Racial Groundhog Day: How the right foreignized the first black president -- again

From Walker and Giuliani to Netanyahu, here's how GOP efforts to undermine the president’s Americanness persist

Published March 9, 2015 12:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Cliff Owen/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/Richard Drew)
(AP/Cliff Owen/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/Richard Drew)

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting a different result, then Republicanism of late might be less politics, and more pathology.

Some six years in office, two presidential elections, countless impeachment attempts, litigated birth certificates, and a heavy dose of Donald Trump paranoia later, and here we go again: the racial “othering” of Obama as a president non grata is making a clear comeback in the American (and international) zeitgeist. Not that it ever really went away.

For its initial ugly encore, there was, of course, Rudy Giuliani and Scott Walker. A curiously desperate double act – it must be said – of dog-whistling prejudice, with the narrative prowess of a broken record, and the racial sensitivities of that curmudgeon in the corner who insists, “I’m not a racist, but…”

Such domestic endeavors toward Obama’s alienation were given the tone-deaf glitz of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s congressional intervention last week, orchestrated by Republicans to deploy an overseas leader to ironically foreignize their own. Together – and in a startling rhetorical event of bilateral ventriloquism – the conservative base and Israeli leadership have formed an alliance, placing Obama and his Iranian policy by default in a contrary implied Islamic identity space, reinforcing the conspiratorial sense that the anti-American (and now anti-Israeli) enemy is within the executive branch of government.

When Giuliani – part New York mayor, and now part pop psychologist – suggests that Obama is incapable of loving America, or even understanding it; or when Scott Walker feels so stymied by the Tea Party base that he cannot define the president’s religious affiliation, both men consciously revive, and participate in, a years-long strategic campaign to demonize, foreignize and delegitimize the first African-American president of the United States, for barrel-scraping conservative advantage.

The foreignization of the first black president – and, importantly, the first non-white president in American history – is a manifestation of a philosophical theory known as the “Other,” a concept that is strengthened in the United States by a historical cultural equation of whiteness with belonging.  For the uninitiated, “othering” is the means of constituting one’s identity in relation to another, to differentiate between the known and the unknown, the near and the far, the home and away, the black and the white, the me and “not me.” While there is nothing structurally malignant in the othering process (it’s the foundation of sports team affiliation, for example) its association with Eurocentric, imperialist philosophy has made it so. That is, to “other” in the modern age is to position the self positively in contradistinction with a negative or unequal other, leading  to segregation, negative stereotypes, actions of non-admittance and – most recently – political racism of the highest order.

Giuliani and Walker are the latest high-profile and deliberate participants in the “othering” impulse, which aims to separate Obama from the patriotic ideal. In a way, they are merely the unimaginative inheritors of a long and varied tradition of anti-Obama identity politics. The Tea Party; virulent birtherism; calls for Obama’s college records; suggestions of alternative paternities; Obama’s depiction as Stalin and Hitler; calls for the president to return to his “native” Kenya; accusations of Islamic extremism, domestic terrorism, communism, fascism, anti-colonialism and European socialism; impeachment, secession, conscientious objection and talk of death panels and reeducation camps – to skim the surface of the conspiratorial waters – have become the touchstones of a right-wing fantasy of Obama’s non-belonging that push him to the periphery of American normalcy.

With that in mind, the Giuliani-Walker spasm might, at first glance, be overlooked as a derivative of a rather 2008 vintage of anti-Obama speculation (so last season, Rudy). But media, academics, political actors and the voting public have a responsibility to call out the casual legitimization of elite forms of racism – even when they arrive in such unoriginal forms. For in a world of legislative and moral bankruptcy, Obama’s public flagellation on the basis of his identity has become an everyday spectator sport, enabled by a sort of conspiracy of silence by a nation overwhelmed by the sheer volume of vitriol.

In 2015, when the emeritus New York mayor, Wisconsin governor and Israeli president join forces to impugn the president’s romantic patriotic intentions or religious fealty, they knowingly tap into a deep well of Obama’s racial othering, as well as a rich American history of antique presidential prejudices. Specifically, their comments embed and revive the tropes of Obama’s dangerous foreign-ness and de-Christianization, but they also invoke the centuries-old disparagement of past presidents on the basis of their allegiance and theology. The difference between the 44th president and the long list of his white forebears is, of course, that the othering narrative is so easily written upon the canvas of black skin and a unique biographical past.

