In the 2008 campaign, the mainstream media didn't know whether to wallow in stories about Obama's stunning racial breakthrough or pretend it wasn't a big deal. There were few trusted clichés to instruct the coverage, no near-misses by previous black candidates to lay a groundwork of expectation for Obama's success. We had lurched from the symbolic campaigns of Jesse Jackson and the crude cameos of Al Sharpton to—seemingly overnight—a brown juggernaut.
Among some Obama opponents, an effort is now under way to reclaim not only the recent past, for which they were as unprepared as the media, but the whole of American history. By the short route or the long, they seek to reverse an unexpected twist in the nation's fate. In effect, some white people want their version of history back. If they can't reverse the clock—and some are desperately trying—they at least want a dramatic, ennobling narrative of their own to compete against Obama's.
That competition is maddeningly difficult. For many Americans, Obama's narrative is transcendent. His election was a historic, and historical, reckoning, a national drama of moral redemption, of liberty and justice realized, challenges overcome, ideals redeemed.
Obama is an excellent speaker. But the tears that flowed at his campaign rallies weren't summoned by the promise of more efficient health-care delivery systems. They weren't cried much for Obama, either. They were cried for the elusive promise of equality in the Declaration of Independence. They were cried for the bewigged white men in Gilbert Stuart paintings and for the African slaves whom they had subjugated—and for the fact that these two uniquely American strains were indivisible, for the first time, in Obama's candidacy. Consciously and not, many Obama voters viewed his candidacy as a welcome confirmation of a majestic forward motion in American history.
For liberals, especially, Obama's rise echoes off history's palisades—not just the Declaration but the Constitution, with its craven compromise turning humans into fractions. The inflection points of Civil War and Civil Rights, of Lincoln and King, are revisited every time Obama stands behind the presidential seal. By nothing more than his presence, Obama alters views of the past, highlighting painful obstacles while diminishing them at the same time.
On the public stages of cable television and talk radio, those who recoiled from the liberal self-congratulation of breaking the nation's racial barrier have cast themselves as noble actors in their own dramas.
Tea baggers root their opposition to Obama in history, in the righteous destruction of the Boston Tea Party, the historic set piece that defied an arrogant, illegitimate government's authority. Tea bagger e-mails obtained and published by Talking Points Memo are laced with references to "patriots" and "freedom fighters," the kind of self-dramatizing, heroic language employed by Glenn Beck and other champions of the movement.
"We lost a great freedom fighter this week," one tea bagger lamented in an e-mail. The lost rebel was David McKalip, a conservative activist who had forwarded to other "patriots" a photo-shopped image of Obama as an African witch doctor in bush garb. The stress of such freedom fighting appears immense. "I am battle weary," the e-mailer shares, before listing sacrifices she nevertheless endures for the cause.
By elevating themselves to "freedom fighters," the tea baggers not only use history to ennoble their cause, they justify transforming the political and media sphere into a free-fire zone where anything goes in the battle against "totalitarian" oppression. The method has been on display in health-care town hall meetings, where protestors shout down Democratic politicians, shutting off any possibility of discussion or debate.
The "birthers" are even more history-obsessed. The whole point of their cause is to reclaim the past and redirect its flow to someplace other than the present. If Obama's personal history can be magically expunged, then the United States can continue on its rightful course as a nation "built by white men," as Pat Buchanan said on MSNBC. Change the past, and the birthers can skip the recent unpleasantness altogether.
The ideal of a nation built—and ruled—by white men is, of course, what is ultimately at stake. It's one thing when George Herbert Walker Bush appoints a lone black conservative to the Supreme Court. It's something else when Barack Hussein Obama appoints a "wise Latina." For Glenn Beck, what more proof of Obama's pathological hatred of white people is necessary? What is to stop the president from appointing an Asian, or even a second black, to the high court next? Where does it end?
With the nation's 21st-century shift to a multi-racial majority jeopardizing four centuries of white political dominance, the future looks increasingly dicey for the racially monomaniacal. And if they can't fight 'em in the future, they've still got the past.