During and just after the 2008 presidential campaign, the antipathy of right-wing pundits toward Barack Obama reached remarkable, often repugnant depths. Some examples: talk-radio hatemonger Michael Savage warned his listeners that Obama was "hand-picked by some very powerful forces . . . to drag this country into a hell it has not seen since the Civil War." Jay Severin, Savage's Boston-based comrade-in-arms, called on his listeners to "destroy" Obama before he causes "our doom as a nation." (Severin's caveat — that this be done legally — was undercut by his statement that "Obama is King George and we are the Minutemen." The Minutemen weren't big on legality.) And Fox News commentator Liz Trotta quipped, with a chuckle and a smile, that it would be nice to assassinate both Osama bin Laden and Obama. (Trotta later said she was "so sorry" for her comments, and chalked them up to the "very colorful political season.")
Immediately following Obama's victory, meanwhile, similarly vile manifestations of this same mindset popped up around the country. In Maine, a convenience store hosted a betting pool on when Obama would be assassinated, accompanied by a sign that read: "Let's hope someone wins." And a North Carolina State student wrote a disgusting proposal — "Let's shoot that nigger in the head" — inside that school's Free Expression Tunnel.
Where, exactly, did all this anti-Obama venom come from? The fact that Obama's father was black — and that, according to the prevailing conceptualization of race, this makes Obama our first black president — obviously played a role, be it overt or covert. So, too, did the fact that Obama's surname happens to rhyme with "Osama" — and that, according to various bogus conspiracy theories, he's a closet Muslim, and/or a closet Marxist, and/or a buddy of terrorists, and/or a non-citizen whose ascent to the presidency, according to the United States Constitution, is illegal.
Given the manifold wellsprings of dislike and distrust for Obama, it might have been inevitable that things got as ugly as they did. Still, what made this festering animus so dismaying — apart from what it revealed about the deep recesses of our political id — is that it jeopardized Obama's promise as a political unifier. Remember, Obama burst on the scene with his brilliant keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in which he spoke of transcending the bitter divides of American politics and culture. But two months ago, the president-elect looked, if anything, like the second coming of Bill Clinton — a gifted politician who, as president, could whip Rush Limbaugh and co. into a frenzy and polarize the nation.
In recent weeks, though, there's been a distinct drop-off in repugnant anti-Obama invective — in the conservative press, among the general public, even among white-supremacists. Which raises the question: is extreme Obama-phobia already a thing of the past? Or, instead, is it just on hiatus — and poised to return with a vengeance once Obama actually starts governing?
As director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, Mark Potok spends his days monitoring organized extremism and more ad-hoc manifestations of right-wing hatred. And early this past November, Potok was a busy man. The server for stormfront.org, the Web site of the world's largest white-supremacist organization, crashed immediately after Election Day; so did the server for cofcc.org, the Web site of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group dedicated to "advocating against minorities and racial integration."
What's more, says Potok, there was a sharp spike in on-the-ground anti-Obama incidents following the election. Obama was hung in effigy, he says; Obama supporters had crosses burned in their yards; an Obama volunteer was beaten in New Orleans; kids on a school bus in Idaho struck up an "assassinate Obama" chant.
"Here, we're not really talking about a white-supremacist backlash," Potok contends. "The way I read it, this was very much a backlash from a sector of mainstream white America. That's what was most remarkable about it. Those kids in Idaho — that stuff doesn't come out of nowhere."
But then . . . things got quiet. "Within two to three weeks after the election," says Potok, "most of this just disappeared. Clearly, the immediate signs of an angry backlash have subsided. And whether it's something that's going to reverberate into the future is really in question."
A similar dynamic seems to be at work in the right-wing media. In the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, Michael Massing compares the anti-Obama climate created by Limbaugh, et al., during the campaign to the media mood that preceded the assassination of then-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The solution, Massing argues, isn't to re-impose the Fairness Doctrine, which would only inflame the right's victim complex (see "Fair Is Foul," News & Features, November 17, 2008). Instead, it's for the mainstream press to stop treating rabid right-wingers as benign curiosities (he cites the New York Times Magazine's recent cover story on Limbaugh and Barbara Walters's declaration that Limbaugh is one of the "Ten Most Fascinating People of 2008" as prominent derelictions of duty) and, instead, to start chronicling what they're actually saying.