It started with Jeremiah Wright.
The “it” in question is making Barack Obama seem illegitimate, an unAmerican other who threatens “our” America.
Jeremiah Wright, the angry preacher whose Chicago church—Christian!—Obama attended for many years, actually said very little that was surprising to anyone who knew anything about the black church in America. 400 years of slavery and oppression make Wright’s phrase, “God Bless America? God Damn America!,” a relatively simple one to put into context. However, Obama’s association with Wright left many Americans with a suspicion that Obama was, in fact, an angry black radical with a deep-seated hatred of white people and what Glenn Beck called “the white culture.” This suspicion was why Sarah Palin so often referred to Obama as having begun his political career “in the living room of a domestic terrorist”—former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayres. (Ayres was by then a professor of education at UI-Chicago, and was one of Obama’s neighbors in the upscale Hyde Park neighborhood near the University of Chicago.)
The birthers came next. After Obama’s inauguration, there was an explosion of groups and individuals insisting that Obama had actually been born in Kenya (or sometimes it is Indonesia). The birthers insist that Obama’s “certificate of live birth” is not a real birth certificate, and the birth announcement that was published in the Honolulu newspaper in August 1961 was really just an announcement to the parents’ Hawaiian friends—it was called in from Kenya, not reported from hospital records. And since the Constitution requires that one has to be a natural born citizen of the United States in order to be president, if the birthers are right, then Obama cannot be president.
After the birthers came the health care opponents, at least some of whom accused Obama and the Democrats of using authoritarian, jack booted tactics to ram an alien, “European,” socialist agenda down “our” throats. (Abetted, of course, by academics, Hollywood types, the “mainstream media,” and others of the “usual suspects.”) In this construction Obama is a Fascist forcing hateful policies on Americans using anti-democratic means that aim to corrupt “real” American values into those of Socialist, icky Europeans. (Making Obama both a Fascist and a Socialist, which in ideological terms is a pretty neat trick.) In this view it is a short step from what Glenn Beck horrifiedly referred to as “social justice” to “European-style socialism.” Once again, Obama was seen as unAmerican and a threat to “us.”
More recently, in an ironic reversal of the Jeremiah Wright story, many have implied or asserted that Barack Obama is really a Muslim. His willingness to entertain the idea that however wise it is, a Muslim group has the right to build a cultural center containing a worship space near Ground Zero has led people like Newt Gingrich and Dinesh D’Souza to insist that Obama bears the “imprint” of his Muslim father on his soul. This Muslim taint means that Obama is not “one of us,” and so cannot be trusted to protect “American” values. Both Gingrich and D’Souza have insisted that one cannot understand Obama unless one interprets his acts as those of a Luo Kenyan tribesman, surreptitiously implanting a Luo and Muslim agenda among the American people.
Taken together, all these memes provide anyone seeking to oppose Obama with justification for doing so. More, opposing Obama is not just a matter of simple political disagreements; rather, it is culture war: We are at risk from “them,” and Obama is “one of them.”
The thing about ordinary politics, though, is that it’s not a culture crime to engage in compromise. As a consequence, ordinary political disputes, however intense they are, are usually resolvable. By contrast, cultural conflicts are usually much more angry and violent: if we lose “our people” lose (at least that’s what we think). The stakes become self-fulfilling: since we think our culture is at stake, we fight hard—which then pushes our “enemies” to do the same. Culture war is usually brutal stuff.
The plain fact is that at least some of those who oppose Obama see him as illegitimate and alien. They are working very hard to defeat him. This, of course, is their right, although the evocation of culture war leads in directions that are very dangerous for the nation’s stability. But in the end, their invocation of the rhetoric of culture war leads to the same question that every culture war leads to: just who, in the end, is going to win?