In the dying days of the 2010 midterms, I went to Concord, New Hampshire, to see one of the half-dozen or so Tea Party buses that were on campaign tours of the nation. Hours before it arrived, the crowds had gathered before the gold dome of the state capital to welcome it.
There were the usual stalls, from the mainstream American conservative union, spruiking flag pins and William F Buckley tomes, to the bizarre start-ups with their hand-stapled guides to the Constitution, and Paul Revere paperweights, publicists for Atlas Shrugged, the Ayn Rand movie (currently tanking in the cinemas), and the ghostly vets in disposal store camouflage, still collecting to investigate MIAs in Vietnam.
New Hampshire sometimes swings Republican, but it’s still a New England state, and the crowd, though backwoodsy, seemed a little less, erm, fixated than elsewhere. I’d already played the usual games — praising the pretty well-kept town for delighted local Tea Partiers, and then asking about the state-based restoration fund that had ensured that the main street didn’t die once the malls opened — but that got boring quickly.
Eventually I got into a conversation with a woman about public health care, and why Mitt Romney’s plan (virtually identical to Obamacare) was acceptable, while Obama’s was not. It came down to state and federal rights, levels of government and the nature of American citizenship. It was a cogent argument, welcome relief. And then she said “and anyway I don’t think he was born in America, and that he’s a Muslim. I just think in the end we’ll find that all out.”
I stared at her for a long time, until it became rude, trying to work out if it was some form of dry self-satire. It wasn’t. The bus had rolled in a few minutes earlier and the rally was about to start, and her brain had simply snapped shut, closed for business, in the only way she could — sealing off America, her America, from Obama, and the fact that a majority of its voting population had chosen him as their representative.
I wondered about that woman last week, when President Obama released his “long-form” birth certificate, released on special request by the Hawaiian government and flown back to DC by an Obama special adviser. Though there are still a few people clinging to notions of forgery, typewriter fonts, etc, etc, or the argument that Obama has unrenounced dual citizenship (they’re the moderates), most of the millions of people willing to indulge the idea of birtherism were still rational enough to know the point at which a good conspiracy theory becomes sustainable only at the price of departing from the planet.
Where will those people go now? Or more specifically, where will the energy that went into birtherism go? The mainstream hard-right — which always said that it wanted the thing to go away — would hope that it would pour into a focused attack on Obama’s policies and politics — centre-right everywhere else, “socialist” in the US.
They know there is little chance of that, which is why so few of them were willing to talk back to birtherism. The kooky right — people such as Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin — found a way to talk about it without endorsing it. House leader John Boehner took this up, by far the most mainstream politician to do so, saying he didn’t want to “tell anyone what to think” and that everyone was entitled to their opinions.
Mark Steyn gave the reductio ad absurdum argument, saying he “wanted to defeat Obama on the ideas” and therefore “didn’t care whether he’d been born in Hawaii or Mombasa”, thus dissing birtherism while re-endorsing it.
No one on the right had the real courage to go toe-to-toe with birtherism, as they had half a century earlier with remnant anti-Semitism, and the difference between the two movements tells you why. Anti-Semitism is mostly noxious, and a just a little absurd, so there’s something to grapple onto when you fight it in the name of universal human respect.
Birtherism is a little noxious — because it is a way of excluding a black man from representing Americans — but it is mostly absurd, a ridiculous, squishy jellybeast that changes form as you attack it. It’s like some mad DC comics monster, and going into battle with it merely makes you part of the four-colour panel art, standing there in a cape and your underpants.
The only other way to do it is to talk down to it — to assail your own supporters as idiots, prepared to believe something that no intelligent human should follow. The left did this to anti-Semitism — “the socialism of fools” — but it could correct and admonish its supporters for falling for victimisation instead of struggle against the real enemy, while communicating respect for their desire for a better world.
Birtherism is so silly, so narcissistic, so neat in its cookie-cutter way of avoiding an unpleasant truth, that there is no possibility of respecting anyone who seriously holds to it. The only thing worse than failing to talk a birther out of their politics is to succeed, for then she/he stands before not just you, but before self, as an idiot, a dweller in fantasy, and all possibility of equal comradeship is gone.
With birtherism gone, I suspect some, even many of the Tea Partiers will go too. They have, of course, quietly been stood down by Fox News and the conservative organising groups such as FreedomWorks — for now that the Republicans are running the house, and doing deals, pressure groups on the right are little more than a disaster. The release of the long-form may accelerate that.
Tea Partiers will drift back to the lives they so often talked about when they testified at their rallies — “I wasn’t involved, ah dint do politics, ah was just angry, and then this Tea Party thing it just made sense” — the great anomic mall of America, a life lived in what the sociologist Roberto Unger called the “middle distance” of American life, neither distanced, nor really loose, existence as a parallax error of screen and reality.
But others, I am certain, will regroup around the next myth, the next great acting-out of American life. What that will be I have no idea — after all, who could have predicted birtherism, the Tea Party, or 9/11 trutherism? I suspect looking for something wackier is to make the wrong assumption, since there is little further afield than birtherism that does not fall into the category of genuine psychosis.
The right is certainly trying to mainstream its supporters — witness the sacking of Glenn Beck from Fox News, only a few months after Murdoch and others had endorsed him as a hearty libertarian populist. True, Beck’s anti-Semitism had become explicit in recent months — something that News Ltd columnists and bloggers, for whom every reproof of Israel is a new Kristallnacht, somehow forgot to criticise or denounce — but he had been spruiking anti-Semitic authors throughout his tenure. No, he was simply the purveyor of the wrong sort of energy for the moment. If there was any doubt about that, the swift immolation of Donald Trump would have put paid to it.
Clearly the White House would have liked the birther issue to run on right to the edge of the primary season — but Trump’s backing of the issue seemed the right time to turn the tables in an instant. That they could then use Trump as a figure of fun in the White House correspondents’ dinner shows how careful they are when deciding who can and can’t be taken down — Obama is yet to make a single recorded utterance of that type about Sarah Palin, even though she hangs just above the level of ridicule.
What comes next depends in part on what comes next — by which I mean any big, category-busting event, which causes a real realignment in American politics. That would be some fresh comprehensive economic crunch, for example, which stirred up a populist movement genuinely bridging left and right — one I imagine that would be simultaneously anti-free-trade, anti-war and anti-immigration.
Were it to hit in primary season and find a Republican champion, it would do from the right what the left does, essentially painting Obama and mainstream Republicans as identical. Containing the best and worst of populism I suspect it would entirely sideline many of the late culture war issues currently bedevilling the electorate. May not happen this time around, probably won’t, but if it does it will make birtherism and the Tea Party look like half-remembered dance crazes, and a whole lot of different people will gather in the public squares, before the gold statehouse domes, summoned perhaps by myth, but not, at least, by madness.