Photoshopped?

02.03.13

Republican Conspiracy Nuts on Obama’s Skeet-Shooting Picture

They’re baaack! From birthers to ‘Benghazi flu,’ right-wingers who see cover-ups around every corner have found a new obsession in ‘Skeet-Gate.’ John Avlon on their paranoia-philia.

The Obama years have been a boom time for conspiracy theories and associated catchphrases.

During the first term, the “birthers” dominated this sad and sordid landscape, but in recent weeks we’ve seen the rapid rise and fall of the “Benghazi flu” and now—oh so briefly—“Skeet-Gate.”

Blink and you could have missed it. “Skeet-Gate” was the far-right-wing reaction to an interview in last week’s relaunched New Republic in which the president was asked whether he’d ever shot a gun. He replied, “Yes, in fact, up at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time.”

I can understand why some people were surprised at the answer—it reflects the original impulse to ask the question. With a gun debate raging, the president hasn’t often been seen in the sort of ritualistic duck-hunting poses that Democratic politicians often submit to the press as proof that they aren’t anti-gun in general.

But the right-wing reaction was predictable: President Obama must be lying.

This is the impulse when you’ve bought wholesale into the demonization of this Democratic president. There is no assumption of goodwill or even the minimum amount of credulity that is normally extended to a fellow citizen, let alone to a twice-elected president. Common sense is set aside: if a skeet-shooting range is in place at Camp David, Obama must have ordered it destroyed or let it gather dust for ideological reasons. The idea that he might actually enjoy occasionally shooting clay pigeons as sport just doesn’t fit the mental script that sees him as rabidly anti-gun and considers the Obamas something other than full-fledged Americans.

This standard even falls short of President Reagan’s approach to the Soviets—“trust, but verify.” There is no trust and when verification arrives, that is doubted as well—accompanied by the now-ritualistic blaming of the media and playing the victim.

There is something pathetic about the need for the White House to hunt down and release a photo of the president shooting a gun to silence the partakers of the paranoid style in American politics. The essential indignity helps explain the delay in releasing the president’s birth certificate to quiet the march of the birthers.

Birthers may have been sidelined, but the essential disrespect and near-dehumanization of this president keeps bubbling up.

When Mitt Romney radioactively half-joked, “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate” in the closing weeks of the campaign, he was also telling a half-truth—the impulse to question a president’s legitimate citizenship hadn’t persisted before we had an African-American in the Oval Office.

But while Andrew Breitbart condemned the birthers when he was alive, the site that now bears his name was among the first to play the victim card in the wake of Skeet-Gate, complaining that the media was siding with the facts and mocking those who instinctively rushed to the ramparts to scream conspiracy. Breitbart’s impulse to question the angle of the gun in the photo ended up validating David Plouffe’s preemptive tweet, “Attn skeet birthers. Make our day—let the photoshop conspiracies begin!”

Think back to the accusations of “Benghazi flu” that circulated after then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s concussions. They circulated from the fringes of the Web to right-wing talk radio to being parroted by senators and senior party surrogates on cable news. When exposed as being a severe case of a blood clot near the brain, the pernicious idiocy was dismissed with a “can’t-you-all-take-a-joke” shrug. But the same initial impulse to buy into the lie as we saw in “Skeet-Gate” was apparent. The differences that exist aren’t processed as policy—it is all bitterly personal in a way that contorts common sense and common decency.

One final reality check on the gun debate—President Obama’s first-term record on guns consisted primarily of loosening gun laws, allowing guns to be carried into National Parks and on Amtrak, for example. But the lack of legislation or even conversation about new gun laws in his first term did not stop competing conspiracy entrepreneurs like Glenn Beck or Alex Jones from telling their followers that Obama was coming after their guns—a refrain that helped gun dealers achieve record sales with the anxiety of scarcity to come. (Incidentally, watch this ironic Glenn Beck instant classic, where he explains the process of seeding conspiracy theories—a case of "pot, meet kettle."

Post–Sandy Hook slaughter, the president’s proposed gun laws and executive orders have been predictably attacked as a tyrannical gun grab, despite the fact that Ronald Reagan backed the first assault-weapons ban and none other than Justice Scalia has written in the Heller decision that “like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” This is all in a realm of reasonable civic debate—but not to conspiracy theorists, paranoid hyperpartisans and hatriots.

With a convincing reelection under his belt, it is more difficult to paint President Obama as illegitimate, but the unhinged, hate-fueled impulse still exists. The birthers may have been finally sidelined from decent conversation, but the essential disrespect and near-dehumanization of this president keeps bubbling up. History will be harsh in its judgment against these peddlers of conspiracy theories—they won’t be seen as the patriots they imagine but as crackpot reactionaries who ended up hurting the credibility of their fellow conservatives.

Video screenshot

'Fox News Sunday' host Chris Wallace took on NRA chief Wayne LaPierre in a vehement debate on guns.