During the Democratic primary, Chris Rock famously joked that George Bush had “fucked up so bad that it’s hard for a white man to run for president.” Some took him seriously. In August 2007 Esquire ran a cover of John Edwards with the question: “Can a white man still be elected president?” That the headline made any sense at all is a testament to the assumptions that prevail about who is entitled to the job. Of the seventeen presidential candidates in both main parties, fourteen were white men–32 percent of the population, 82 percent of the candidates, 100 percent of the past presidents. These are the kinds of odds that would make Kim Jong Il’s election agent smile. Back then, with Obama trailing Clinton and both trailing Giuliani in the polls, the lash had not yet been wielded. But the backlash was already beginning.
Today it is in full swing. Right-wingers have turned up at Obama’s events carrying guns. Facebook recently pulled a poll asking, “Should Obama be killed?” with choices of yes, no, maybe and “If he cuts my health care.” This was clearly anticipated by Apollo Braun, a Manhattan store owner, whose “Who Killed Obama?” T-shirts were his most popular even before the election.
In between came gun-toting protesters at town hall meetings and official events. One of them carried a placard saying, “It is time to water the tree of liberty”–a reference to Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” It’s the same quote Timothy McVeigh was wearing on his T-shirt when he was arrested for bombing the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. From the time that Obama declared he was running, the primary concern among African-Americans was the same as the one expressed by Alma Powell as her husband, Colin Powell, contemplated running in 1996–assassination. Now it appears that those dark fears have become, in some quarters, white fantasies.
How real these threats are and how many people are behind them is anybody’s guess. They are certainly part of a trend. In April a Homeland Security report, “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” concluded: “The economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment.” It also surmised that “rightwing extremist groups’ frustration over a perceived lack of government action on illegal immigration has the potential to incite individuals or small groups toward violence.” In any case, as 9/11 showed, you don’t need that many people to send the world into turmoil.
What is truly stunning is the degree to which these marginal voices are explicitly sustained and implicitly condoned by the mainstream. Rarely condemned by Congressional Republicans, the rage has been galvanized by the sum of the slanders from the right-wing echo chamber.
After all, if Obama truly were a Kenyan-born Nazi and terrorist sympathizer who has usurped the presidency in order to set up concentration camps to house dissenters, then armed insurrection could be one logical response. The fact that he is none of those things suggests that there are far deeper forces at play. The right’s ability to cast white people as victims is possible only because of the dramatic downward spiral of power and influence for white Americans at home and abroad that, paradoxically, accelerated under Bush.
Internationally, the United States’ failed wars and flailing economy have left one of the world’s most patriotic nations desperately trying to recalibrate its role in global affairs. “Owing to the relative decline of its economic and, to a lesser extent, military power, the US will no longer have the same flexibility in choosing among as many policy options,” concluded the National Intelligence Council (which coordinates analysis from all US intelligence agencies) in November 2008. Meanwhile, neoliberal globalization has left white Americans feeling insecure in a world where they once called the shots. Among citizens of forty-six countries polled in 2007, Americans had the least positive view on foreign trade and one of the least positive on foreign companies. With unemployment edging toward double figures and a once stagnant median income now shrinking, white Americans do not experience their lot compared with nonwhite Americans as one of relative privilege, because compared with last year they are poorer.
Add to this the fact that numerically, white Americans will be a minority by 2045, and you have the basis for the panic that has been unleashed. Obama’s election did not create these anxieties. (Were he more radical in his policies, he might actually alleviate some of them.) It has simply provided a focus for them and, conversely, proved that there is a vast constituency–particularly among the young–who do not share them.
The country these right-wingers keep saying they “want back” is a white one in which their exclusive entitlement to the exercise of power, locally and globally, goes unchallenged. The fact that that country isn’t coming back is what makes their voices so shrill and their actions so extreme. Demographically, economically and geopolitically, white America is in decline. In the absence of any meaningful analysis of class, race or internationalism, white Americans are understandably disoriented. Never having considered the unearned privilege of being white and American, all they can see are things being taken away from them. Never having considered solidarity with blacks and Latinos, they see them not as potential allies but as perpetual enemies. Obama’s election showed that these appeals to fear can be defeated; events since then indicate that they can still be destructive.