Like many Canadians, I find American politics have a more compelling claim on my attention than my own country’s. The existential stakes are higher, the issues more fiercely debated, the passions more intense.
George W. Bush’s hotly contested victory over Al Gore in 2000 brought the U.S. to an unprecedented pitch of divisiveness. Concluding Bush had “stolen” the presidency, liberals considered him an illegitimate leader. Grievance over the presumed injustice soon morphed into hatred and then demonization of the man himself.
Having supported Bush’s grand themes—American exceptionalism, the War on Terror, liberating Iraq, the special America-Israel relationship—and not being shy about defending them, I encountered Bush Derangement Syndrome on countless bruising occasions over the eight years he held office. I can attest that those suffering from the syndrome resemble conspiracy theorists: They are irrational, single-minded, impervious to epistemic evidence and dispiriting proof of how easily reason is trumped by scapegoating emotion.
In a weirdly symmetrical reprisal, hatred of Barack Obama has sparked a similar delegitimizing campaign amongst a swath of angry American conservatives: For lack of anything so tangible as a court decision to wrangle over, as in the Bush campaign, the Obama delegitimizers settled on an unsustainable challenge to Obama’s constitutional right to govern. The “Birther” movement was analyzed in Jonathan Kay’s column last week ( “Cult of the false prophet”) in an excerpt from his forthcoming book on conspiracy theories, Amongst the Truthers.
The Tea Party, the Birthers’ natural home, harbours some outlandish elements, notably a significant number of evangelical Christians with apocalyptic biblical views of Obama as a literal “false prophet.” That was the aspect Kay’s column emphasized.
Countering that optic, a recent CBS/ New York Times poll has revealed that the Tea Party consists of better educated and more affluent Americans than average, 57% of whom support gay marriage or civil unions and 65% of whom believe in legal access to abortion. A majority consider social security and Medicare justifiable tax burdens and—surprise!—a majority don’t believe Sarah Palin is qualified to be president.
Still, while they’re not, on the whole, the right-wing “crazies” of liberals’ imagination, the Birthers are certainly somewhat deranged. They have transmuted their alienation from Obama’s multiculturalism and postmodern detachment into the futile illusion that he is literally an “alien”—that is, born elsewhere.
Obama conspiracists and Bush Derangement syndromists are both “illegitimatists,” partners in the same civic crime of stifling respectful, evidence-based debate.
Illegitimatists’ resistance to rational exchange is totalitarian. When I reasonably supported Bush’s anti-terror clarity, I inflamed my liberal interlocutors: Rather than argue that discrete topic, they subjected me to a long, spittle-flecked litany of Bush’s holistic wickedness. Since he was illegitimate, he could never be right about anything.
Which is why I’m now wary and defensive about criticizing Obama, “the One.” His protectors have both the handy sticks of “racist” and “conspiracy theorist” to beat me with.
I am neither. I hold rationally negative views on Obama. There never was a moment when I did trust Barack Obama or any of his soaring flights of hope-and-change librettos. I couldn’t believe that Americans needed moral redemption for their racist past so badly they would actually elect as president a self-obsessed black man of, to be sure, physical elegance and a flare for stirring, if insubstantial, rhetoric, but: no executive or military experience; no discernible governing convictions; virtually no voting record; a near-complete ignorance of world history, especially in the Middle East, where it counts the most; a childish belief in utopian pacifism; a blind eye for the soft (and hard) jihad; reflexive high-handedness with democratic allies like Israel and Britain, unseemly deference to declared enemies like Iran; and a persona so highly constructed, with important parts of his past—notably his university records—so tightly battened down, nobody knows who he really is.
I understand the temptation leading the Birthers to believe that a man with a heart so lightly bound to the country that handed him the glittering prize is also lightly bound to it in his literal provenance. We must reject all conspiracy theories, but I am sympathetic to the anguish that fuelled this particular one.
Obama is a legitimate president, as was Bush. But with Bush I felt there was hope for Western civilization. With Obama, on the evidence so far, I feel a visceral sense of dread for what lies ahead. There’s nothing illegitimate about that.