Barack Obama may win the necessary 270 electoral votes in this year’s presidential election to ensure his reelection, but for many conservatives he won’t be the country’s legitimate leader. He never was and never will be. It’s not personal. No Democrat would qualify as qualified, because for some on the right, the left has no right to govern.
Republican congressman Allen West of Florida voiced what many of his ideological persuasion believe when speaking to the faithful in West Palm Beach last month. “Take your message of equality of achievement, take your message of economic dependency, take your message of enslaving the entrepreneurial will and spirit of the American people somewhere else,” The tea party firebrand boomed, referencing prominent Democratic politicians. “You can take it to Europe, you can take it to the bottom of the sea, you can take it to the North Pole, but get the hell out of the United States of America.”
West’s diatribe shouldn’t be confused with Mitt Romney’s observation that he doesn’t care about the “very poor,” only Americans, or Glenn Beck’s turgid remark about being “ashamed to call Americans” the so-called 99-ers, or those out of work for 99 weeks or more. These comments reflect a plutocratic worldview increasingly common in a budding oligarchy characterized massive disparities of wealth such as ours. The fabulously rich, so it goes, enjoy what’s rightfully theirs, while the deprived deserve their miserable lot.
Of interest here is a different and far more sweeping claim regarding what it means to be authentically American. It has to do with the notion that only conservatives are fit to govern the country, or even be citizens, and that, conversely, progressives, or those who tend not to reside in “Real America,” as Sarah Palin memorably said, are dangerous pretenders, untrustworthy interlopers.
The perceived divine right of the right and its corollary, the notion the left lacks legitimacy, is not new. Indeed, questions about Obama’s citizenship, which seek to cast in doubt his suitability for high office, are hardly unprecedented. Evangelical firebrand Jerry Falwell sought to delegitimize President Clinton by accusing him of complicity in various crimes, including drug running and murder, a claim repeated by conservatism’s unofficial mouthpiece, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. Unable to beat the syrup-tongued Clinton at the polls, the GOP sought to have him impeached.
In the last century, Father Charles Coughlin, the Rush Limbaugh of his day, called Franklin Roosevelt’s administration a “communist conspiracy and incipient dictatorship,” while President Truman was accused of sedition by Joseph McCarthy. Many conservatives also reviled John F. Kennedy—the No. 1 non-fiction book on the New York Times best seller list at the time of JFK’s assassination was a Swift-boat-like hatchet job of him—while Ronald Reagan, then working as a lobbyist, characterized a President Johnson-supported plan to guarantee medical coverage for the elderly (Medicare) as a socialist threat to that which Americans hold most dear, freedom.
Historian Richard Hofstadter traced this twisted worldview and its outsized and irrational fear of the “other” to the country’s founding. Hofstadter wrote in The Paranoid Style of American Politics, “The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving,” i.e., a liberal!
Hofstadter was certainly onto something; Allen West and his tea party brethren exhibit the same sort of paranoia he chronicled. This is only part of the story, however. The fashioning of politics as a Manichean struggle reflects something equally sinister: Conservatism’s authoritarian tendencies. Such stridency is manifested in myriad ways, from a rejection of minorities, such as Catholics and Masons in the 19th century and Hispanic immigrants in the 21st, to the inability to tolerate dissent.
A dogmatic liberal fringe exists, but it hasn’t become the mainstream of liberal thinking as has the right-wing fringe within conservatism. Take the highly divisive presidency of George W. Bush: while some liberals claimed the Bush administration had forewarning about 9-11 or, worse, was directly complicit in the attacks, such views were marginal. Contrast that with perceptions about Obama’s foreign birth: 41 percent of Republicans believe Obama was “probably” or “definitely” born in another country, according to a CNN/Opinion Research survey. Donald Trump, briefly the Republican frontrunner for president, spoke of little else during his brief run.
No need to worry, though. While the right’s reactionary ways may not be well suited for democracy, which requires ideological diversity, diversity itself is just a stalking horse for liberals, who, it’s clear, aren’t real Americans anyway.