Crackpot anti-Obama conspiracy theorists now include congressmen, a former GOP presidential candidate and an Army major. John Avlon on the "Birthers" attempts to pass federal legislation, and their new claims 170 soldiers will refuse to serve the president. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
Last week, a U.S. Army major named Stefan Frederick Cook made news when he refused deployment to Afghanistan on the grounds that President Barack Obama might not be a natural-born citizen and therefore is constitutionally ineligible to give orders as commander in chief. Now Cook’s lawyer says she has 170 more soldiers willing to file similar protests against the president.
The 170 number thrown out by Cook’s lawyer has the feel of Joe McCarthy’s claim that he had a list of 205 communists working in Harry Truman’s State Department—i.e. pseudo-specific, intentionally inflammatory, and ultimately bogus.
Welcome to the world of the “Birthers”—right-wing conspiracy theorists committed to undoing the 2008 presidential election by trying to prove that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. The movement is evidence that Obama Derangement Syndrome is going viral from the far right, proliferating beyond fringe-festival Internet sites. It’s in danger of a quiet mainstreaming along partisan lines—reaching into talk radio, cable news, the armed services, and even the halls of Congress.
The 170 number thrown out by Cook’s lawyer has the feel of Joe McCarthy’s claim that he had a list of 205 communists working in Harry Truman’s State Department—i.e. pseudo-specific, intentionally inflammatory, and ultimately bogus. But what’s not in question is the nine Republican congressmen who have co-sponsored a bill that, in response to this much-debunked conspiracy theory, would require presidential campaigns to provide “a copy of the candidate’s birth certificate.”
Asked whether Obama “is a U.S. citizen,” bill co-sponsor Randy Neugebauer, a Texas Republican, replied: “I don’t know. I’ve never seen him produce documents that would say one way or another.”
Major Cook—a distinguished combat veteran—appears to have been a willing pawn in the Birthers’ efforts to bring attention to their cause. He re-enlisted as a reservist in May, with the apparent intention of carrying out this political performance-art litigation. When the military shrugged and said he didn’t have to go to AfPak (issuing a statement saying, "This in no way validates any of the outlandish claims made by Major Cook") and a judge threw out the case, Cook’s legal team celebrated it as a smoking-gun victory. WorldNetDaily—whose editor and CEO has been a major supporter of Birther petition efforts and roadside billboards—trumpeted it as “Bombshell: Orders Revoked for Soldier Challenging Prez.”
In the wake of this “success,” Cook’s lawyer, Dr. Orly Taitz, and her frequent plaintiff, Ambassador Alan Keyes, appeared on CNN to debate the issue. I’d hit the Birthers in my “ Wingnut Watch” segment on the Campbell Brown show earlier in the week and was asked to counter their claims alongside New York Daily News columnist Errol Louis.
Before going on air, Keyes had his eyes closed as if in prayer while Taitz was jumpy and pie-eyed, like a patient off her meds. Anchor Kitty Pilgrim then went through a thorough 3-1/2 minute dismantling of the Birther arguments, including the long-ago issuance of Obama’s August 1961 certificate of live birth, its validation by Hawaii’s Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, and two birth announcements published in Honolulu papers. (Both FactCheck.org and Snopes have published detailed investigations and refutations of the non-scandal.)
Asked what more he needed to be convinced, Keyes’ response was an instant classic in the clueless overconfidence of conspiracy theorists: “Some evidence.”
Keyes can be considered patient zero in the spread of Obama Derangement Syndrome. The one-time protégé of Reagan U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and three-time presidential candidate was recruited to run against then-state Senator Barack Obama in 2004 for the Illinois U.S. Senate seat, despite the fact that Keyes lived in Maryland. (That the GOP could not find an African-American candidate to run in all of Illinois is its own evidence in the Party of Lincoln’s fall.)
In his book Audacity of Hope, Obama recounts Keyes’ campaign claim that “Christ would not vote for Barack Obama.” The tone went downhill from there.
Keyes has only ratcheted up his rhetoric since then, both in his 2008 third-party campaign for the presidency and in February 2009 comments outside a Nebraska antiabortion fundraiser.
“Obama is a radical communist, and I think it is becoming clear. That is what I told people in Illinois and now everybody realizes it’s true,” Keyes told a reporter from local station KHAS-TV. “He is going to destroy this country, and we are either going to stop him or the United States of America is going to cease to exist.”
While Keyes calls Obama a radical communist, Taitz reaches for the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, repeatedly referring to the Obama administration as the “Gestapo-SS establishment” on her blog. She extends the metaphor with an ugly call for investigation and execution: “They all should and would be tried in Nurenberg (sic) style trials for harassing, intimidating, blackmailing and terrorizing fellow citizens, for defrauding the whole country. Patriots of this country didn’t fight and defeat Nazi Germany to end up with Obamas, McCuskill (sic), Soros, Brunner and the rest of this squad.”
Keyes and Taitz are connected by their relationship to Orange County Baptist Pastor Wiley Drake, who served as Keyes’ VP nominee in 2008 and Taitz’s first plaintiff in the Birther lawsuits. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because a few months ago Drake announced that he was praying for Obama’s death after his prayers for the death of Kansas abortionist George Tiller were “answered.” He has been offering “imprecatory prayers” against “the usurper that is in the White House…B. Hussein Obama.”
It’s the “usurper” line that ties the whole deranged tale together. Since the 2008 campaign, the far right has ginned up a steady stream of Internet rumors and rhetoric that are variations on the idea that Obama is fundamentally un-American. These range from “Obama is the Antichrist” emails passed on by people, including a South Carolina mayor, to the “Obama is a Manchurian candidate” theories posited by WorldNet Daily, among others. The underlying theme is not just paranoid politics, where a center-left president is called a socialist and then communist, but also discomfort with the idea of an African-American president—especially one who emerged from obscurity so quickly that there must be a sinister conspiracy at work.
All this might be laughable, if there weren’t deadly serious hyper-partisan hatred behind it all. There is plenty to debate over the administration’s policies, but Obama Derangement Syndrome is not healthy for our democracy—it is pathological hatred of the president posing as patriotism.
John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.