Quite appropriately, considering how terrible much of the news this year has been, it looks like the last big story of 2014 will be the horrifying murder of two NYPD officers this weekend by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, an unhappy and mentally unstable 28-year-old man who had a history of trouble with the law and a propensity for violence. Claiming on social media beforehand that he was doing it in the name of avenging Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Brinsley approached a squad car in Brooklyn on Saturday and pitilessly killed the two unsuspecting officers within before killing himself after a brief attempt to escape. Like Shaneka Thompson, the Air Force reservist and former girlfriend he'd shot in the stomach earlier that day (who is in critical condition but expected to recover), neither Officer Wenjian Liu nor Officer Rafael Ramos was white.
The worst thing about this terrible event is, by far, the fear and pain that has been visited on those who care for Thompson, Ramos and Liu. On a human level, that's what most matters. But on the level of politics — which occasionally intersects with that of humanity, but far less often than you'd hope — a terrible development was the response. As my colleague Joan Walsh explained already, a truly surprising and disappointing number of high-profile conservatives and Republicans didn't even wait until the public knew Brinsley's name before they began using his atrocity for their own, tangentially related purposes. New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association head Patrick Lynch, for example, almost immediately integrated the attack into his ongoing campaign against Mayor Bill de Blasio. Former Gov. George Pataki, meanwhile, used it to bash de Blasio and test the waters for the latest iteration of his quadrennially threatened (and quadrennially ignored) potential White House run.
Yet even though blaming New York's mayor for Brinsley's actions is irrational (and so opportunistic that it borders on the obscene), even more shocking, even more inexcusable, and even more disturbing were the comments from ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The failed presidential candidate and well-compensated consultant to Serbian nationalists trained his fire not so much at Mayor de Blasio as President Obama, whom he charged with fostering an atmosphere that made actions like Brinsley's seem OK. "We've had four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police," Giuliani said on Fox News Sunday morning. "The protests are being embraced, the protests are being encouraged," he continued. Even the peaceful protests, he said, "lead to a conclusion: The police are bad, the police are racist." Giuliani all but laid the slain officers' caskets at the president's feet.
While it should not surprise us that a man who once, in complete earnestness, said "[f]reedom is about authority" thinks all forms of organized dissent against law enforcement are illegitimate, we should be shaken and concerned by the complete lack of pushback from other elite Republicans that Giuliani's comments received. Despite the fact that nothing — absolutely, positively nothing — the president said in response to the turmoil in Ferguson or the outrage in Staten Island could be reasonably construed as even tacitly endorsing violence, no high-profile GOPer even tried to scold "America's mayor" for his brazen claims. In spite of the fact that Giuliani's comments could only make sense if you accepted a racialized and erroneous subtext (black protesters and president vs. white police), no Republican publicly disagreed. And when Erick Erickson, predictably, brought Giuliani's insinuation to the surface, saying Obama "does not like the United States," the silence remained.
When we think of the ways in which Obama's most virulent enemies have sought to delegitimize him, to depict him not only as wrong on various issues as well as lacking in character but as fundamentally deceitful and un-American, we conjure up images of the birthers. We think of claims that he's actually from Kenya and/or Indonesia, that he's lying about his Christianity and/or as his name. But even though the Democrats, the mainstream media and elements of the Republican establishment have managed to push the birthers to the fringes of the GOP, there's little reason to think Giuliani, Erickson and others who make arguments like theirs will be ostracized from polite society. That's a great injustice — because what they're doing now and what the birthers do is, fundamentally, the same.
Granted, alleging President Obama is on a decades-long mission, which began at the time of his birth, to destroy the United States from within is much more superficially outlandish than alleging that he encourages the murder of police. But both claims, at their essence, depict the president as alien from the rest of American society, as an interloper with nefarious designs. For the birthers, Obama is a secret Muslim or Marxist or lizard (or a combination of all three) who wants to weaken the U.S. in order to implement some shadowy scheme. And for Giuliani and Erickson, he's a secret radical, a crypto-black nationalist, the New Black Panther Party's best friend in D.C. He's not a milquetoast liberal technocrat reformer, but an extremist in camouflage, inciting a race war and the murder of police.
These wild, bigoted fever dreams are dangerous accusations for anyone to excuse or ignore, no matter the target. But they're especially unacceptable when the accused is the first African-American president of the United States. This country has a long, ugly history of treating people of color — but especially black people — as somehow less than fully American. That's part of what made Obama's ascension to the White House so important and extraordinary. The prospect of the country's first black president being repeatedly accused by his political opponents of stoking a race war and sowing disorder is therefore a scary one; and if it came to pass, it would be a clear step back from where we were as recently as 2008. And this is why it's imperative that all the key players in the political elite push these sentiments back underground, as they (mostly) did with the birthers.
If they're serious about wanting to strive for national unity and reconciliation on race in America, Republicans and conservatives need to distance themselves from Erickson and Giuliani's comments — ASAP.