The impulse to strip Obama of a Christian identity, while implicitly or explicitly overlaying a mask of crypto-jihadism, is intended to push him beyond the limits of the Judeo-Christian paradigm, and toward an anti-American extremism of terroristic proportions. If that seems to be overstating Walker’s reluctance to answer a question on Obama’s faith, it isn’t. That’s because a politician’s silence or shrugging shoulders, when faced with questions about Obama’s belongingness, has become the lingua franca shorthand for their tacit endorsement of the president’s varied but unfounded demonization. In the dictionary of Tea Party parlance, refusing to verbally confirm Obama’s Christianity is code word for “I want to join your impeachment rally and raise a banner that reads 'Who is the real Barack HUSSEIN Obama?'!”

Gone are the gallant days of Sen. McCain awkwardly ripping a microphone away from an audience member who insisted that Obama was “an Arab.”  Instead, we have entered a new era of bystander racism, an age of “prejudice in the gaps.”

Back in 2004, Cathleen Falsani was sitting in a Chicago cafe when she asked Obama a simple question: “What do you believe?” When Obama responded, “I am a Christian,” he could have little imagined that a decade later in 2014, PolitiFact.com would still be assessing the validity of a rumor that he had established a “nationwide Muslim outreach program for children” – some sort of educational caliphate that rewarded Islamic theological study with extra credits. Nor would he have hoped that his patriotism and theology would be a Republican obsession even as he approaches the lame duck waiting room. But between Obama’s emergence onto the national stage, and the recent Giuliani-Walker episode, the stratagem has been deployed relentlessly.

Cast your mind back to Obama’s senatorial campaign, and you find Alan Keyes channeling the Messiah to prophesize: “Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama.”

Recall the cartoons of the Democratic candidate wearing a blue fez emblazoned with Muslim symbols.

Remember the county coordinator for the Hillary Clinton campaign who warned that Obama had joined the United Church of Christ “in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background.” While swearing in on the Holy Quran.

Reflect upon the words of congressmen Steve King – that bastion of thought – who predicted that if Obama was elected “then the radical Islamists, the al-Qaida…and their supporters will be dancing in the street in greater numbers than they did on September 11.”

Remember Sarah Palin using her folksy idiolect to accuse Obama of palling around with terrorists and launching his political campaign in the living room of Weather Underground leader William Ayers.

Recall the night of McCain’s presidential concession speech, during which a choleric Republican crowd punctuated their boos with shouts of “terrorist.”

Evoke the wisdom of Fox Nation, which argued that Obama had Photoshopped himself into the Situation Room images on the night of Osama bin Laden’s assassination.

Rekindle the memory of the House of Representatives in 2011 as they broke their legislative inertia to table a debate on the reconfirmation of “In God We Trust” as the national motto – as if under threat in the era of Obama’s executive.

Remember similarly an opportunistic Mitt Romney pledging “I will not take 'God' off our coins and I will not take God out of my heart.”

Or recall the more unhinged era of Glenn Beck during which he used his television program to scour Obama’s family tree for evidence of religious perversion.

Reflect upon the millions of viewers of YouTube videos that claim that Obama’s 2008 nomination acceptance speech, when played backward, implores the listener to “Serve Satan”

I could go on and on and on (and so many have), but I’ll stop at just one more juncture on the memory lane of Obama’s religious demonization. In July 2008, the New Yorker published a cover illustration called “The Politics of Fear” created by Barry Blitt. In the satirical cartoon, Obama stands in the Oval Office clothed in the trappings of Islamic garb, with a white turbanesque headdress and brown open toe sandals. One foot is deliberately placed upon the neck of the American eagle on the presidential carpet beneath. George Washington’s portrait has been replaced with a homage to Osama bin Laden, as a star-spangled banner crackles as kindling on the fire. To add to the scene of celebratory terroristic dissent, Michelle Obama is styled as a Black Panther agitator, in steel-toe boots and an AK47 slung over her shoulder.  While many got the joke, some confused the illustration as a mainstream concession to the anti-Obama fantasies of far-right extremists. The failure of the satire demonstrated a fundamental national schism, between those who believed in the Obama theological conspiracy, and those who did not.

