One of the biggest gripes about political journalism is that it often takes the ridiculous seriously. Yet there's more to playing up the preposterous than chasing clicks and eyeballs. There is an undercurrent of fear that the crazies and idiots could actually seize control. Pointing to their foibles is a way to laugh those lunatics down.
So there was ritual significance to freshly circulated reports that, as Talking Points Memo put it, "Republicans Think Obama Is A Greater Threat Than Putin, Assad."
Of course, the poll didn't actually phrase it that way, instead asking respondents to rate the danger of a range of potential threats. But the reason we're discussing the poll at all is that 34 percent of Republicans said President Obama was an imminent threat to the United States. Never mind that 32 percent of British respondents said in 2002 that George W. Bush was a bigger threat to world peace than Saddam Hussein. Never mind that, as The New Yorker gamely observed, 22 percent of Democrats polled by Reuters — and 10 percent of Republicans — said the GOP itself posed an imminent threat to America. That 34 percent number rammed home every stereotype we have about wing-nut Tea Party types.
For many people, the GOP has already been lost to these unhinged goons. Unless they're aggressively laughed into oblivion, America could be next.
Throw a stone on the internet and you'll find portentous references to Obama in the context of our military's oath to fight "all enemies, foreign and domestic." Last fall, a county official in Missouri even made news demanding a coup d'etat on Facebook. "I cannot and do not understand why no action is being taken against our domestic enemy," she wrote, calling Obama "supposedly the commander in chief."
Paranoia is in the air. Recently, as Bloomberg's Dave Weigel reported, everyone from left-leaning Vox to right-leaning Laura Ingraham were quick to take Sen. Lindsey Graham seriously when he joked he'd "literally use the military" to keep Congress in session until military spending was restored to pre-sequester levels. Inside every Republican, it's all too easy for people to suspect, there's an insurrectionary waiting to get out. Lose at the ballot box, resort to the sword! So much for liberty!
But that doesn't mean those 34 percent of Republican respondents are necessarily wrong. Deep down, we all fret that we're totally powerless to stop a bad president from taking power and ruining America — for decades, if not forever.
At a time when executive power is as robust as the administrative state it commands, that worry is reasonable, not ridiculous. Everyone understands that a president can do more to mess up his own country than a foreign leader.
We also grasp that a threat can be imminent but not catastrophic. It's so easy to look with loathing on a president of the opposite party precisely because he can do damage so easily. Even if you think it's difficult to truly derail America (as many Obama-haters do), you probably understand that the president can hand out stupid, harmful mistakes like candy — around the world and here at home.
Sure enough, actual policies supported by presidents of both parties are demonstrably bad! Republicans and Democrats alike have presided over atrociously consequential policy programs, from the War on Drugs to the War on Terror. Whether you're freaked out by Common Core or the NSA, you can take your pick of Republicans and Democrats to blame.
Of course, it's one thing to say a president is a threat to your agenda, or even your way of life, and quite another to say he or she imperils the United States itself. But ever since 9/11, our presidents have struggled in vain to convince us we wouldn't have been better off without them. It seems clear that neither Bush nor Obama will be seen to have secured the true confidence of the American people.
Obama came close enough to secure re-election, but Americans are now confronting the harsh, across-the-board disappointments of Obama's foreign policy. Laugh all you like at those "crazy" Republican respondents: They're just saying out loud what millions of us —Team Hillary included — either believe or fear. If our next president wants to best Obama and W. alike in this regard, he or she has a lot of work to do.