Seventy percent of Americans—even Karl Rove!—are happy with Barack Obama. But don't tell the holdouts on the left and right, who are poised for battle. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
Barack Obama's era of good feeling rolled on this week—even Karl Rove expressed admiration for his centrist Cabinet picks.
But not everyone is singing “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Democracy is messy, and even when nearly 70 percent of Americans are optimistic that Obama will be a good president, there is the other 30 percent. Look beyond the sober skeptics and the principled opposition, and you'll find an ugly fringe festival on the web, cultivating the wounds left by the 2008 campaign.
While the liberal Netroots are grumbling about the insufficient radicalism in Obama's cabinet and threatening future protest, some folks on the right are pouring gasoline on the embers of the culture wars.
This is the Obama resistance. They are the hardcore haters, the unhinged, the paranoid—firing their shots from the outer-reaches of American politics and strafing the common sense center.
On the left, the self-appointed ideological enforcers are smelling a bait and switch. They see Obama's decidedly centrist Cabinet as a betrayal of his beliefs and his base. As the executive director of Moveon.org Eli Pariser told the AP: "If they turn out to be all disappointments, we'll have a good three years to storm the gates at the White House." For the new New Left, the reflexive rhetoric of Ramparts lives on.
They can already claim some scalps. Obama's campaign intelligence advisor, John Brennan, a 25-year CIA veteran, who was widely believed to be a shoo-in for CIA Director, withdrew his name from consideration in part because he came under fire from the blogosphere for being inadequately opposed to terrorist interrogation techniques such as isolation, sleep deprivation, and rendition.
To be sure, a large part of the far-left’s discomfort is with the non-optional war we find ourselves in against radical Islam itself—as 60’s lefty Robert Scheer complained after the president-elect’s condemnation of the Mumbai attacks, “Unfortunately, on Monday Obama stuck with the absurd ‘War on Terror’ language he inherited from Bush.” But the most focused fire of the past week, from The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel on down, has been directed at the reappointment of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. This criticism from OpenLeft.com's Chris Bowers is typical: "Obama's retention of Gates as Secretary of Defense signals, above all, a clear unwillingness on Obama's part to engage in politically difficult fights at the start of his administration."
This perspective is consistent with a longstanding liberal Netroots Obama critique, expressed by the founder of DailyKos, Markos Moulitsas, on MSNBC after this summer's FISA vote. Moulitsas said Obama might be one of those "spineless Democrats who are ... afraid of controversy." (Moulitsas, for his part, has declared himself skeptical but not angry at the Gates reappointment.)
In the eyes of some liberal Netroot skeptics, Obama's self-described pragmatism and cool, conciliatory manner is a sellout sign of weakness, not strength. To them, the hyper-partisan politics of confrontation is a positive good, an appropriately equal and opposite reaction to the Bush administration.
Ironically, some wingnuts on the right are blaming Democrats' techniques on their newfound commitment to tear down the next President of the United States. Take one particularly unhinged culture warrior, Michael Eden of TheAmericanSentinel.com, who writes: "Barack Hussein Obama and his Democratic lackeys get to wear the bullseyes on their foreheads for the duration of the next election cycle…don't let a bunch of appallingly blatant hypocrites tell you that you owe Obama one more iota of respect than they gave Bush… It’s time to start burning down their houses and salting their fields."
The self-described "resistance" takes on a decidedly more respectful but no less strident tone at Grassfire.org, a well-funded effort to register one million official Obama resisters by Inauguration Day. (So far more than a quarter million have signed up.) The site takes quaint pains to explain that "as the first President with African-American lineage, Barack Obama's election is a historic landmark in the long journey of purging the terrible scourge of slavery and racism from our nation's soul." The problem: "the far-left and socialistic elements that comprise the centerpiece of his agenda." As their mission statement proclaims:
Wealth redistribution and higher taxes? We Resist! ... Open borders, amnesty and undermining of our uniquely American culture? We Resist! Taxpayer-funded abortions and a radical anti-life agenda? We Resist! The weakening of our military and retreat in the war on Terror? We Resist! ... The end of marriage and the exaltation of LGBT rights? We Resist! International taxation and submitting our nation to the ideals of "global citizenship"? We Resist! The Courts stacked with leftist judges who betray our Constitution? We Resist!
The invocation of militarism in opposition also bubbled up days after the election courtesy of Phil Broun, a Republican congressman from Georgia, who actually compared Obama to Hitler and Soviet dictators in an interview with the Associated Press. Broun completely mischaracterized Obama’s support for a Civilian Response Corps, a Bush administration effort to rebuild the infrastructure of failing states, saying, "We can't be lulled into complacency. You have to remember that Adolf Hitler was elected in a democratic Germany.” Broun's office subsequently refused to issue an apology.
And the week after the election, the Rev. Jay Scott Newman of Columbia, South Carolina told his parishioners they should not take communion if they voted for "Barack Hussein Obama" because "our nation has chosen for its chief executive the most radical pro-abortion politician ever to serve in the United States Senate or to run for president" and that "constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil."
It would be easy to dismiss these statements as the work of a few well-placed cranks. But the politics of hate has a trickle down effect, as the residents of Madison County, Idaho—which voted 85 percent for McCain-Palin—fund out after the election when a school bus full of second- and third-graders chanted "assassinate Obama."
As we gain some perspective on the presidential campaign, we see that the fear-mongering has left psychic wounds which are not easily healed. While the far left remains fundamentally allergic to the real-world responsibilities of governing, there are those on the far right who are fundamentally opposed to uniting behind our new president, despite John McCain's honorable plea to his supporters—some of whom booed his election night request at the Biltmore in Phoenix. Just because Sarah Palin can pivot from saying Obama is "palling around with terrorists" to telling Larry King "I'm proud of Barack Obama," doesn't mean that supporters like those who yelled "Obama Osama" and other slurs outside a Palin rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, will know whether she was telling the truth then or now.
Politics is not blood sport and government should not be a warfare of interests. Hate makes a cheap and easy recruiting tool. The danger, of course, is that hate can ultimately lead to violence. So rather than just thinking of homegrown extremists as the benign circus freaks of American politics, we should keep an eye on their efforts, keeping in mind what President Eisenhower said a half-century ago: "The middle of the road is all the useable surface. The extremes of left and right are in the gutters."
John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Avlon also served as Director of Speechwriting and Deputy Director of Policy for Rudy Giuliani's Presidential Campaign. Previously, he was a columnist for the New York Sun and served as Chief Speechwriter and Deputy Communications Director for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He worked on Bill Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign.