Have you ever wondered where Republicans come up with their absurd ideas about what President Obama intends to do? According to Mitt Romney, Obama wants to take “In God We Trust” off money. In The Wall Street Journal today, Michael Mukasey, who is advising the Romney campaign although the Journal does not disclose that, claims Obama might release Omar Abdel Rahman, mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. Mukasey readily admits to having no real evidence for such a preposterous scenario. So where do these lies get invented? Often they come from the conservative underground echo chamber.
Liberals talk a lot about Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and other conservative media that are on the mainstream radar. But liberals and mainstream journalists tend to forget that there is a fever swamp of crazed conspiracy theories and shockingly offensive rhetoric that exists in obscure right-wing websites and viral e-mail chains. As David Frum recently noted on his Daily Beast blog, it is impossible to understand the dog whistles you hear on Fox News if you aren’t familiar with the viral e-mail smears their audience believes in. Specifically, Frum was referring to Fox host Greg Gutfield’s line that “Obama is now out of the closet.… he’s officially gay for class warfare.” That’s a reference to the conservative e-mail meme that Obama is gay. Frum writes:
Fox is only the most visible part of a vast alternative reality. Fox’s coverage of the news cannot be properly understood in isolation, but only in conjunction with the rest of that system—and especially the chain emails that do so much to shape the worldview of Fox viewers.
I have a friend from a small town in Washington state. She gets e-mails forwarded from her right-wing uncle, which have sometimes come to him as part of a group of recipients that includes local high school teachers and administrators. Frequently, they are bigoted jokes that incorrectly assume President Obama is a Muslim. Here’s a typical recent one:
Just wanted to let you know—today I received my 2012 Social Security Stimulus Package. It contained two tomato seeds, cornbread mix, a prayer rug, a machine to blow smoke up my ass, 2 discount coupons to KFC, an “Obama Hope & Change” bumper sticker, and a “Blame it on Bush” poster for the front yard. The directions were in Spanish.
This apparently started as a Facebook post on the page of the Rutland County, Vermont, Republican Party.
For another example of a vicious anti-Obama e-mail that mocks his falsely alleged Islamic faith, check out this e-mail from a Tea Party group in Northeastern Pennsylvania, which jokes about Obama being beaten up by the founding gathers in heaven. The kicker is that Obama, being a Muslim, was expecting to be greeted by seventy-two virgins in heaven, but was instead met by seventy-two Virginians, such as George Washington and James Madison.
Sometimes, the e-mails are more substantive and they repeat demonstrably false assertions about policy matters. They also seem to circulate for years without being updated. A recent one complained that the US is under the boot of a “shadow government” of Obama’s czars. It listed Richard Holbrooke, who was special adviser for Afghanistan and Pakistan before he passed away in 2010, as “Afghanistan czar.” It inaccurately described Holbrooke, a politically moderate career foreign policy official, as, “Ultra liberal anti-gun former Governor Of New Mexico, Pro-Abortion and pro-drug legalization. Wants to dissolve the 2nd Amendment.” It’s not even clear with whom they have Holbrooke confused. Other e-mails repeat more common conservative lies, such as claiming that the Affordable Care Act will extend health insurance to undocumented immigrants.
Occasionally conservatives with a public platform repeat these viral e-mail smears, but they try to avoid having to defend them with facts. Case in point: a couple of months ago I tweeted that Mitt Romney might as well release his tax returns, since he eventually is going to have to anyway. This is a fairly unremarkable statement, considering plenty of conservatives and Republicans had made it themselves. Kathleen McKinley, conservative blogger for The Houston Chronicle and Newsbusters whom I had never heard of but had taken to trollishly responding to many of my tweets, tweeted at me: “@badler We are waiting on O’s grades,l passport, & fast and furious docs.” Passport? I was unaware this was an issue. So I asked McKinley what she was talking about. “@badler Just one of many documents Obama never released,” she responded.
