During a Fox News broadcast last week, a conservative panelist accused President Barack Obama of being a “Neville Chamberlain” figure, when it comes to confronting Muslim extremists.
Chamberlain, of course, was the British Prime Minister in the 1930s whose efforts to appease and mollify Adolph Hitler put him squarely on the wrong side of history.
Conservatives have worked aggressively to characterize Mr. Obama as a leader cut from the same cloth and blinded to the threat of Islamic radicalism by his own religious and racial sympathies.
(For the record, Mr. Obama is a Christian, born in Hawaii, and was raised for most of his childhood in a white household by his white mother.)
A regular theme on Fox News is the claim that the President’s first act after taking the oval office was to return to Britain a statue of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a figure lionized by the right.
Glenn Beck and others have argued that the gesture was a repudiation of Britain’s Colonial history, a sign of Mr. Obama’s preference for the dark-skinned peoples once oppressed by Mr. Churchill’s empire.
Responding to this kind of nonsense is tedious, but I think it’s also important.
In this case — as is so often true when wrestling far-right conspiracy theories — the claims are almost perfectly Orwellian, in the sense that they don’t just fudge the truth. They actually turn truth on its head.
First, a bit of history. It’s true, of course, that Neville Chamberlain was a pacifist to the point of recklessness prior to World War 2.
But it often goes unmentioned that he was leader of Britain’s Conservative Party. And like Chamberlain, most American conservatives of the 1930s were staunchly pacifist and isolationist.
Robert Taft led the conservative wing of the GOP for the better part of two decades, and his opposition to America’s fight against Hitler continued long after Chamberlain had thrown in the towel.
Conservative icon Charles Lindbergh — whose father was a Republican congressman — also campaigned aggressively against America’s involvement in the war as late as 1941.
Long after all British opposition to the war effort had collapsed, Lindbergh was still championing the appeasement cause, urging Franklin Roosevelt to sign a neutrality pact with Hitler.
(Lindbergh eventually resigned his military commission as an act of protest against the Democratic president’s eagerness to help Churchill and the British.)
A particularly bitter pill for the Right is the fact that it was the liberal wing of the GOP — men like Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey — who helped build support in this country for the desperate fight against fascism.
To be fair, many hard-left liberals, union leaders, socialists and American communists were also opposed to our involvement in the War.
But of course, it was two Democratic presidents, Roosevelt and Harry Truman, who led the country during its great campaign against Germany and Japan.
So how about Mr. Obama? Do his war policies resemble those of the conservatives, Taft, Lindbergh and Chamberlain, or are they more akin to those of Roosevelt, Truman and Churchill?
During his tenure, Mr. Obama has maintained the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has stepped up predator drone attacks on terror cells in Pakistan.
He has continued to investigate and prosecute domestic and foreign Muslim terrorists aggressively. He has articulated in detail his full unwavering support for Israel.
Yes, Mr. Obama’s father was a Muslim from Kenya and, yes, the president’s middle name is Hussein. Those facts have titillated conservatives and provided juicy fodder for AM radio hosts.
But there is simply zero evidence to suggest that this President is soft on terror or shares any of the “appeasement” tendencies that shaped much of the American Right during the 1930s and 40s.
None of this is to suggest that this Administration doesn’t deserve scrutiny and criticism for its handling of the very real terror threat. Obviously, this kind of criticism is vital in a democracy.
Our own North Country congressman, Republican Rep. Chris Gibson, is currently urging the President to rethink the need for a Department of Homeland Security.
He also voted this week against maintaining provisions of the Bush-era Patriot Act.
“I have long been critical of the PATRIOT Act, because I believe that in the process of defending our liberties, we should not step on them,” Gibson said in a statement after the vote.
“We must stay within the confines of the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights and the 4th Amendment.”
But there is a great, gaping void between this kind of loyal and thoughtful position and much of the racially charged, hysterical and deceptive rhetoric that shapes modern conservative conspiracy theories.