From Dana's Guests

The Town Hall Mob: Paul Krugman

I ran these articles during the summer of 2009 because they stood out for me as not dancing around the issue of racism when it comes to the current climate in America’s politics – The Town Hall Mob by Paul Krugman of The New York Times and The Berserk Birthers by Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post.

The tone has sadly gotten worse.

I think that telling the truth about something disturbing is the first step in moving beyond...

New York Times
Published: August 6, 2009

There’s a famous Norman Rockwell painting titled “Freedom of Speech,” depicting an idealized American town meeting. The painting, part of a series illustrating F.D.R.’s “Four Freedoms,” shows an ordinary citizen expressing an unpopular opinion. His neighbors obviously don’t like what he’s saying, but they’re letting him speak his mind.

That’s a far cry from what has been happening at recent town halls, where angry protesters — some of them, with no apparent sense of irony, shouting “This is America!” — have been drowning out, and in some cases threatening, members of Congress trying to talk about health reform.

The Berserk 'Birthers'
By Eugene Robinson
Washington Post
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

If there's been a more clinically insane political phenomenon in my lifetime than the "birthers," I've missed it. Is this what our national discourse has come to? Sheer paranoid fantasy?

I'm talking about the people who have convinced themselves that Barack Obama was not really born in the United States, and thus is ineligible to be president. Even some commentators who usually are among Obama's most rabid critics have acknowledged that this idea is simply nuts. Yet it persists, out there on the farthest fringes of the right-wing blogosphere. Oh, and also on CNN, which is usually a little closer to reality.

It has been definitively shown that there is not a scintilla of truth, or even the slightest ambiguity, in the whole "birther" idea. Officials in Hawaii have attested again and again that Obama was, in fact, born in Honolulu on Aug. 4, 1961. When the "birthers" demanded to see his birth certificate, state officials produced it. Journalists have looked at this complete non-story from every angle and concluded that it is, in fact, a complete non-story.

To believe otherwise, it's necessary to explain that birth announcements heralding the arrival of baby boy Barack Obama ran in two Honolulu newspapers in August 1961. So to be a card-carrying "birther," you have to believe not only that Hawaiian officials conspired to fabricate records but also that "they" -- not state officials, necessarily, but the generic malevolent "they" who inevitably lurk behind the deepest, darkest conspiracies -- somehow managed to alter or replace clippings in yellowing newspaper archives.

That's what the less crazy birthers have to contend. The alternative scenario -- for those who really ought to put their tinfoil hats back on -- is that somehow this was all planned back in 1961: "They" diabolically planted these birth announcements 48 years ago, establishing a false record, so that a chosen infant who was actually born in some foreign land -- Kenya? Indonesia? Manchuria? -- could be groomed, perhaps programmed, and someday installed in the Oval Office. Cue evil-genius laughter.

These would be people who also believe that Stanley Kubrick's comic masterpiece, "Dr. Strangelove," was actually a documentary -- and that Obama's ultimate aim, as cleverly deduced by Gen. Jack D. Ripper, is to "sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids."

There are probably people out there who think the world is flat, and they're not worth writing about. The "birthers" wouldn't be, either, unless you believe a poll released last week by Research 2000 revealing that an astounding 28 percent of Republicans actually think that Obama was not born in the United States and a separate 30 percent are "not sure." GOP officials need to order more tinfoil.

The survey, commissioned by the liberal Web site Daily Kos, found that 93 percent of Democrats and 83 percent of independents have no doubt -- duh -- that Obama was born in the United States. That only 42 percent of Republicans are similarly convinced is a fascinating indicator of just how far the Republican Party has drifted from the mainstream.

Also beyond the Outer Limits of sanity is CNN anchor Lou Dobbs, who has been giving prime-time exposure to the "birther" lunacy -- even while denying that he believes it. Dobbs's obsession with the "story" has become an embarrassment to the network, which has tried to position itself as untainted by political bias. Jon Klein, president of CNN's U.S. division, has pronounced the story "dead" but insists that it's legitimate for Dobbs to examine the alleged controversy, though in fact no controversy exists.

