The last couple of weeks, building up to the GOP convention in Tampa, Americans were reminded yet again how pervasive and pernicious the conspiracy theories on the right have become regarding President Barack Obama.
Obama was elected by a clear majority of American voters in November 2008. A former US Senator, he has been our commander in chief for nearly four years, leading the nation during a time of dire economic crisis, with two wars overseas and a much broader war on terror.
During that time, many conservatives have mounted attacks on his policies, which is only right and reasonable. The party in opposition is charged with offering criticism and alternatives. That’s how healthy democracy works.
Whether or not they are correct in their criticism is a matter on which reasonable people can agree, and voters will have their say soon.
But many Republicans have — at a time of serious peril for the nation — gone much farther, indulging in hysterical, vicious, and bigoted attacks. They have lied about Obama’s nationality, his place of birth, his religious faith, his loyalty to our republic and his racial attitudes.
Unfortunately, their candidate for president in 2012 has allowed himself to flirt with those same ugly passions.
Speaking in Michigan recently, Mitt Romney boasted that “no one has ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised.”
The media has widely portrayed the statement as a joke, but watching the tape it doesn’t sound like Romney was making light.
It sounds like he was drawing a stark contrast between himself and his clear American birthright on the one hand and the shadowy questions that many of his allies have raised about Obama on the other.
When a party’s standard bearer embraces this kind of viciousness, things have proceeded very far indeed; but there is no reason to have any illusions about how widespread the GOP’s embrace of this kind of fantasy has become.
Earlier this month, a Republican county judge in Texas warned that if re-elected, Obama would “hand over the sovereignty of the United States to the UN.”
He argued that Americans would need to take up arms against the president, speculating that a “civil war” might be the worst-case scenario.
Meanwhile, conservatives are distributing a film, called “2016,” which advances the preposterous notion that Obama is secretly working to weaken America, as a means to right the wrongs done to his father and to his Kenyan ancestors during the colonial era.
These are ugly fantasies, no less delusional than claims by Republican members of congress that a staff-member of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who happens to be Muslim, is secretly a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and is working to undermine national security.
Meanwhile, conservatives continue to peddle discredited claims that Obama himself is a closeted Muslim, or that Democrats have deployed the Black Panthers to steal elections, or that the president has removed work requirements so that people can lounge about on welfare.
It is impossible to see these attacks in any other light than as part of America’s troubled racial history.
With a black man in the White House for the first time, elements of the conservative movement question not his ideas and policies, but his identity, his validity, his faith, his very Americanness.
The GOP has, sadly, gone down this road before.
The “Southern strategy” has been a well-established tactic in American politics since the 1960s, with leading Republicans offering sly coded messages to anxious whites about the “real” America and complaining about lazy “entitlement people.”
In 1995, the chairman of the Republican Party, Ken Mehlman formally apologized to the NAACP for this behavior.
”Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization,” he told the group. ”I am here as Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”
Wrong then and wrong now.
Some Republicans will view this essay as a sign of bias and suggest a kind of moral equivalency in the specious claims that Democrats often make about Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. And journalists should indeed call out the left for their deceptions and rhetorical excesses.
But there is a world of difference between the hardball reality of American politics and the kind of orchestrated, racially tinged venom that now fuels much of the passion on the right.
With America’s population growing more diverse year-by-year, that kind of wolf-whistle campaigning can’t end well, for the country or the GOP itself.
Romney might very well win one election by appealing to the anxieties and resentments of white voters, but what kind of future does that portend for a republic such as ours?
Decent Americans will decide between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney based on a careful reading of their records as elected officials, and of their characters as leaders and family men, on their ideas about national defense and the economy.
There is a great deal of information available to help us cast informed votes.
But it is also our responsibility to repudiate McCarthy-esque conspiracy theories and whisper campaigns. The first man who should take a clear stand against this kind of frankly un-American behavior is Mitt Romney.