Why Obama Hatred? Ask Ellison, Baldwin

It appears as though the fall election is all but set with Mitt Romney’s three primary wins on Tuesday. The election will be a chance to take stock of the past three years and look ahead to new possibilities. As I gaze over Obama’s presidency, I think what still most bewilders me is the deep anger he generated from the moment he took the oath of office.

Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish is also  flummoxed since he, like me, thinks Obama has performed remarkably well given what he was up against. Voicing his bewilderment the other day, Sullivan received some literary explanations from readers.

Here is Sullivan expressing his bewilderment:

It has long befuddled me – the way so many on the right view him not with disagreement or discernment, but with contempt. Contempt is a strong word; and it is built on some notion of his illegitimacy as president. . .

A president who can be shouted at during a State of the Union address; a president whose birth certificate, readily available, is still questioned; a president who is regarded by an unthinkable chunk of Republicans as a Muslim; a president who allegedly cannot speak a full sentence without a TelePrompter; or, in Glenn Reynolds’ immortal words, “a racist hatemonger.”

Sullivan concludes his post by asking his readers,

Is this rank racism, pure partisanship, class resentment, or some toxic combination of them all?

One reader wrote in with the protagonist’s immortal words in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who points to the inability of whites to really see a black man:

Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.

I am an invisible man. 
No I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe: 
Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. 
I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids
- and I might even be said to possess a mind. 
I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me.

Another quoted a passage from James Baldwin’s “The Devil Finds Work:

An identity is questioned only when it is menaced, as when the mighty begin to fall, or when the wretched begin to rise, or when the stranger enters the gates, never, thereafter, to be a stranger: the stranger’s presence making you the stranger, less to the stranger than to yourself.

The responses led Sullivan to conclude,

I think I correctly gauged the American public’s willingness to elect a biracial president. I think I drastically under-rated their willingness to actually be governed by one.

I’m willing to go along with Sullivan on this if we add that the toxic mixture he describes shows up differently in different groups. For some of the opposition—those pedaling birther theories and calling Obama a Muslim (i.e., an Other) and stockpiling guns—race is clearly the predominant factor. But there are others whose concerns are mainly economic. I owe this observation to Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine, who has been trying to figure out why the conservative Supreme Court justices were hostile to the very existence of Obamacare:

But the deeper cause is that conservative elites — not just freaked out conservative activists listening to Glenn Beck — have been swept up in a broad economic panic. Ground Zero of this panic is Wall Street, whose unchecked sense of victimization has been well chronicled by Gabe Sherman and Alec MacGillis. David Frum noted a while ago that the leader of a conservative institution confided, “Our donors truly think the apocalypse has arrived.”

Chait describes the world as seen from the eyes of these conservative elites:

They, the masses, are using their political power to gang up on us and seize our wealth.

In other words, it didn’t matter that Obama disappointed progressives by naming establishment figures like Geithner and Summers to his cabinet or that he did not take radical steps against the banks and the financiers. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times may castigate the president for being timid and Occupy Wall Street may see him as a centrist Democrat, yet something about him appears to have conjured up images of proletarian revolution among America’s moneyed class.

Chait talks about having seen the following statement floating around conservative circles for years and now being repeated more and more frequently:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.

In other words, when words like “socialist” or “tyrant” get thrown at Obama, it’s not just campaign hyperbole, which is what I have been assuming. There are otherwise reasonable people who really believe this. Perhaps there’s an element of race—maybe these elites are indeed freaked out by Obama’s black face or by all the black and brown faces that excitedly voted for him—but race is subordinate to a fear of losing their preeminence. They might feel the same about the white working class (think of their contempt for the redneck president from Arkansas–or going back in history, for Andrew Jackson), whose racism they sometimes exploit.

Or as Chait puts it,

Conservatives have come to see the majority’s threatening ability to shape economic policy not merely as an impediment but as a dire existential threat. Such a fear drove the Court to strike down the income tax more than a century ago, in the face of clear precedent. The current conservative legal obsession with strange dystopian hypotheticals [forcing every American to buy broccoli, for instance] has little to do with a straightforward reading of the law and a great deal to do with the conservative psychology of the moment.

Chait concludes,

The Obama era has unleashed deep-rooted conservative fears of economic democracy. If you pay close attention to the commentary of the conservative justices this week, their incredulity at the health-care law itself is everywhere. They are concerned with the possibility that mob rule could produce tyrannically intrusive regulations with no rational basis because this is what they think is happening already.

If that’s the case, then Ellison’s and Baldwin’s race explanations are useful in that they show us how projection works. But for the moneyed elites, class anxiety more than racism is what is really driving the mix.

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  • Michael Fagioli

    Ellison’s novel The Outsider is also very relevant to your discussion. He isolates the raw elements of power and depicts how humans struggle and battle for control. Like you are saying, even if race is not a significant factor for some, there is this frightening power struggle at the core of human existence.

  • Michael Fagioli

    Excuse me, Wright’s The Outsider – that is what happens when I write without being fully awake in the morning…

  • Kathy Wekselman

    Very insightful perspectives on vehement opposition to Obama. Thanks for pulling these strands together. It is ironic that elite economic interests are angry at what they see as Obama’s economic populism, while significant swaths of the economically disenfranchised react angrily to what they see as his elitism. The intersection of racial fears with class fears cuts against Obama in ways that can make your head spin – he is seen as a stand-in for both the underclass and the ruling class.

  • Robin Bates

    You’ve just given me the nudge I’ve needed to read some more Richard Wright, Michael. As someone who knew what it was like to go hungry, he knew the struggle you speak of intimately.

    You’re right about the situation making one’s head spin, Kathy. And of course, there’s also the resentment that the disenfranchised feel when someone they feel superior to rises above them. It’s the drama of poor white racism that I witnessed on a daily basis growing up in segregated Tennessee.

    Harold Meyerson has a good piece in yesterday’s Washington Post about how hedge fund managers who supported Obama in 2008 have turned against him. They thought he was a technocrat like them (so in that respect race was not a factor) and have been turned off by his populism. A related thing is at play in David Brooks’s disillusion with Obama. Today in the New York Times Brooks says that Obama takes the “low road” for not attacking the Ryan budget, even though this budget tears apart our social safety nets, from food stamps to student aid to basically the entire non-military side of the government while funneling millions more in tax breaks to the wealthy. When you’re getting these kinds of attacks, you must be doing something right.


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