Fleshing it Out

Snapshots of Our Political Pathology

Why the Republican Party Demonized President Obama


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Every political party wants its followers to stick with them and not their opponents. So it’s natural that a party will seek to discredit a leader from its opposition. But today’s Republican Party went beyond the usual discrediting, and has sought to outright demonize Barack Obama.

Here’s my interpretation of why that is. It has three steps.

First, the Republican world constitutes a hierarchical society.

There are a number of ways of seeing this. We can see it in the tremendous party discipline they have, compared to the Democrats. Herding Republicans is not like herding cats. The Republican Party is increasingly a party of the South, and for generations interpreters of American culture have been discussing the hierarchical nature of the culture of the American South. Also, the hierarchical orientation of the Republican Party is shown also in many of the basic ideas –- even of usual conservatism — about good order (top-down, rather than bottom-up).

Second, in a hierarchical society, people are trained in the ethic that those lower in the hierarchy should obey those above, not question or challenge them.

Of course, any American political party, as well as any American region, is not going to be 100% hierarchical. That’s not the nature of a democracy, and not consistent with the national creed that enshrines liberty as one of the rights with which we’ve been endowed by our Creator. But America contains other non-democratic, non-liberal components within in its culture, including older hierarchical values characteristic of the warrior code and of military organization. Over the generations, especially in some parts of America, these components have instilled in a great many Americans the ethic of deference to those above. So, to oversimplify some, for the member of a hierarchical society the question is: Who is above me in the hierarchy to whom I’m obliged to give some measure of credence, deference, and obedience?

Third, today’s Republican Party, having no interest in cooperation or compromise, but only in fighting for power, needs for its supporters to give President Obama zero standing and credibility.

The Republicans, as I’ve been saying throughout Obama’s presidency, have made a fight over everything. They take absolutist positions on almost every issue, like guns and taxes –they even fight against ideas that used to be their own– because compromise is contrary to their whole political approach. If one’s way of doing politics is to wage a fight to the death, there can be no question of seeking the right balance between competing values and the contending positions of the different parties. Compromise becomes a dirty word. The result is that the Republicans don’t want their supporters to perceive the president as someone whose words they obliged to respect, lest they start weighing how much credence to give to his side of the argument. That requires that the Republican base not see the president as legitimately above them in any hierarchy of which they are part.

As a result, the Republicans went to work immediately not just to discredit President Obama, but to demonize and delegitimate him. From the beginning, they told tell their base, that he was not really their president, that he couldn’t be because he was born in Kenya. Not only was he not a legitimate president, and therefore not truly one who outranks a loyal American citizen in the hierarchy, but he hates America and –- Muslim terrorist with Nazi and Communistic purposes that they insinuated that he was — is out to destroy it. Of course, Obama’s race made it that much easier to cast this president as a dangerous “other” who could not be one’s legitimate superior in the hierarchy.

So, given the Republicans strategy not to help govern but to engage in an all-out struggle for political power, and given their supporters tendency to believe themselves obligated to give some loyalty and respect and obedience to their commander in chief, the Republicans had to make Obama out to be not just wrong on the issues, but wholly outside the boundaries of any “Us” that included their people.

Hence, the demonization of the president.

Afterword: One of the major errors made by President Obama in his first years in office was his forfeiting completely what should have been a battle over this demonization. By the time we got half way through Obama’s first term, an alarmingly large proportion of Republicans believed the demonizing lies the Republicans and their media allies had been promulgating. It is unlikely there is any chance at this point that the roughly one-third of Americans that constitute the Republican base could be persuaded to reconsider the demonized portrait they were given then.

6 thoughts on “Why the Republican Party Demonized President Obama


  1. Richard H. Randall

    Very well done Andy. William Faulkner, the great Mississippi author called racism the sickness of the South. It is still there and thoroughly inbred. It has spread to other areas with the vast economic problems brought on by globalization-the treason done by many of the wealthy to the future as well as the present by their minions in Congress. Regan’s southern starategy was built to use it to jump-start the GOP in the South. LBJ recognized as he signed the Civil Rights laws and Voting Rights Acts. Now it is institutionalized for the right, and memebers of the Republican party are afraid for the most part NOT to be seen as racist, or mysogonistic. Hence the difficulty in not getting the Violence Against Women Act done, the outright disrespect toward the President at ALL levels.
    Sick spirit, indeed.
    It is a true shame as you point out that Obama’s unwillingness to call them out for his villification and his attempt to work with people who were trying to destroy him took precedence over to using his election to care for the country.

