Eyal’s post juxtaposes the irrational views an alarming number of Republicans have about Barack Obama (a Kenyan-Muslim-Socialist-Hitler!) with the conspiracy theory–apparently held by 25 percent of Democrats–that Bush let 9/11 happen to justify a march to war. Fair enough, but I’m not sure you need to graze that far afield to find a left-right correspondence.
The first time I encountered a fantastic, fact-proof theory about Obama was during primary season. It was at a debate-watching party where an acquaintance of mine, an Obama-volunteer, hissed at Hillary Clinton’s response to a question about same-sex marriage. "She’s such a homophobe!" the woman exclaimed. I felt the need to correct the record.
"She’s not really any more anti-gay or pro-gay than Obama. Neither of them back gay marriage, for example," I pointed out.
"Obama totally wants gay marriage!" the woman responded.
"That’s nowhere in his platform," I said.
"In his heart he does. In his heart he supports gay marriage!" was her fierce retort.
I knew then that there was no point in arguing. She was already committed to feeling a certain way about Obama, and she wasn’t going to let reality or the written word diminish her exquisite emotion.
My point: progressives who lionized Obama (and it wasn’t just campaign volunteers) as the perfect politician and person–as someone who would single-handedly end war, injustice, racism, militarism and restore American greatness–didn’t launch the anti-Obama smears. But they played a role in creating an emotional feedback loop in which every out-sized, irrational, faith-based feeling about Obama is returned and amplified as its mirror–by the nihilistic assertion that he is the devil incarnate set on ending America, for example.
This cult of personality was not something Obama himself, who has tread quite lightly in drawing the analogies to, say, MLK or JFK, cultivated. It was cultivated by progressives and the formerly alienated who wanted a hero to deliver us from Bush, the evil one, a caricature I never liked because it also subscribes to the great-man theory of politics, if only by negation, while it also lets vast sectors of Congress and the media (to begin with) off the hook. It’s no surprise then that for every deification of Obama made on inauguration day, a conservative vilification lay in wait. As one lovely piece of mail I received then put it: "Now it is our time to hate."
I’m all for emotions in politics, but maybe it is time to demonstrate some emotional intelligence, and to retire the belief that the presidency represents the source and apogee of politics itself. Maybe it is time to find new objects to love–not leaders, but movements and causes. I’m not suggesting that Republicans will gracefully end their character assassination just because progressives stop hero-worshipping Barack. But some emotional de-escalation and diversification couldn’t hurt.
Maybe we can try hating on insurance companies, remember them? Or maybe we can try loving socialized medicine instead? Remember when that was the right-wing boogeyman? Socialized medicine! An emotional tug-of-war over that sounds pretty civil and rational now, doesn’t it?