In general, I’m not too concerned with civility in politics, but it’s hard not to be shocked by the nastiness and aggression of today’s Republican Party. Congressional Republicans routinely accuse Democrats of treason, or worse, with little rebuke from party leaders. Reliably conservative lawmakers—like Bob Inglis and Dick Lugar—are challenged nonetheless for their insufficient hatred of Democrats. President Obama, as most people know, has been subject to a constellation of outlandish attacks, from false claims about his “foreign” birth to attacks on his patriotism—Mitt Romney, to use a prominent example, often trumpets the falsehood that Obama has gone around the world to apologize for America.
All of this is why I wasn’t surprised to learn that wealthy Republican donors plan to launch a salvo of personal attacks on the president, in order to hurt his standing with a public that still likes him, even if they are divided on his presidency. Writing for The New York Times, Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg provide the details:
The plan, which is awaiting approval, calls for running commercials linking Mr. Obama to incendiary comments by his former spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose race-related sermons made him a highly charged figure in the 2008 campaign.
“The world is about to see Jeremiah Wright and understand his influence on Barack Obama for the first time in a big, attention-arresting way,” says the proposal, which was overseen by Fred Davis and commissioned by Joe Ricketts, the founder of the brokerage firm TD Ameritrade.
This plan, more or less, is an exercise in race-baiting. Rather than tackle issues or even demogogue his policies, Davis plans to take the road rejected by the McCain campaign, and attempt to build Obama into a scary avatar for everything America fears about African Americans. Yes, it’s despicable, but I also can’t help but find it a little amusing. To wit, as Zeleny and Rutenberg report, the group also plans to hire an “extremely literate conservative African-American” in order to rebuff charges that this is an exercise in racism. Of course! Much in the same way that having a black friend means you can never be a racist, hiring a black person means that all charges of racism are null and void. Behold the totemic power of tokenism!
More seriously, I doubt that this would be effective outside of those people who already dislike Obama for his racial background; as a president whose public image is defined by both family and earnestness, most Americans aren’t going to buy the idea that he’s secretly a Marxist radical, out to exact retribution for past sins.
What this illustrates, more than anything, is the extent to which racialized, anti-Obama conspiracies are in wide circulation among the GOP donor class of wealthy businesspeople. Popular perceptions notwithstanding, there’s nothing about wealth and education that grant immunity to conspiratorial beliefs, and indeed, because the wealthy and educated are more likely to hold strong ideological views and most likely to absorb partisan information, they are excellent targets for partisan misinformation. That this comes with a serving of racism is only a reflection of the race-baiting that is now common to conservative media outlets (see: Rush Limbaugh). Put another way, who else but rich people can afford to spend millions on a plan to relitigate the 2008 election?
One last point: if you accept that wealthy conservatives are the most likely to believe insane things about the president, then you also have to give up hope—at least in the short-term—that the Republican Party will abandon its camp in the right-wing of American politics. Donors are constituents like any other, and they influence the how of representation, as well as the substance. Allen West doesn’t actually have to accuse his colleagues of communism; he can use strong rhetoric and advance conservative beliefs without resorting to slander. But the people want it, and since they have the cash, they get what they want.