From the moment he was sworn in as president, what’s bothered many conservatives most about Barack Obama was that he was a Black man who seemed pathologically incapable of “knowing his place.” Conservatives from Peggy Noonan to (most recently) Grover Norquist have complained about that President Obama doesn’t “know his place”, and can’t be put “in his place.”
That’s probably what was most “startling” to Republicans listening to the president’s second inaugural speech. If Obama didn’t “know his place” before, he’ll never learn his “place” now. In fact, it may be the Republicans and their conservative base that must now get used to occupying a very different place in American politics.
Those coded complaints take on an unmistakable meaning when a man whom it would have been acceptable called “boy” 50 or more years ago must now be addressed as “Mr. President.” It brings to mind an era when it was vitally important for a Black man to “know his place” in relation to white, and show them due deference. To do otherwise could get one labeled “uppity” (as one Georgia congressman called President Obama), and “uppity blacks” were often forcefully put “in their place.” In an MSNBC interview last April, Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson described this Republican reaction to president Obama.
Professor Michael Eric Dyson agreed. “I think these are code words; wolf whistles, dog whistles,” said Dyson. “If you can’t accept Barack Obama in the presidency as an intelligent, articulate African American man going about trying to negotiate between competing claims and rival arguments about what is right and wrong, than you can’t accept anybody.”
Dyson continued, “there is a kind of resentment of the right-wing that this man has lost his moorings, because he doesn’t know where he belongs which is underneath them, subordinate to their particular practices.”
“To easily call him a thug and to call him a person who is a bully is also coded to try to make him look like ‘the other’ again,” Dyson concluded.
Imagine for a moment, as Ed Kilgore did, what the inauguration of Mitt Romney might have been like. Imagine what it would have meant to conservatives and to the GOP. It’s hard to overstate the significance of the kind of restoration the inauguration of Mitt Romney would have represented.
So how many of you found yourselves wondering today what the inauguration of Willard Mitt Romney would have looked and felt like? Aside from the certainty that the crowd would have had a different, er, complexion, and the equal certainty that we’d see a lot of images and interviews of quite naturally excited LDS folk, a Romney inaugural would have been treated by the conservative media and perhaps much of the MSM as a restoration, a return to the Natural State of Things after the four turbulent years of the Obama administration. True, Washington’s social lions might have been a little unsure as to whether a tee-totalling Mormon would be a big improvement over the society-shunning Obamas with their insulting unwillingness to attend dinners and cocktail parties. But by and large, official Washington, for all the heavily Democratic voting habits of its actual citizens (and those of most of the nearby suburbs), tends to prefer Republican regimes (or at least those before and after JFK’s) as orderly and appropriately upscale.
What I most wonder about is how far the organizers of, and the principal figure in, a Romney inauguration would have gone to tame the vengeful hordes of Tea Folk, in person and via the available media, who would have viewed the ejection from office of the hated Obama as a world-historical event and a first step towards a more thorough-going Restoration of the pre-New Deal Republic. Mitt himself would have had to do something in his inaugural address to redeem his endlessly repeated promise to “repeal Obamacare on my first day in office.” Would he have signed an executive order crippling implementation of the Affordable Care Act before, after, or indeed even during his speech (maybe with a tart word to the Chief Justice immediately after the ceremonial swearing-in)? And would he have boldly promised “the 47%” freedom from their wretched dependence on the federal government?
Rage of an Unprivileged Class
From Republican establishment to GOP leadership, all the way down to the basest of the base, Obama’s 2008 victory represented the loss of primacy, defined above as “the fact of being primary, preeminent, or more important.” The popularity of his candidacy alone represented a particular threat to the primacy of the GOP establishment, and the primacy-by-association of the GOP’s predominantly white base. During the 2008 election, Republican leadership played on both the economic anxieties racial anxieties of its base, and the result was that all the fear and anger that had been bubbling just below the surface threatened to boil over.
Obama’s electoral victory only served to ratchet up that fear and anxiety, which eventually did boil over into the rise of the “tea party” and the birth of “birtherism,” both fueled by a kind of anti-democratic denialism so drenched in delusional race-paranoia that could qualify for its own entry in the upcoming DSM V. If Republicans had trouble accepting the legitimacy of a Democratic Presidency during the Clinton era, the election of the first African-American Democratic president drove the right even further over edge. Not only did conservatives believe that ACORN “stole” the 2008 election for Obama, many also believed that Obama was not born in the United States and was thus ineligible for the presidency.
Not only did Republicans refuse to believe that Obama could have won legitimately, but conservatives denied even that Obama was an American citizen, and insisted on portraying Obama as alien and other. He is a Kenyan-born “socialist,” “communist,” or “fascist.” Or he is an “anti-colonial” secret Moslem. Or he is an “un-vetted” Affirmative Action hire. But, as E.J. Dionne wrote, four years into Obama’s presidency, there is one thing he is never allowed to be.
