March 25, 2008

Paul Gottfried reminds us that Obama was recently awash in the praise of Republicans who have now turned on him ferociously.  He also writes:

There were of course critics of Obama on the right, but these were not the people who counted. They were members of the now isolated Old Right, those whom the centrist GOP establishment and their neoconservative confidants had driven out of public life. These commentators, most of whom supported Ron Paul, were never exactly keen on Obama. They called attention to his association with his Afrocentric minister Jeremiah Wright, who had bestowed an award on anti-white and anti-Semitic bigot Louis Farrakhan. These critics also noted that there was a portrait of Southern American communist revolutionary Che Guevara on the wall of Obama’s Houston headquarters. Finally Obama’s early critics reported certain anti-white remarks attributed to his wife Michelle. But more centrist conservatives stayed clear of such revelations, until everything changed in the twinkling of an eye.

Dr. Gottfried is right that there has been an abrupt and jarring shift in mainstream GOP reactions to Obama, and it does indict the Republicans involved as unusually crass opportunists, but far from anything deliberate or carefully planned I think this about-face should be understood as the triumph of a combination of pro-war sentiment and nationalism over mere Clinton hatred.  What, after all, drove much of the Republican praising of Obama?  The simple fact that he was not Hillary Clinton, who retained her reputation a far-left bogey long after she had made calculated efforts to become even more “centrist” than her husband had been, especially with respect to foreign policy.  There were also some positive reasons of a sort for this enthusiasm for Obama.  His generally vacuous unity talk that stressed the things that Americans shared was amenable to Americanists, because it echoed so many of their own empty platitudes, and his apparent nods to conservative concerns (which are efforts at misdirection, not dialogue) gave them hope that they might have finally found a major national Democrat who took them seriously.  They could also demonstrate just how non-racist they were by showering praise on the first plausible minority candidate for President, thus cementing their claim to respectability.  By contrast, those who are not (and to some extent really do not wish to be) part of the “mainstream” conversation, who do not have a “place at the table,” were always unencumbered by this oppressive need to keep questions and criticism of Obama muted. 

Some of the sudden changes in attitude were the result of the willful ignorance about Obama prior to the eruption of the Wright controversy in the national news.  Instead of being an occasion to declare long-held reservations about Obama, the controversy was for many Republicans a moment when they were learning for the first time some things that more careful and skeptical observers on the right had been saying for months and even years.  Another cause for mainstream right enthusiasm was that Obama’s biography seemed to embody one of the preeminent myths that that the GOP celebrates, namely that we are a “nation of immigrants,” and Obama seemed to represent an ideal example of what modern mass immigration could yield.  So long as Obama remained “optimistic,” he also inspired warm feelings among all those pro-war Republicans for whom embarking on fool’s errands and expecting good outcomes have become regular habits.  The crude optimism of “Yes, We Can!” fits in disturbingly well with those who insist that victory in Iraq is only a matter of time, and the claim that we can “change the world” comes from the same kind of arrogance and hubris that has driven those who have embraced the idea of global democratic revolution.  The similarity of his message of “transformation” to the worst aspect of Reagan, the penchant for claiming (invoking Tom Paine) that we “have it in our power to begin the world anew,” was probably what drew some Republican revolutionaries to Obama early on.  Conservatives should not be opposed to change as such, but they should be extremely wary of people, especially politicians, who make an idol out of it. 

Disenchantment with Obama started to set in when he, or at least those closely associated with him, seemed to fail some of the basic tests of American nationalism, which gave his opposition to the Iraq war a different, more ominous appearance.  When he began to appear “ungrateful” in their eyes, or when his views struck them as unduly “pessimistic,” these mainstream Republicans began to find him and his associates distasteful.  You used to hear the argument from these Republicans that Obama might represent doom for the right, but would be good from the country—you don’t hear that anymore.  Instead, partly because of the more hostile treatment from the mainstream right, the dissident right has been giving him far more of a hearing on an essentially single-issue basis than it has ever done for any Republican on any one policy question.  Having rejected the siren song of “the lesser of two evils” in successive elections, some now embrace the same logic that empowers the stifling two-party system and the establishment consensus that the system perpetuates.  It is difficult not to sympathize a little with a candidate who is being excoriated mostly because of the few views that are relatively sane and closer to my own, but that simply reminds me that these views are by and large the exception for this particular candidate, who is in virtually every other respect as wedded to the establishment consensus as any of the Republicans who are now savaging him.     


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