Well, that does not tell me why anyone wants Obama to release his passport and what it might show that is of interest to the public. So I Googled. It turns out that the White House did, in fact, show Obama’s passport in a publicly released video back in 2010. As the New York Daily News reported at the time:
A close-up of the passport reveals only a few bits of information about the President, but they are specific to the question of where and when he was born.
The document shows that his nationality is “United States of America,” that he was born on August 4, 1961 and that his “Place of Birth” was Hawaii, U.S.A.
In order to obtain a passport, an American must provide a “certified birth certificate issued by the city, country or state,” according to the State Department website. This would suggest that President Obama would have had to show documentation proving when and where he was born in order to obtain the U.S. passport.
Reporters speculated that this would be the final nail in birtherism’s coffin. Apparently not. I pointed this out to McKinley, and she replied, “@badler Not his recent passport. Look, I don’t care about that. But I do care about Fast and Furious Docs.” OK, so which passport is she talking about then? She wouldn’t say.
It turns out that conservative lunatics have been demanding to see the passport Obama used to travel to Asia in 1981. Their theory is that Obama must have had a non-US passport because he visited Pakistan.
In 2011, notorious birther Jerome Corsi of the far-right website World Net Daily complained that Obama’s current passport doesn’t have II after his name, as his birth certificate does. (Obama was named after his father, hence II). “Since Obama has refused to release his passport records, it is impossible to determine what documents were submitted to the State Department to obtain the passport,” Corsi wrote. The underlying complaint is, of course, ridiculous nonsense.
In fact, my friend’s uncle had sent her an e-mail back in January, 2010, laying out the whole passport theory. The e-mail begins with a fake news story that is presented as an actual one article from the “AP.” Here is the lead:
In a move certain to fuel the debate over Obama’s qualifications for the presidency, the group “Americans for Freedom of Information” has Released copies of President Obama’s college transcripts from Occidental College. Released today, the transcript school indicates that Obama, under the name Barry Soetoro, received financial aid as a foreign student from Indonesia as an undergraduate. The transcript was released by Occidental College in compliance with a court order in a suit brought by the group in the Superior Court of California. The transcript shows that Obama (Soetoro) applied for financial aid and was awarded a fellowship for foreign students from the Fulbright Foundation Scholarship program. To qualify, for the scholarship, a student must claim foreign citizenship.
A web search for the text shows that it has been circulating for years and it has been debunked by several sites, including Factcheck.org, which received a query from someone who had gotten the e-mail. They concluded, “The claim is false and the story is a hoax.” But Google the first sentence of the fake story, and you will turn up 151,000 results.
This particular e-mail goes on to pose a series of rhetorical questions about Obama’s 1981 trip, ending with:
When Obama went to Pakistan in 1981 he was traveling either with a British passport or an Indonesian passport. Whatever the truth of the matter, the American people need to know how he managed to become a “natural born” American citizen between 1981 and 2008.
But it isn’t true that Americans were unable to visit Pakistan in 1981. It was, in fact, perfectly legal and possible to travel to Pakistan on American passport.
If you’re surprised that the debunking hasn’t stopped the passport myth from circulating, don’t be. As the allegations from Republicans in Congress that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s longtime aide Huma Abedin is working for the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrates, Islamophobic and xenophobic allegations don’t have to make any sense for conservatives to believe them.
It’s worth remembering that these underground conservative memes exist when you listen to conservatives speaking in public. Remember the repeated jokes at the Republican National Convention about Obama’s supposed laziness—that he is always playing golf and has never had a real job? If these references struck you as odd and unfamiliar, that’s because, per Frum, conservatives have their own shadow conversation, whence these false assumptions are ingrained. And the next time you hear a crazy conspiracy theory like the one about Abedin, you will have a good guess as to where it came from.
Liberal bloggers don’t have to fabricate crazy right-wing agendas—Republicans do it for them. Check out Bryce Covert’s piece on the GOP’s recent “gaffes.”