Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Race and the Right's Paranoid Obama Conspiracies

David Corn

Late last week, Democratic-leaning pollster Stan Greenberg released a focus group study showing that conservative GOP base voters live in an alternative universe of their own political paranoia. In this world, President Obama is ruthlessly advancing a secret agenda to ruin -- yes, ruin -- the economy so he can impose socialism upon the United States and destroy the core civil liberties of American democracy. And in this covert crusade, Obama is no more than a frontman for unseen interests aiming to annihilate the United States.

This dark view was propounded by die-hard right-wingers -- older, white Republican-base voters -- who participated in focus groups Greenberg conducted in Georgia. These people, who said they were part of a nascent resistance movement (which includes Fox News, Glenn Beck, and the Tea Parties), are committed to Obama's failure. But while Greenberg's report notes that these folks "stand a world apart from the rest of America," it also insists that race (that is, Obama's race) is "not what was bothering them about President Obama." This part of the report is headlined "Race: Get Over It."

I wonder if it's that simple. Greenberg reports that the conservatives in these focus groups did not explicitly express racial animus toward the president. They generally maintained that their opposition to Obama has nothing to do with race. But would they have such a conspiratorial and harsh take on Obama were he white?

It's not just Obama's policies that these conservatives suspect; they believe he's not real -- on two significant levels. First, they claim that questions remain about his origins, including his birth. Second, they told Greenberg's researchers that there was something nefarious about Obama's rise to power -- that there was no way a former community organizer could reach the White House on his own merits. These conservatives believe Obama was placed in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. by forces intent on wiping out the United States they know and love.

For them, Obama is an unqualified puppet who represents the "other" -- and is doing the bidding of his evil overlords. That's both nutty and condescending.

Does the color of Obama's skin make it easier for conservatives to view Obama in this manner? It may be impossible to get an honest answer to that query. Certainly, it's possible that devotees of The Obama Code would possess the same fear of a white president pushing similar policies. Some on the fringe right in the 1990s did suggest that Bill Clinton was a Manchurian Candidate for the Russians. Others depicted him as a devious politician doing the dirty work for his revolutionary Marxist wife (yeah, right!) and capable of killing anyone who stood in their way.

But the anti-Obama sentiment of today appears deeper and wider -- and even more untethered from reality. Consider a recent poll taken of Tennesseans. Nearly half (47 percent) of the state's Republicans said Obama was born in another country (say, Kenya). The same amount of GOPers (48 percent) said that Obama was probably or definitely a secret Muslim. (About one-third of all Tennesseans held these beliefs.) Are these positions not shaped by race? After all, how many Southern GOPers would believe a left-of-center white politician who for years had attended Christian churches and whose birth was recorded by a state office and local newspapers was a secret Muslim who had been delivered in Africa?

These days, explicit racism is widely regarded as unacceptable. Yet it's quite possible that unsupported folly of this sort has become a stand-in for outright racial opposition. If a conservative can assert that the problem with Obama is that he fronts for a diabolical enemy within, is a secret Muslim, and has mounted a coverup to hide his birth in Africa, then this right-winger can tell himself (and focus group moderators) that his feelings about Obama aren't about race. But here's the question that needs asking: Why do conservatives -- especially Southern conservatives -- believe all this rot? (In 2000, a Daily Kos poll found that six times as many Southerners as Northeasterners believed Obama was not born in the United States.)

Ultimately, the reasons for conservative alienation and paranoia may not matter. Caused by race or not, this phenomenon will continue to pollute the national political discourse and vex Republican Party leaders, who must court these unhinged voters without turning off reality-based independents and reasonable Republicans. But when right-wingers, citing these particular false facts, say that Obama is a treacherous enemy of the state and literally the political anti-Christ, it may not yet be time to get over race.

By the way, on Friday night, I appeared on "Hardball" to discuss all this with Chris Matthews and Ron Brownstein:

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