04.28.09

100 Days of Paranoia

It seems that no matter what Obama does as president, wild-eyed conspiracy theorists will generate their own reality.

Americans love conspiracy theories. One of America’s favorites at the moment maintains that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. I don't believe it, of course. But there's something so forehead-slappingly strange about the notion that you can't help but wonder how, even after 100 days in office, Obama retains this air of mystery. In October, before the election, the Pew Research Center found that only 51 percent of Americans believed that Obama was a Christian, while 12 percent were convinced that he was a Muslim. The good people at Pew asked the question again in March, and they found that the numbers had barely changed: 48 percent think Obama is a Christian and 11 percent think he's a Muslim. The rest are unsure.

It gets better. One of my favorite numbers from that Pew poll is that of voters who approve of Obama's job performance, 7 percent believe that he's a Muslim. They seem to be saying, "Hey man, as long as I get my stimulus, you can worship Allah all day," which is pretty admirable. But does the persistence of the Muslim Obama theory have a more dangerous edge to it? It just might.

After 9/11, a small cottage industry sprung up around the celebration of George W. Bush’s greatness, complete with bronze busts and package tours of Crawford, Texas. At the same time, 9/11 Truthers claimed that a secret Zionist cabal was behind the 2001 terror attacks. If anything, Barack Obama has proved an even more electrifying—and even more polarizing—figure than President Bush, despite the fact that he mostly comes across as a sober, professorial executive. We can’t even decide if he’s telling the truth about his religion, let alone the NAFTA superhighway or a secret plan for one world government.

When the Department of Homeland Security issued its clumsy report on right-wing domestic extremists, conservatives were furious. Some even argued that dissent was being criminalized. But the truth is that extremists of the right and left really have gone bananas in our history. I worry that we've entered a dark and paranoid moment in our history, and that these first 100 days—for all the craziness and tumult of the economic apocalypse—will be remembered as pleasingly calm.

Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.

Xtra Insight: Read other takes on the first 100 days from The Daily Beast's all-star team of analysts.