The "birther" thing is only Dobbs's latest detour from objective reality. For years, he has crusaded against illegal immigration by citing facts and figures that often turn out to be wrong. Television can confer a kind of pseudo-reality on any manner of nonsense.

Is this an orchestrated campaign to somehow delegitimize Obama's presidency? Is the fact that he is the first African American president a factor? Is it that some people can't or won't accept that he won the election and serves as commander in chief?

Maybe, maybe not. Trying to analyze the "birther" phenomenon would mean taking it seriously, and taking it seriously would be like arguing about the color of unicorns. About all that can be said is that a bunch of lost, confused and frightened people have decided to seek refuge in conspiratorial make-believe. I hope they're harmless. And I hope they seek help.

Some commentators have tried to play down the mob aspect of these scenes, likening the campaign against health reform to the campaign against Social Security privatization back in 2005. But there’s no comparison. I’ve gone through many news reports from 2005, and while anti-privatization activists were sometimes raucous and rude, I can’t find any examples of congressmen shouted down, congressmen hanged in effigy, congressmen surrounded and followed by taunting crowds.

And I can’t find any counterpart to the death threats at least one congressman has received.

So this is something new and ugly. What’s behind it?

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, has compared the scenes at health care town halls to the “Brooks Brothers riot” in 2000 — the demonstration that disrupted the vote count in Miami and arguably helped send George W. Bush to the White House. Portrayed at the time as local protesters, many of the rioters were actually G.O.P. staffers flown in from Washington.

But Mr. Gibbs is probably only half right. Yes, well-heeled interest groups are helping to organize the town hall mobs. Key organizers include two Astroturf (fake grass-roots) organizations: FreedomWorks, run by the former House majority leader Dick Armey, and a new organization called Conservatives for Patients’ Rights.

The latter group, by the way, is run by Rick Scott, the former head of Columbia/HCA, a for-profit hospital chain. Mr. Scott was forced out of that job amid a fraud investigation; the company eventually pleaded guilty to charges of overbilling state and federal health plans, paying $1.7 billion — yes, that’s “billion” — in fines. You can’t make this stuff up.

But while the organizers are as crass as they come, I haven’t seen any evidence that the people disrupting those town halls are Florida-style rent-a-mobs. For the most part, the protesters appear to be genuinely angry. The question is, what are they angry about?

There was a telling incident at a town hall held by Representative Gene Green, D-Tex. An activist turned to his fellow attendees and asked if they “oppose any form of socialized or government-run health care.” Nearly all did. Then Representative Green asked how many of those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised their hands.

Now, people who don’t know that Medicare is a government program probably aren’t reacting to what President Obama is actually proposing. They may believe some of the disinformation opponents of health care reform are spreading, like the claim that the Obama plan will lead to euthanasia for the elderly. (That particular claim is coming straight from House Republican leaders.) But they’re probably reacting less to what Mr. Obama is doing, or even to what they’ve heard about what he’s doing, than to who he is.

That is, the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s behind the “birther” movement, which denies Mr. Obama’s citizenship. Senator Dick Durbin has suggested that the birthers and the health care protesters are one and the same; we don’t know how many of the protesters are birthers, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it’s a substantial fraction.

And cynical political operators are exploiting that anxiety to further the economic interests of their backers.

Does this sound familiar? It should: it’s a strategy that has played a central role in American politics ever since Richard Nixon realized that he could advance Republican fortunes by appealing to the racial fears of working-class whites.

Many people hoped that last year’s election would mark the end of the “angry white voter” era in America. Indeed, voters who can be swayed by appeals to cultural and racial fear are a declining share of the electorate.

But right now Mr. Obama’s backers seem to lack all conviction, perhaps because the prosaic reality of his administration isn’t living up to their dreams of transformation. Meanwhile, the angry right is filled with a passionate intensity.

And if Mr. Obama can’t recapture some of the passion of 2008, can’t inspire his supporters to stand up and be heard, health care reform may well fail.

Head back to the top.