The first African-American president takes office, and almost immediately we see the birth of a big, passionate national movement — overwhelmingly white and lavishly funded — that tries its best to delegitimize that president, seeks to thwart his every initiative, and manages to bring the discredited and moribund opposition party roaring back to life. Coincidence?
Not a chance. But also not that simple.
First, I’ll state the obvious: It’s not racist to criticize President Barack Obama, it’s not racist to have conservative views, and it’s not racist to join the tea party. But there’s something about the nature and tone of the most vitriolic attacks on the president that I believe is distinctive — and difficult to explain without asking whether race is playing a role.
One thing that struck me from the beginning about the tea party rhetoric is the idea of reclaiming something that has been taken away.
At a recent campaign rally in Paducah, Ky., Senate candidate Rand Paul, a darling of the tea party movement, drew thunderous applause when he said that if Republicans win, “we get to go to Washington and take back our government.”
Take it back from whom? Maybe he thinks it goes without saying, because he didn’t say.
On Sunday, in a last-minute fundraising appeal, Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee implored his supporters to help “return American government to the American people.”
Again, who’s in possession of the government right now, if not the American people? The non-American people? The un-American people?
There’s an obvious answer, but it’s one that generally comes from the progressive end of the political spectrum: Americans must fight to take back their government from the lobbyists and big-money special interests that shape our laws to suit their own interests, not for the good of the nation.
That may be what some tea partiers have in mind, but the movement hasn’t seen fit to make campaign finance reform one of its major issues. And the establishment Republicans who are surfing the tea party wave — while at the same time scheming to co-opt the movement — would view the idea of taking money out of politics with horror, if they thought it might actually happen.
So who stole the government? What makes some people feel more disenfranchised now than they were, say, during the presidency of George W. Bush?
After all, it was Bush who inherited a budget surplus and left behind a suffocating deficit — I’m not being tendentious, just stating the facts. It was Bush who launched two wars without making any provision in the budget to pay for them, who proposed and won an expensive new prescription-drug entitlement without paying for it, who bailed out irresponsible Wall Street firms with the $700 billion TARP program.
Bush was vilified by critics while he was in office, but not with the suggestion that somehow the government had been seized or usurped — that it had fallen into hands that were not those of “the American people.” Yet this is the tea party suggestion about Obama.
Underlying all the tea party’s issues and complaints, it appears to me, is the entirely legitimate issue of the relationship between the individual and the federal government. But why would this concern about oppressive, intrusive government become so acute now? Why didn’t, say, government surveillance of domestic phone calls and e-mails get the constitutional fundamentalists all worked up?
I have to wonder what it is about Obama that provokes and sustains all this tea party ire. I wonder how he can be seen as “elitist,” when he grew up in modest circumstances — his mother was on food stamps for a time — and paid for his fancy-pants education with student loans. I wonder how people who genuinely cherish the American dream can look at a man who lived that dream and feel no connection, no empathy.
I ask myself what’s so different about Obama, and the answer is pretty obvious: He’s black. For whatever reason, I think this makes some people unsettled, anxious, even suspicious — witness the willingness of so many to believe absurd conspiracy theories about Obama’s birthplace, his religion and even his absent father’s supposed Svengali-like influence from the grave.
Obama has made mistakes that rightly cost him political support. But I can’t help believing that the tea party’s rise was partly due to circumstances beyond his control — that he’s different from other presidents, and that the difference is his race.
Eugene Robinson is an associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.