I have only just become aware of the depth of revulsion, hatred and suspicion that a certain segment of Americans feels for President Obama – a horde of passionate, committed (if not overly bright) people who are out there busily driving needles into wax Obama dolls, or who are eagerly driving stakes into the facsimile of his heart: Obama is a radical, he is a socialist, he will change America from a free market to a government-directed, centrally planned economy, he will destroy the American way of life. Worst and most ominous of all, he is not even an American citizen – this is a part of their liturgy.
What occasions this? One cause is a kind of conceit that says “My vision of the way the country should be run is the only sound and permissible vision. Stray from it and there will be unprecedented calamity.”
That is one element.
The other is the inability to digest or tolerate the fact of their electoral defeat. One chief feature of a democracy is the rule of law, but the president’s opponents feel they owe no obedience to the law because if a man was elected that they despised, then clearly the election could not, at bottom, be legal. In their eyes, they represent what is morally most admirable about America, and the only way a whole class of sterling, morally superior people, clinging to an identical core of the most admirable convictions – the only way they could be defeated would be because they were victims of the workings of sinister, underhanded forces of fraud, deceit and misrepresentation. They did not lose the election, it was stolen from them by selfish scum.
So the losers’ resentment thus becomes, not an expression of mean-spirited, ill-informed and humiliated spite, not an ambition to regain power, but a kind of rescue effort aimed at restoring the rightful state of things in the land. In other words, Obama’‘s critics – are not blindly petty and vindictive, eaten alive by mindless rancor, they are heroic.
The people who hate Obama and who like to call him a communist actually share a certain similarity of disposition with communism. In communism, it was a central tenet that the Party had a monopoly on the truth and this required complete loyalty and subjugation on the part of the members. To hold back your complete endorsement to your group’s agenda did not mean that you simply disagreed with it. It meant something more menacing – a kind of moral failure, an excessive pride, a stubborn perversity of will that prevented you from seeing the truth. Obama’s critics believe they enjoy the same monopoly of virtue, and feel that what today’s desperate conditions require is intolerance – you can with good conscience cast aside your scruples. The importance of your mission and your certainty of being right relieves you of the burden of having to be truthful, restrained or respectful of the facts. The nobility of your cause means any weapon can be used against the enemy — vile harangues, calumnies, slander, abuse, libel – you don’t have to use nimble skill in reasoning to outwit your target, you don’t have to have full command of the smallest intricacies of the issues to confute his claims — you have only to stand and shout your opponent down, drown him out, bury him under a landslide of slights, epithets and insults. After all, you have the courage of a person with a crowd at his back.
This gross, coarse, brutal behavior is not unique to our time. When watching the town hall seized by the ecstasies of self-assertion, I was reminded of the virulent incivility, of the flood of rancid venom directed at Franklin Roosevelt beginning in 1934 by the business community. In Manchester’s The Glory and the Dream he describes the furious hatred, the sense of infuriated virtue, the snarling fury, the offense to one’s infallible sense of being right, produced in the rich by the actions of FDR. The propertied classes of America who made up 2 percent of the people, had engaged in such widespread corporate larceny that their doings finally caused the economy to collapse. But when those classes discovered, the good old days were gone for good, they began to spew hatred and to circulate any statement about FDR whose utterance gave them revengeful satisfaction. Whether it was true or not was a secondary matter. Inflicting damage in an effort to discredit came first.
The propertied classes, the business community, has never been known for its modesty or sense of proportion or its grip on the facts, and one editorial writer for the Saturday Evening Post looked at the economic wreckage of the Depression and huffed: “You might just as well say the world has failed as that American business leadership has failed.” That this was a trifle too sweeping, a trifle too broad and displayed a glaring fallacy of proportion, never occurred to the writer. Besides, his magazine was at the time publishing spirited defenses of child labor.
Another scandalized writer said, “Why Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t even speak to these people,” making clear the rift was along class, not party lines.
Unfortunately, the more elections Roosevelt won, the more vile and poisonous were the insults. In the haunts of the rich, it was alleged that FDR had caught gonorrhea from Eleanor who had been infected by a black, and that after FDR died, she was going to turn the country over to the Russians. and would then go and learn unspeakable sexual practices from the Russians in the Kremlin.
To many Americans FDR was a totalitarian dictator, “only another Stalin only worse.” Reportedly, there were even U.S. military who refused to toast the president. In Boston, there was a bookseller who declared he would only sell Roosevelt’s speeches “if they were bound in that man’s skin.”
