Obama the Alien
By Taylor Marvin
Dave Weigel, reporting from Iowa, talks to a Rick Santorum fan: retired insurance salesman Ron Wilson. Wilson understands Romney will almost certainly win the nomination, but identifies more closely with Santorum:
“‘If you guys did some digging, you’d realize we don’t know anything about Obama,’ said Wilson. ‘We don’t have his college records; we don’t know who he dated in college. I think that birth certificate stuff was pretty stupid, but there are aspects of his career that no [sic] has looked at. Look into Jeremiah Wright’s church, and Black Liberation Theology. It’s a racist church, fundamentally.’ Contrast all that with Santorum. ‘He’s one of us,’ says Wilson.”
It shouldn’t take any great insight to understand the narrative lurking behind Mr. Wilson’s complaints. Of course it doesn’t matter who Barack Obama dated in college — for any other candidate forgotten records of youthful romances would be of concern only as amusing campaign trail anecdotes, not as suspicious unknowns. But for Barack Obama it’s different; because of his color and foreign name Barack Obama’s college records aren’t trivial, but a worrying absence that becomes part of a larger narrative of alien difference. Why else would the GOP’s meme of Obama’s “appeasement” have proved so durable? After all, as Ted Galen Carpenter argues in The National Interest, this isn’t exactly a claim based in fact:
“But even by that dubious standard, the Republican appeasement charge is misguided. The current bastardized definition of appeasement implies a weak-kneed willingness to make far-reaching, unwise concessions to aggressors. That certainly does not describe the current occupant of the Oval Office. After all, Obama sharply escalated the war in Afghanistan, has led efforts to impose harsher economic sanctions on Iran, adopted a hostile stance regarding China’s ambitions territorial claims in the South China Sea and served as the godfather of NATO’s military campaign to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. That’s not exactly a record reminiscent of Neville Chamberlain.”
The narrative of Obama the appeaser thrives because it dovetails into the narrative of Obama the foreign outsider. It’s this meme of foreignness and inauthenticity as an American that allows elements of the American right to complain about Obama — who, let’s not forget, has actually governed as a moderate conservative — harboring a “Black Liberation Theology”, allowed Mitt Romney to constantly remind us of the President’s mythical “tour around the world to apologize for America“, and for Forbes to publish articles seriously claiming that President Obama, whose drone policies have torn the entire notion of Pakistani and Somali sovereignty to shreds, is driven by an “anticolonialist ideology” and views “America’s military as an instrument of neocolonial occupation.”
Of course, these talking points are motivated by concrete political tactics first and fears of a brown otherness second — columnist Daniel Larison is right to note that there’s so little light between Obama’s foreign policy and the Republican orthodoxy that Romney’s forced to invent a capitulating Obama for voters to see any difference between his policies and the president’s. But there’s no denying that the narrative of Obama the alien is enormously helpful politically: there’s a reason that contemporary Republican charges of President Clinton’s appeasement to Chinese autocrats never really stuck.
These claims remain perverse because Obama’s personal history is different, at least from the American mean, and however irrelevant that difference is from his actual policies. But it’s unclear that this narrative of Obama’s otherness will have any effect on his reelection prospects. While some Iowan primary voters’ affinity with Santorum may be expressed in racial and cultural code phrases (“one of us”), this attitude doesn’t appear to be widespread — most conservatives appear to dislike Obama for solid political reasons, and Obama’s approval ratings have actually remained fairly high for his term’s dismal economic record. That’s encouraging. But as America becomes less white, we can expect political narratives that cast nonwhite liberal politicians as outsiders or less-than-real Americans to be more prevalent, at least among some corners of the Republican (and, when Republicans nominate a serious nonwhite candidate, Democratic) primary electorate.