How thin is the line between reason and delirium. Just a few years ago, Democrats and liberals were presenting themselves as paragons of level-headed politics in contrast to those cranky Obama bashers and birthers in the darker crannies of the worldwide web. Now, four weeks into the Trump presidency, they’ve become the thing they mocked; they’re giving febrile Obamaphobes a run for their money in the paranoia game.
It’s striking how closely the media and culture sets’ meltdown over Trump mirrors the rash reaction to Obama among some on the harder, tetchier right of politics. Just as some of those frazzled comment-section dwellers became convinced Obama was a Muslim Brotherhood mole, bent on laying waste to their way of life, so left-leaning Trump-fearers are buying into ever-crazier notions about Trump being a Putin-puppeteered Manchurian candidate come to destroy American values, and art, and decency: everything they hold dear. The panic and self-pity that once gripped unreasoned right-wingers now has a firm hold of many leftists.
The most striking similarity between the meltdown over Obama and the meltdown over Trump is the belief that the president is a stooge of dark foreign forces.
A favored conspiracy theory of the Obama-fearers was that Obama wasn’t born in the United States, and was probably a Muslim to boot. Some went further, insisting he was a smart, smooth-talking front for those dastardly aspiring destroyers of the United States, the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Barack Hussein Obama: Muslim Brotherhood Mole?” headlines asked. (Always with the Hussein.) Some wondered if Obama was an MB “agent.” “The Muslim Brotherhood has taken over the White House,” bloggers feverishly claimed.
They said there were MB moles “inside the Department of Homeland Security,” and the “Commander-in-Chief is one of these individuals.” This swirling theory made its way to National Enquirer. “Muslim Obama’s White House Infested With Terrorist Spies!” the mag insisted.
The unhinged conviction that the White House has fallen to a wicked foreign power now finds expression in many liberals’ belief that Putin, through leaks and fake news, won the election for Trump, and that Trump is doing his bidding.
Of course there’s evidence of contact between Trump’s people and Putin’s people—dinners, phone calls, a shared dislike of Hillary—but nothing to warrant the widespread use of the term “Putin’s puppet.” That’s appeared everywhere from the Washington Post to MSNBC.
Trump is the “Siberian candidate,” said a writer for The New York Times, using language right out of the conspiracy-theory thriller The Manchurian Candidate. “Putin has managed a bloodless coup,” says a Daily Kos blogger. In short, Russia now runs America.
Saturday Night Live runs skits showing a shirtless Putin bossing about a gurning Trump—a “manipulative dictator and his oblivious puppet,” as The Guardian describes it. It’s funny (at times) but it’s worth remembering that the folks at SNL would have been in the frontline of mocking Obamaphobes who thought Obama was the plaything of Islamists.
The talk of Trump as a Putin plant utterly runs ahead of any facts. Alarmingly, at the end of December YouGov found in a survey of Democratic voters that 50% of them believed “Russia tampered with vote tallies to help Donald Trump.” This goes beyond believing that Russian-engineered fake news and leaked Dem emails swung the election for Trump, which is already a bit of a stretch, since I’m petty sure voters can still think for themselves; as YouGov said, it crosses into the territory of “Election Day conspiracy theory.”
The post-Obama meltdown led to loads of phony stories—what we now call fake news. Obama was raised by communists; he once refused to say the pledge of allegiance; he won the election through mass hypnosis. (I particularly like the hypnosis story, which is actually now echoed in some liberals’ snooty belief that Trump voters were hoodwinked by the Orange One’s demagoguery—that they are “compulsive believers,” as one columnist puts it.)
Likewise, the post-Trump meltdown is marshalling some very tall tales. It seems the more Trump fearers become convinced he is a proto-fascist or a Putinite puppet the more likely they are to believe all sorts of rubbish about him.
As The Atlantic reports, “shocked, terrified, or incensed,” some progressives have taken to sharing claims about Trump that are “full of fables and falsehoods.”
Anti-Trump web-users have shared false stories about Melania selling jewellery on the White House website; about a boy being handcuffed at an airport as a direct result of Trump’s executive order restricting travel from certain Muslim countries; about Mike Pence saying that if we allow rape victims to have abortions then women will go out and try to get raped—of course he said nothing of the sort.
Even real but entirely innocent things become twisted. So when Obama’s political and campaign pages, including information about LGBT rights, were taken down from the White House website and archived, Trump was accused of “erasing” gay people from political life. Nope. Archiving former presidents’ web stuff is standard practice.
The Obama fearers and Trump fearers come from very different sections of society. The former were were less likely to be well-educated or well-connected; they indulged their fears on amateurish, weird blogs. The latter are part of the Smart Set and ply their presidential panic in newspaper columns or well-read blogs.
But something important unites them. Both embrace a politics of fear over reason, fuelled by a sense of siege. Both cleave to an unfounded belief that their nation and their lives have been overrun by a destructive, probably foreign force. And both fail to make a good fist of actually challenging the president. Just as paranoia over Obama led to the spreading of wild tales rather than to robust critiques of Obama’s illiberalism and war-mongering, so too many in the Trump meltdown lobby are currently in the business of panic rather than clear political criticism of Trump’s disregard for liberty and openness. Fear makes for lame opposition.
During the Bush years, Arianna Huffington infamously claimed that where liberals tended to use their “linear, logical left brain,” Republican voters were more likely to think with their “lizard, more emotional right brain.” Recent events suggest the chattering classes are as susceptible to dread and rumor and crankiness as any of the “low-information” rednecks they love to bash. Hey, clever media sneerers at Obamaphobes—there’s a beam in your eye.