refugees to stand firm in the face of the kind of raw public anger and emotion that have caused backbone-impaired politicians like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid or supposed progressive stalwart Howard Dean to wither in mere days. Our determined minority may be barely clinging to our cherished traditions -- as best expressed by President George Washington in 1790 when he wrote: "the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens" -- in the face of this onslaught for the next few years.
Let's face it: This country has long had its Know-Nothings and its Birchers and its McCarthyites, but it never had gizmos like Fox News or Sarah Palin's Twitter feed to fuel toxic ideas so far so fast. It's time we admit these seemingly disconnected battles over "anchor babies," mosques, and a black man in the Oval Office are all part of the same war against "the Other," and that we are in the fight of a lifetime.