They say that President Obama is a Muslim, but if he isn’t, he’s a secularist who is waging war on religion. On some days he’s a Nazi, but on most others he’s merely a socialist. His especially creative opponents see him as having a “Kenyan anti-colonial worldview,” while the less adventurous say that he’s an elitist who spent too much time in Cambridge, Hyde Park and other excessively academic precincts.
Whatever our president is, he is never allowed to be a garden-variety American who plays basketball and golf, has a remarkably old-fashioned family life and, in the manner we regularly recommend to our kids, got ahead by getting a good education.
Please forgive this outburst. It’s simply astonishing that a man in his fourth year as our president continues to be the object of the most extraordinary paranoid fantasies. A significant part of his opposition still cannot accept that Obama is a rather moderate politician quite conventional in his tastes and his interests. And now that the economy is improving, short-circuiting easy criticisms, Obama’s adversaries are reheating all the old tropes and cliches and slanders.
Those “old tropes and cliches and slanders” reheated and served up nonstop since the 2008 election, and served up to often that thanks to the right-wingers we’re approaching the normalization of racism.
Between the 2008 and 2010 elections — especially during the health care reform debate — America was treated to all manner of tea party protest signs and emails from GOP elected officials that were loaded with racial stereotypes and laid bare the racial resentment and racial anxiety roiling the GOPs most vocal, anti-Obama, tea party base.
The most telling signs and placards weren’t necessarily the most offensive, (portraying Obama as everything from a African “witch doctor,” to a Muslim Imam, a pimp, a rapist, etc.), or the most threatening (declaring “We came unarmed (this time)” or “If Brown Can’t Stop It, a Browning Can”).
Sure the anger and the threats of violence behind them are intense and real. (By some accounts, President Obama is the target of more than 30 death threats per day, and threats went up 400% after he took office.) But anger and violence are often fueled by fear and anxiety, and conservative fear and anxiety in Obama’s first term had a lot to do with the loss of primacy represented by Barack Obama and the coalition that elected him. Their anger and anxiety was driven by the loss of their privileged place at the center of American politics, as the majority, as the electoral demographic whose support both parties wanted, whose collective will could shape or thwart policies, and whom both parties courted and feared offending.
That fear and anxiety found expression in placards and signs that read “Listen To Me!”, “I Have A Right To Be Heard,” and “I Want My Country Back.” That anger and anxiety spilled over into an overwhelmingly white Republican convention marred by racial incidents.
In 2008, many the GOP’s overwhelmingly white, heavily southern, predominantly Christian believed their voices had not been heard. It was inconceivable that one such as Barack Obama could have won the presidency without them. It wasn’t supposed to happen, so it must have been the product of conspiracy that went back perhaps all the way to the day Barack Obama was born, and sustained long enough for ACORN to steal the White House for Obama and steal the country from “Real Americans.”
That had to be it, because neither Obama nor the coalition that elected him looked anything like “Real America.” In 2008, John McCain and Sarah Palin reminded us that “Real America” was small-town, white, and Christian. The 2010 election swept the tea party into the House, and into power in the GOP, and it seemed that “Real America” was poised to make a comeback in the next presidential election. In 2012, Mitt Romney reminded us (well, some of “us,” anyway) that Barack Obama was “Not one of us.” And the GOP produced a “Pledge to America” that was utterly forgettable, except that it made painted a picture of Republicans’ “Real America” worth more than a thousand words from any right-wing pundit or presidential candidate.
That America would be restored to its rightful place with the 2012 election, and the election of Barack Obama would be fluke; an historic moment, but a fluke nonetheless. Everything would go back to “normal” and America would come to terms with its well-intentioned “mistake in electing Barack Obama. One subtly racist Romney/Ryan television spot even seemed to give the country a rhetorical “pat on the back,” and to say — as Bill Maher paraphrased it — “You tried. He tried. Black people are lovely, but this president-ing thing really isn’t for them.”
The problem for Republicans is that the majority of American voters decided that they wanted Barack Obama to continue doing “this president-ing thing” for four more years. That majority is decidedly more progressive on social and economic issues than Republican base of “old white people.” This new majority is likely to become more solidly progressive. Younger voters are part of the “Obama majority” and an increasingly important demographic. They’re also very progressive and on their way to mainstreaming their progressive views.
That spells trouble for a party that’s “running out of white voters”, and whose leaders come mostly from gerrymandered “safe” white districts. That is, unless its leaders get serious about finding or forging a new place in the emerging electoral reality. Unfortunately for them, Republicans remain as reality challenged as ever.