The Right's Cult of Obama

What are we going to do about Barack Obama? More than any president in memory he has seeped into every aspect of the nation’s collective political consciousness—not the influence or charisma or persona of Obama but the fact of him. We’ve become so vested in him one way or another that no one is capable of dispassion about anything that has to do with him even indirectly. This includes those who have supported him and find themselves rationalizing, emotionally if not intellectually, how a former constitutional lawyer can have a record on civil liberties that’s occasionally confounding when it isn’t dismaying. It also includes those to the left of Obama who have never trusted him and have been predisposed from the outset to finding him compromised and wanting.

But it’s the right, of course, that most spectacularly manifests how Obama-centric the political culture has become. Though it once seemed this couldn’t be truer than during last year’s presidential contest, it’s been more true in the wake of Obama’s reelection and most true this week when Republicans on the floor of Congress have called Obama “unfit” for office, implicitly laying the foundation for charges of impeachment for some high crime no one can intuit let alone name. From the moment of the president’s ascendancy, the right has been gripped by a monomania unprecedented in terms of how disproportionate it is in relation to reality. In contrast to Americans of all stripes closing ranks behind George W. Bush after the terrorist attacks of September 2001 (and the most controversial election in a century), the financial crisis of 2008 occasioned a furious response among many Americans that was less about what Obama did and said than about who he is, or more precisely, about who some want to believe he is. The Tea Party that so indignantly insists on its tax-exempt status as a “social welfare” movement rather than a partisan one wasn’t born in reaction to any policy of Obama’s or as a vehicle by which an alternative would be offered in face of the most potentially cataclysmic economic meltdown in 75 years. The Tea Party was a reaction to the very biography of Barack Obama and the part of it that cites as his vocation “44th President of the United States.”

Anyone who can’t acknowledge this doesn’t possess the minimum intellectual honesty that makes him or her worth engaging in conversation. The shambolic activities of the Internal Revenue Service, the Justice Department’s various aggressions against the press, even the tragedy of the now fading Benghazi affair (“Watergate times ten” a month ago) are valid subjects of discussion. That these things bear some investigation, however, is insufficient to a right-wing so determined to make all of them about Obama—notwithstanding that thus far there isn’t a single piece of evidence that any of them are about Obama; thus the vagaries of language concerning “tone” and “atmosphere” and “a culture of intimidation”—that it would risk making them about nothing. The right’s zeal, in other words, suggests that if these things can’t be pursued to the president’s feet, then they’re barely worth pursuing.

With the coming of Obama, the right concluded that the Daniel Patrick Moynihan maxim of being entitled to your opinions but not your own facts is for sissies and Obama is the most radical president of all time by virtue of being Obama. This is a conviction held independent of whether the deficit has fallen under Obama rather than risen, whether taxes on most Americans have gone down rather than up, whether the number of people working for the government has shrunk rather than grown, whether the auto industry has survived rather than perished, whether the economy has improved rather than declined, whether al-Qaeda is weaker rather than stronger, and whether “all time” includes the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, and assorted Roosevelts.

The hatred of Obama that has so consumed the mission of congressional Republicans—indicated most vividly by Senator Mitch McConnell’s flat refusal to fill judicial vacancies and by the House Oversight Committee chairmanship of Darrell Issa, who in 2010 declared Obama the most corrupt president ever—also appears to have inspired self-emasculation among congressional Democrats, with the tenure of Harry Reid as his party’s Senate chief becoming more startling by the moment. Paralyzed by the prospect of someday becoming minority leader, Reid already acts like one rather than like the majority leader he presently is. The Obama hysteria that routinely characterizes conservative natterers of radio and television finally has infiltrated conservative intelligentsia as well, the recent musings of Peggy Noonan being the most conspicuous case in point. The author of both President Reagan’s best address, following the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, and the one at 1988’s Republican Convention by which candidate George H. W. Bush resurrected himself, Noonan is a first-rate speech writer with a gift for wedding poetry to ideology.

Poets and thinkers, however, aren’t necessarily the same. Over the years whenever Noonan has tried to pass herself off as a thinker, she’s gotten out of her depth, especially undone by her cultural pretensions; a couple of decades ago, writing about an artist who had photographed a crucifix submerged in urine, she opined that in simpler and better times there was little controversy on what constituted great art and offered as an example Walt Whitman, when in fact Leaves of Grass was considered obscene upon publication and Whitman was fired from his civil service job for writing it. Noonan has described Reagan as the Henry James of American politics, something that makes no sense if you’ve read Henry James. Laboring over the years to keep her distaste for Obama on a more cerebral plane—she once curiously described him as “languid”—lately she’s lost her composure, abhorrence of the president finally convincing her that his culpability in the IRS matter transcends Reagan’s acknowledged complicity in the plainly illegal acts that comprised the 1987 Iran-Contra scandal.

The once-honorable philosophy of Jeffersonian conservatism, by which we test the limits of government and the boundaries of the social contract, has become a pathology. It is so obsessed with the person of the president as to have taken leave of all sense. The right now defines itself almost wholly not by substantive disagreement with the president but bald hypocrisy, nitwitted misogyny, slavish corporatism, a toxicity of spirit and a sense of self-martyrdom, opportunism calling itself patriotism, narcissism calling itself principle, nihilism pretending to be religiosity, disdain for democracy parading as populism and contempt for constitutional process masquerading as reverence, an Orwellian vocabulary that traffics in groundless phrases like “enemies list” and “court-packing,” a hostility to empiricism so brash as to claim—as did a Republican congresswoman last weekend on Meet the Press—157 visits by IRS officials to the White House when there have been a total of 11, and faith bad enough to reject long-time right-wing holy grails like the individual mandate in health-care reform when the illegitimate occupant of the White House embraces them in hope of winning bipartisan support.

Maybe there will be something more to the IRS fiasco. Maybe the president’s fingerprints will be all over it. In the meantime, the right has made the sheer historical moment of Barack Obama a line in the sand. You may take honest issue with much or most of Obama’s policies, but you need to decide on which side of the line you stand given what that line has been made to represent and given that it’s the president’s opponents who drew it, not the president. This historical moment will give way to a posterity that will judge not this president alone but the rest of us too. We will decide what to do about Barack Obama when we decide what to do about ourselves.

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