Public polling has consistently recorded that the electorate is somewhat persuaded by the theories espoused by Giuliani, Walker and those before them. According to a Pew poll in 2008, 79 percent of the public had heard the Muslim rumors, with 10 percent believing them to be true. In Obama’s second year as president, 18 percent believed that Obama took instruction from the Quran, with a massive 43 percent of respondents uncertain (or silent) about Obama’s affiliation. A Harris Interactive Poll found 57 percent of conservatives asserted that Obama was Muslim, while another 25 percent (one logically assumes there is no overlap) contended that Obama is the Antichrist incarnate, the enemy of the Christian faith.

The literature surrounding Obama’s religious alienation has embedded the concept within the canon of popular political analysis. Michael Ledeen’s "Betrayal of Israel" (2010), Stephen Kirby’s "Islam and Barack Hussein Obama: A Handbook on Islam" (2010), Andrew McCarthy’s "How Obama Embraces Islam’s Sharia Agenda" (2011), Martin and Patricia Reott’s "Unauthorized Diary of a Muslim President" (2012), Frank Gaffney’s "The Muslim Brotherhood in the Obama Administration" (2012), and David Harsanyi's "Obama's Four Horsemen: The Disasters Unleashed by Obama's Reelection" (2013), form a library of conspiracy theories that write the 44th president’s supposed extremism into the book of national consciousness.

The fear of the religious “other” has been present from the very founding of the United States, becoming most acute in eras of social or political anxiety. Thomas Jefferson’s alleged Francophile sympathies and unconventional Christian views led the New England Palladium to write that “should the infidel Jefferson be elected to the Presidency, the seal of death is that moment set on our holy religion, our churches will be prostrated and some infamous prostitute…will preside in the sanctuaries now devoted to the worship of the most High” (Kaplan 1998). Lincoln similarly drew criticism for refusing to join a formal Christian congregation, and was later maligned as a Clandestine Catholic. Franklin Delano Roosevelt – whose presidency was bookended by national crises – was surrounded by rumors of closeted Judaism throughout the 1940s, propelled by decades of anti-Semitic sentiment (even Hitler apparently reveled in the characterization of the American president as a secret Jew).

Similarly, Obama’s religious demonization is set within a context of extant political and economic anxieties, alongside an anti-Islamic sentiment informed by the events of 9/11 and the recent medievalism of ISIL. The Obama presidency exists in an era of heightened apprehension surrounding the Muslim body and its potential for radicalization, endangerment and implosion. Unlike his predecessors, Obama’s own racialized body has been transmogrified into a potential vehicle for the very worst motivations of such anti-American religious extremism. When Giuliani, Walker and others refuse to dispel this anxiety, by merely restating Obama’s Christian credentials, they knowingly give oxygen to its perpetuation in the American psychology.

Finally, if the de-Christianization of Obama is engineered to suggest his Islamification on the one hand, then it is also configured to remove the halo of his demi-messianic status as the embodiment of American progress and hope. It is, if you like, a 21st-century equivalent of the dissolution of the monasteries, whereby to strip Obama of mainstream religious ornamentation, is to effectively neuter his political or patriotic power. But the irony is, of course, that Obama has won both elections in spite of his demonization, and has nothing more to lose. The same cannot be said of the Republican Party, which, at a time when its eyes should be on fielding the very best candidate for the 2016 election, is engaged in this Groundhog Day time-loop of antique racism, identity politics and sore losing.

Giuliani, Walker and their ilk should be ashamed of their quiet but legitimizing indulgence in the excesses of racial animus aimed at Obama, which history will judge as a phenomenon of unparalleled political malice. If it persists in its transparent racial demonization of Obama, the Republican Party of Lincoln, Grant and Reagan is at risk of becoming the addled mind of American politics, a slumped old white guy in an asylum armchair, muttering the repetitive xenophobic vignettes of the “good old days,” and dribbling ineffective venom, while no one is listening.

By Martin A. Parlett

Martin A. Parlett is the author of Demonizing a President: The Foreignization of Barack Obamaand a researcher of politics, history and rhetoric. He is a graduate of Oxford University and the recipient of the Canadian Rhodes Foundation Scholarship.

MORE FROM Martin A. Parlett

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

America American Barack Obama Benjamin Netanyahu Israel President Race Racism Rudy Giuliani Scott Walker