Then there was the economic drivel as well: in addition to destroying the American way of life, FDR’s economics were wrong-headed: you couldn’t spend your way out of a Depression, everyone knew that, and America’s children would be paying for the recovery for decades, plus half the people on relief were foreigners anyway — relief should be sharply cut ,the police forces beefed up and let mayhem occur if it must. In any case, FDR had a rotten character. He never earned an honest dollar in his life because he had always lived off of his mother. Besides, he was only Jew anyway, from “Dutch sheenis and kikes” who had changed the family name. (Some of the more industrious but less balanced even went so far as to create a fictitious genealogy whose founder was a Col. Von Rosenfeld.
Thus said the well off.
Marquis Childs was an astute social observer who wrote of this pathological loathing was follows: “…the fanatical hatred of the President which today obsesses thousands of men and woman of the upper class. No other word than hatred will do.” and he said, “it is wholly unreasoning.”
What was puzzling was that, thanks to FDR’s, programs, many of these people had had their incomes restored, their bank balances restored, and corporate dividends were up over 40 percent. Taxes were light – a man who earned $16,000 a year paid only $1000 in taxes.
Yet throughout his career, FDR’s critics put the worst, most spiteful, malicious, belittling and scurrilous interpretation on everything he did. Even the creator of Little Orphan Annie had Daddy Warbucks throw himself under a train in 1944 when it was clear FDR was going to be elected to a third term.
As repulsive as the outlandish reviling of Roosevelt was it’s instructive to remember that malicious falsehood were not exclusive to the American business class in the 1930s nor was slinging such sewage even unique to its time.
Walter Bagehot once said that public opinion is little more than “the tyranny of the commonplace,”and one of its most hapless victims was none other than George Washington, commander of American forces during the Revolutionary War and the country’s first president. It was the custom to revere him, to admire and extol his preeminence as the rightful consequence of what he had accomplished during the war. Elected president in 1788 and 1792, he was called “the man who unites all hearts:” who was greeted by bands playing, “ the Hero Comes” before cheering crowds.
But by 1795, the habit of veneration had died out, replaced by the most extravagant contempt and mean-spiritedness. In the spring of 1794, the British, having broken a pledge, were arming Indian tribes and urging them to attack Americans in the frontier lands that would become Ohio and Michigan nor had the Brits dismantled a chain of forts in that area as they were pledged by treaty to do.
The U.S. public wanted a war, but Washington knew America, a young country, would be ruined by one – above all, it was not ready — and he exerted every energy to avoid it. He dispatched John Jay to England, yet no sooner had Jay left, then the British took over an American fort, and Washington went into a towering rage, But Jay was abroad to bargain, not quarrel. The treaty was completed in absolute secrecy, but news of it quietly leaked, and when it did, all of America exploded in exasperated rage.
Washington was a man of rectitude who took pride, perhaps too much pride, in what he called “his disinterestedness.” He said that in all the facts of his administration, “I have sought the happiness of my fellow citizens” ignoring “personal local and partial consideration” in favor of the “Permanent interests of the country” and “the dictates of my conscience.”
This no longer mattered. Those who hated the treaty hated its author even more, and hatred knows no law. Vindictive fury “moved like an electric velocity through every state in the Union,” said a contemporary congressman. In Virginia, army veterans in drinking clubs stood to their feet to toast “A speedy death to Washington.” Americans complained Washington was living in a luxury equal in decadence to that of George III, the king they had fought a war to defeat. Some of the more devious critics resorted to forgeries that claimed to show that Washington had been bribed by British secret agents during the war. Still others charged that Washington had stolen military credit from his own generals during the conflict:”With what justice do you monopolize the glories of the Revolution” they charged
The majority of the country had no opinion about the treaty and paid it no attention, but its enemies were ready to go al lengths to destroy it. Washington finally got the treaty approved, but he was sixty three years old and badly shaken by the horrendous misrepresentations and the degree of narrow-minded jealousy and spleen of which he’d been the target. The whole episode “has worn away my mind,” he said
He decided not to run for a third term, weary or being “buffeted in the public prints.” But he had shown that a president to be president, had to get the American public to accept even things it did not like if it were in their long term interests.
But he was soured, As he was leaving for Virginia, he wrote to a friend, “I don’t wish to mix again in the great world or to mix ion its politics.”
And he went home to die.
It was an episode that did little credit to the right of free speech, but as Tocqueville observed, in America, “the parties are impatient of control and are never manageable except in moments of great public danger.”