This week, on the eve of the first presidential debate, right-wing media, led by the Drudge Report, the Daily Caller, and Fox News, hyped a supposedly secret video that they dubbed "the other race speech." Fox News propagandist Sean Hannity tried desperately to portray the video as "explosive" footage that the liberal media had deliberately hidden from voters to protect Barack Obama. Religious Right leaders played their part, with Liberty Counsel's ludicrous Matt Barber demanding, "Romney simply must make ad upon ad out of this devastating video exposing Obama as a white-hating racist." Karl Rove, who with a cadre of right-wing billionaires has kept Republican hopes alive by funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into the election, piled on, saying Obama's comments were designed to "stir up racial animosity" and called them "abhorrent."
Of course, as it turned out, the video is neither news nor explosive. It is a 2007 campaign speech that had been well covered by mainstream media at the time. Ultimately what is newsworthy and offensive is not Obama's 2007 speech, but the way that right-wing pundits, desperate to defeat him in November, have resorted to a brazen strategy of stoking racial resentment, and trying to create a distraction by accusing the president of doing the same thing. Not only is Mitt Romney unwilling to stand up to the extremists in his own party, as President Obama pointed out in last night's debate, Romney and his campaign are fully engaged in destructive racial politicking. It's worth noting the contrast with John McCain, who sometimes stood up to his party's extremists; Romney cheers them on.
Some Romney backers are not even bothering to try to cloak the racial-resentment strategy. Right-wing blogger John Hawkins flat-out declared this week, "Barack Obama Is an Anti-White Racist." And he tweeted, "A white woman voting for Barack Obama is like a black woman voting for the KKK." When Glenn Beck accused Obama of hating white people in 2009, the resulting uproar contributed to an exodus of advertisers from his show. But in 2012, with the election on the line, there's been no sign that the Romney campaign is troubled by Hawkins' claims: his pro-Romney writing is still featured on the official campaign website.
Hawkins isn't alone. Earlier this year, American Family Association spokesman Bryan Fischer, told his radio listeners: "I believe that President Obama has a fundamental dislike, a fundamental distaste, nay I would even say he's got what borders on a hatred for white people, and he is out to punish America and the white folks that make up the majority of the American population."
Salon's Joan Walsh has dissected the outrageous distortions of Obama's speech by Hannity and Tucker Carlson in a post about "right-wing racial panic." Romney officials said the campaign was not responsible for the recent "release" of the 2007 speech, but as Buzzfeed's Zeke Miller points out, they did not distance themselves from it either. In fact a senior Romney advisor said that voters "have to look at that video and have to make up their mind on that individually."
Indeed, the Romney campaign itself has made an appeal to racial resentment a centerpiece of its outreach to working-class white voters, who outside the South have been pretty equally divided between Romney and Obama. Exhibit A is the television ad campaign, pretty much universally acknowledged to be an outright lie, charging that Obama gutted welfare reform by getting rid of its work requirement. One ad shows glum white workers while claiming that thanks to Obama, people no longer have to work or train for a job; "they just send you your welfare check." Later ads have repeated the same false charge.
Romney himself pushed the same point, gloating to a Republican audience about having been booed when he told NAACP members that he would repeal "Obamacare." Romney characterized those who disagreed with his speech as people who "want more free stuff" from the government. Journalist Adele Stan of AlterNet has chronicled various ways the Romney campaign is using racial resentment and racially coded language, including the welfare ads, statements such as John Sununu's claim that Obama needs to learn how to be American, and the choice of "Keep America America" -- one letter away from the KKK's "Keep America American" -- as a campaign slogan.
Divisive racial politics have a long history in America, of course. But there is also a more recent history: right-wing leaders have made the politics of racial resentment key to their attacks on President Obama throughout his presidency, as People For the American Way Foundation noted in its 2009 report, "Right Plays the Race Card." And right-wing groups such as the National Organization for Marriage have made racial wedge issues a centerpiece of their anti-equality campaigns. After this week's debate, Romney campaign co-chair Sununu described the president as "lazy" and "not that bright."
Romney might get a bit of a bump out of this week's debate, though the president's prospects should be boosted by Friday's good economic news. The longer President Obama's lead in the polls holds up, the more likely it is that we will see destructive racial politicking from the rabid right-wing.