There is something disturbing about the Republican response to just about everything President Obama does. It has a knee-jerk yet patterned nature. It displays a meanness that is acted out with a certain gloating quality as well. Take for instance Republican Representative Joe Wilson shouting “You Lie!” during Obama’s speech to Congress on health care. Wilson’s anger was displayed with the malicious satisfaction of a nasty child. Subsequently, Republican politicians have called President Obama a “tar baby,” a socialist, lazy, Hitler, and perhaps most tellingly, un-American. None these epithets are accurate, yet apparently they are believed to be true not only by the persons who said them, but many others among the Republican base.
What is the reason for this?
The New York Times editors think Republican attitudes towards Obama are politically motivated. As they put it in an editorial on 5 June 2014, referencing Republican reaction to the negotiated release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from captivity in Afghanistan: “The last few days have made clearer than ever that there is no action the Obama administration can take — not even the release of a possibly troubled American soldier from captivity — that cannot be used for political purposes by his opponents.” Of course the Democrats are political opportunists as well, but usually they do not operate in such a persistently mean-spirited manner.
According to liberal commentator M.J. Rosenberg the source of Republican animosity is racial. “The right knows that nothing they can do will remove … what they see as the … the indelible stain of an African American president having been elected. Twice.” However, seeing racism as a primary motivation is probably inadequate. The Republicans reacted in a similarly bloodthirsty way toward Bill Clinton when he was caught fooling around with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office. At that time Republican congressmen gleefully rushed to impeach Clinton even though a number of them had pursued extramarital affairs of their own.
Fear and Loathing
No doubt there are Republicans who are both racist and politically unprincipled in their attitudes to President Obama. However, it seems to me that there is something else going on – something repugnantly familiar – a suffocatingly narrow defining of the nation, an intolerance and disdain of everything outside of that definition, and a belligerency toward those who disagree. What some Republicans are doing is declaring President Obama not only politically wrong but downright un-American, someone who is, in essence, a traitor. Against this backdrop the Republican moderates are very few and very quiet.
The last time we got a glimpse of this attitude was during the 2011 televised Republican presidential primary debates. Back in December 2011 I wrote an analysis entitled “So What Shall We Ruin in November 2012?” that noted this outlook. Here, in summary, is some of that piece:
Most of the Republican nominees are reflections of the so-called Republican base, representatives of which constitute the audience for the presidential primary debates. There is something at once humorous and horrifying about this audience. Their cheers and jeers reflect attitudes that used to be seen only at drunken fraternity parties and out-of-control soccer games.
Who are these people with whom the Republican hopefuls now identify? They appear to be highly partisan Republicans who largely define themselves by what they don’t like: minorities, abortion, big government and the lack of religion in politics, among other things. When we say these are aspects of society they don’t like we really mean that they feel personally threatened by them and see them undermining their way of life. Therefore, they approach those who appear to represent these aspects of public life with fear and loathing. People who meet this description make up about 20 percent of eligible voters in the U.S.
What is important to understand is that these are not just people addicted to a set of traditions. They are folks who possess a nebulous anger, which is the other side of the coin of their fear. This anger can potentially lead them to act in dangerous ways. And, of course in the U.S., most of these people are armed. The Republican Party leadership, from Nixon onward, has catered to this 20 percent – not just because these leaders are political opportunists, but also because they have an unhealthy affinity for this population and its outlook. That today’s Republican leadership has this affinity constitutes one of the major differences between the Republican and Democratic parties.
On the Democratic Side
President Obama’s response to the consistent nastiness of his opponents is usually mild and ineffectual. For instance, referring to the stubborn Republican opposition to his health care reform, he complained, “This does frustrate me, [Republican controlled] states that have chosen not to expand Medicaid for no other reason than political spite. You got 5 million people who could be having health insurance right now, at no cost to these states – zero cost to these states – [yet] other than ideological reasons, they have chosen not to provide health insurance for their citizens.” The president’s observation is quite true, but truth rarely breaks down the barriers put up by ideology.
Obama’s response reflects the liberal take on politics and social decorum. Reason and compromise are supposed to be the guiding lights of domestic public life. While this might have been possible in the days before Richard Nixon led the Republican Party it is not so today. As Obama realized, reason has nothing to do with Republican actions. Those actions are now directed by a nebulous ideology that partakes of anarchism, laissez faire economics, and neoconservative aggressiveness all at once. Underlying it all is a fear and anger that breeds meanness and the behavior of the bully.
Of course the Democrats are also capable of saying and doing stupid things. However, their foibles and hypocrisies tend to be based on misplaced principles (as against no principle at all). Take Secretary of State Kerry’s recent “Man Up” proclamation reported on 29 May 2014. Referring to Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who revealed that the agency was pursuing wholesale spying on just about the entire U.S. population. Kerry said the following: “The bottom line is this is a man who has betrayed his country, who is sitting in Russia, an authoritarian country where he has taken refuge. He should man up and come back to the United States.”
This was a stupid and misleading statement. It is actually U.S. leaders, starting with George W. Bush and continuing on with President Obama, who “betrayed their country” by allowing the NSA to run wild. Snowden just caught them at it and made their betrayal public. However, as distasteful and downright silly as is Kerry’s “man up” pronouncement, it lacks the hateful quality of the typical Republican attack stance.
There is a qualitative difference between today’s Democrats and Republicans. That difference does not lie in the potential to pursue policies that negatively impact the world. Both parties do that. The difference is in their attitude toward policy and action as such. When it comes to the Democrats, particularly their supporting base, many of them seem to retain the ability to think critically about their positions and sometimes even change course. But with the Republicans, one gets the sense that they are really true believers. They see their positions and actions as absolutely right and good, and if you disagree with them you are absolutely wrong and bad. In other words, while both parties are often dangerously wrong, the Republicans are wrong in a demented ideological fashion. As such they really are more repugnant than the Democrats.
Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester PA.