10.26.10

The Obama Haters Book Club

Just two years into his term, some 46 books demonizing the president have been published. John Avlon on the latest sign that hate is driving the midterm elections.

Hating President Obama has become its own industry—and here's a new stat to prove it: To date, there have been at least 46 anti-Obama books published.  I'm not talking about thoughtful criticisms of his policies, but hyperbolic denunciations, distortions, or outright demonizations of the president. These screeds cannot help but have an impact on the typically low-turnout, high-intensity midterm elections that will take place Tuesday.

It's also evidence that the proliferation of Obama Derangement Syndrome has out-paced Bush Derangement Syndrome—big time. At this point in Bush's presidency there were only five anti-W books (a total no doubt depressed by the national unity that emerged in the wake of 9/11).  It took Bush until November of 2004—the culmination of his contentious re-election campaign—to hit 46.  

And while hating Bill Clinton was both a sport and a pastime on the far-right when he was in office, a rough count of anti-Clinton books at this point in his presidency reached only 11, despite an approval rating in the mid-30s and the onset of the 1994 Republican Revolution.  

I started wondering how many Obama attack books had been published when I saw David Limbaugh's Crimes Against Liberty: An Indictment of Barack Obama at a bookstore a few weeks ago—at this point the titles all blur together in a manic mad-lib, always accusing Obama of something close to war-crimes against the American people.  With the help of research assistant Nicholas Anderson, I compiled a full list of anti-Obama books available on Amazon.com. Among the choice titles:  

The Manchurian President: Barack Obama's Ties to Communists, Socialists and other Anti-American Extremists; Barack Obama's Plan to Socialize America and Destroy Capitalism; Obama's Change: Communism in America; To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular Socialist Machine; How Barack Obama is Destroying the Military and Endangering Our Security; Obama: The Postmodern Coup—Making of a Manchurian Candidate; Trickle Up Poverty: Stopping Obama's Attack on Our Borders, Economy and Security; The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration's War on America; and my favorite: Whiny Little Bitch: The Excuse Filled Presidency of Barack Obama.

Mixed among those books are works by radio show hosts who reach millions of listeners each week, columnists, commentators, bloggers, cranks, and a former speaker of the House who is thinking about running for president. You might not be able to distinguish between the self-published pathology and the semi-professional polemics—they are all fear-mongering for personal and partisan profit.  And that's the larger point.

We're all getting caught up in the politics of incitement, becoming desensitized in ways that damage the institutions of our democracy.  Because if any Republican thinks that this cycle will stop with the next president, they underestimate the ways that politics follows the lines of physics—every action creates an equal and opposite reaction.  This will become the new normal.  

At this point in Bush's presidency there were only five anti-W books.

There are plenty of rational reasons to oppose the policies of President Obama and his administration.  Accusing him of being a Manchurian candidate out to undermine the Constitution and replace it with Communism isn't one of them. 

The steady stream of these books—combined with fear-mongering emails, right-wing talk radio and partisan cable news—are reasons why pathetically large numbers of Americans are ready to believe the worst about our president.  This includes CNN's finding that a quarter of all Americans believe that Obama was not born in the U.S. (a number that goes up to 41 percent  among Republicans) , the Pew Research Center's finding that nearly 20 percent of Americans believe that the president is Muslim or the Democracy Corps finding that 55 percent of Americans think President Obama is a ' socialist' .  

Not surprisingly, these mid-term elections are referendums on President Obama's first two years in office—and he is pre-occupying the conversation in many campaigns. The Daily Beast Election Oracle found that Obama is driving more than 40 percent of online commentary in the neck-and-neck Nevada, Pennsylvania, California, and Illinois' Senate races.  He accounts for more than 50 percent of the online conversation in House races occurring in Ohio (CD-1 and 15), Florida (CD-24) and Pennsylvania (CD-6, 7, and 12).  Add in the terms of "Obama" and "anti-American" or "communist" and hundreds of matches come up in those same races—with additional bumps from the Arizona governor's race, the Kentucky Senate race and Michele Bachmann's sixth congressional district in Minnesota. 

To be sure, there has always been an anti-president publishing segment of the industry—some of it serious criticism and some of it just partisan crankery.  It is an expression of the First Amendment, and in its own way, a great American tradition. 

But that historic precedent tells us at least two things.  First, that most of the really over-heated cases of Presidential Derangement Syndrome seem somewhere between silly, psychotic, and slanderous in hindsight—there's no reason to believe that cases of Obama Derangement Syndrome today will look any different in the rearview mirror of history.  Second, because of the rise of partisan media, the intensity of the Obama Derangement Syndrome at this stage in his administration may be unprecedented. 

Yes, founding fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson hired publishers to slander each other in personal terms that included accusations of adultery, incest, rape, and Satanism. FDR and the Democratic Party infamously put Charles Michelson on payroll to smear Herbert Hoover when he was in office and continued the effort for years afterward. Politics ain't bean-bag. 

But those efforts were comparatively limited in their reach.  There were fewer books published in total each year, less specialty press. In the 1930s, radio was in its angry adolescence, just learning how to use conflict, tension, fear, and resentment. And of course, cable news and the Internet hadn't been invented yet. 

Hating Bill and Hillary Clinton was a well-cultivated cottage industry among the far-right, propelling not just Rush Limbaugh's ratings but a vast array of conspiracy theories that included murder and drug dealing (for a summary, watch The Hunting of the President, based on Joe Conason and Gene Lyon's book of the same name). But Clinton Derangement Syndrome was essentially an analog event—and now Clinton looks like a model of fiscal responsibility and anti-elitism even to many one-time enemies.  

By the time of George W. Bush the Internet age was well upon us, but the anti-Bush books were few and far between at first—the two notable titles during the 2000 election were Fortunate Son by J.H. Hatfield and Is Our Children Learning: The Case Against George W. Bush by Paul Begala.  (Ultimately, the number of anti-Bush books hit 118—for the full list, click here).

Before Barack Obama reached office, he was the subject of at least 5 book-length attacks with themes that have become increasingly familiar, including The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality; Obama: The Man Behind the Mask; and The Audacity of Deceit: Barack Obama's War on American Values.

All this is evidence of an acceleration of the impulse to demonize the duly elected president of the opposite party. We are cannibalizing our body politic. We need to stop this cycle of incitement before it destroys our ability to unite as a nation absent a disaster.

Click Here for the Anti-Obama Books from 2008-Present.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. 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.