    Reply

  2. Bruce B

    “One of the major errors made by President Obama in his first years in office was his forfeiting completely what should have been a battle over this demonization.”
    Here’s the reason I do not agree with this: When they are determined to demonize you, and you engage them in argument, you are left saying something like “No, I’m not an agent of Satan.” Engaging certain kinds of arguments is a form of legitimizing them. You don’t argue with a drunk and you don’t argue with demonizers. And the demonization of Obama may have taken a certain course because of his race, but let’s not forget that Clinton was also considered an agent of Satan, despite all the attempts to re-write recent history. ANY DEMOCRAT in the White House, for the forseeable future, will be so deemed. Period. It’s the only game the GOP knows. I see the only way to successfully argue with demonizers is to use ridicule and contempt, and in the first two years he was still trying to get along and take the high road.

    Reply

    1. Andrew Bard Schmookler Post author

      Responding to Bruce B:

      Yes, I definitely agree with you that the treatment of Clinton proves that the race issue is not the central one. I’ve been saying that for several years. Like you, I see this as a symptom of how the Republicans deal with anyone besides themselves gets to wield power in America. One of my lines, in my speeches as a candidate, was that it has been more than thirty years since the Republican Party treated the president from another party as legitimate. Which is an index of how something major shifted in the Republican Party. And it is a most dark and destructive shift.

      I do not agree with you about the impossibility of fighting back against such demonization, and the reason I disagree is that I see much better ways of doing so than saying, “No, I’m not an agent of Satan.”

      A parallel is something that I’ve spoken about often: the Republican lie about “death panels.” What I have said is that the proper response is not, “No, there aren’t any death panels,” because then the media –who are part of the problem– will pursue the question, “Are there death panels or not?” Which is a complete loser, because it reinforces the issue in people’s minds, and legitimates the question. The proper response is, rather, “These Republicans are lying, and betraying our democracy.” Then the media will ask, “Are the Republicans lying, or not?” Which is precisely where the attention should be directed.

      Same with the demonization: you call attention to what the liars are doing, and to the violation of our national ideals of how our democracy is supposed to work that their conduct represents.

      Reply

  3. David R

    FirstI note that there are interlocking Boards in Corporations and other organizations and I have no sure knowledge re to what extent the to parties are just two faces of the same long term program. It IS obvious that a lot of the Bush program continues.

    But, of course we do have elections still in the U S and the actual political players are necessrily opposing on issues before the public and some no doubt are serious and earnest re those differences. GWB was president over more that was UN american, in my view and obviously possibly in the view of most other American that:

    ONE: You notice the Republicans have NOT boasted of his policies and actions nor made much mention of him since his leaving office.
    I have thought much of the constant focus on Mr Obama was to get the Country on down the road into the future hopefully avoiding the investigations(s) that should have followed into GWB (and Cheney, et al) mis-leading the country, mis-using power, and creating enemies for us around the world spreading death and destruction and so seeming to violate the constitution that some commenters on NSB at the time wondered if there would actually be another election.

    TWO: Since politicos in both parties sense or realize that many if not most voters are very much affected by the economy that it apparently was important to the politicos of the Republican Party wanting a return to power, I say, it was important that the U S general public not enjoy a solid economy . so Obama must fail.

    HOWEVER, it is they, themselves, who have re-elected Mr Obama as many conservative Americans, while they could not vote for Barack Obama neither could vote for the Party of Bush any more and not the Republican Party of today or the candidates they put forward. There are good men in some of the State parties and offices but the national party no longer represents conservatism, nor the real America either, in my view.

    The host mentions a Yakker whose soulless sounds still noise out over the airwaves, one wonders who or what is keeping this whatever it is still on the air. One wonders: Will the real Limbaugh please stand up . But then, could it be that there in not a real one? Just wondering…

    Reply

  4. Richard H. RAndall

    One problem I still have with the President: He is not saying things like “These Republicans are lying and betraying our democracy.” He says correctly that they are more interested in the fortunes of the 2 % than the welfare of the 98 %: pretty passive all things considered. FDR said of his political enemies, “I welcome their hate.” Truman said he’d ‘tell the truth, and they’d (GOP)thought He’d given them hell.”
    I am still waiting.

    Reply

  5. Robin Pettit

    Richard Randall, I agree with you, “I welcome their hate” would be a breath of fresh air from Barack Obama. But I don’t think we will see it unless something changes in his makeup.

    Reply

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