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First as Tragedy, Second as Farce, Still About Race

November 2, 2010

Two years ago, on the morning after Barack Obama’s election, Tom Friedman’s New York Times column began: “And so it came to pass that on Nov. 4, 2008, shortly after 11 p.m. Eastern time, the American Civil War ended.” As on numerous previous occasions—Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865; the ratification of the 15th Amendment on February 3, 1870; the signing of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965, to name a few—this latest report of the Civil War’s demise has proved premature.

In its first life, the war’s proximate trigger was the election—one hundred and fifty years ago this week—of the “Black Republican” Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln imperiled the economic liberty of ordinary Americans, his antagonists argued, by arrogating to the federal government in Washington regulatory powers beyond those granted by the Constitution. More insidiously still, he concealed beneath a moderate façade radical and unsavory sympathies for racial and cultural aliens and inferiors who at best were unsuited for integration into the nation’s civic and social fabric and at worst would adulterate, impoverish, or even actively seek to destroy white America.

Democratic political cartoons in 1860 sought to hammer home this seemingly contradictory image of Lincoln as a candidate intent both on turning the government of the United States into his personal political monolith and on giving that government away. One popular example, entitled “An Heir to the Throne,” pairs Lincoln and his fence rail with a slack-jawed, knock-kneed Pygmy holding a spear, who, the Lincoln figure remarks, will “prove to the world the superiority of the Colored over the Anglo-Saxon race, [and] will be a worthy successor to carry out the policy which I shall inaugurate.”

A century and a half later the figurative “Black Republican” has given way to the phenotypic black Democrat and fear-mongering newsprint caricatures have given way to demagogic video infomercials, but otherwise, as evidenced by the 25 minute “documentary” Breaking Point, things are pretty much the same.

Produced by the National Republican Trust PAC and aired on television stations across the country this past week, Breaking Point calls for a “citizens’ revolt” to save an America that is “under assault from the establishment.” Curiously, however, this establishment is embodied by a man (Barack Obama is the overwhelming focus of the film, as he has been of the midterm elections in which he is not a candidate) who, we’re told, “does not view America with an America-centric perspective but with an outsider’s point of view.” Breaking Point proceeds to “document” this claim by a pastiche of sound and video bites: Obama on taxing the rich, followed by a voiceover—accessorized by a shot of Fidel and a quote from Mao—that equates his comments with “the destructive ideology of socialist revolutionaries”; Obama standing with Jeremiah Wright to the tune of Wright’s “God damn America” flourish, followed by a random forty-year-old clip of a black militant with a bullhorn shouting “You want freedom, you’re going to have to kill some crackers”; Obama greeting the King of Saudi Arabia, Obama urging calm and tolerance in the aftermath of the Fort Hood shootings by “radical Muslim Major Hasan,” and Eric Holder challenging Arizona’s recent immigration law, accompanied by a voiceover that wonders why “the good will Obama and other Democrats shower on those hostile to America [Mexican workers appear to join American Muslims in this category] never seems to extend to fellow countrymen here at home.”

Across the 150 year divide, the comparable metaphysics of Lincoln-hating and Obama-hating each feature two strands of white populism that seem to contradict one another but that, psychologically, may be tightly braided: one is the fear of personal diminishment or anonymity when political power is centralized; the other is the fear of personal diminishment or anonymity when the (real or imagined) cultural center can no longer hold. When historical circumstances produce both of these two fears, and when there is an “outsider” leader around whom the fears may coalesce, then conditions are favorable for a “citizens’ revolt” in the name—as the clever title of this week’s New York Magazine cover story has it—of “Me, the People.”

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