The GOP vs. 'King Obama'
On Saturday, President Obama decried the “poisonous political climate” that’s based in “vilification and over-the-top rhetoric.” But Republican governors, with a different agenda, have quietly compared Obama to a British tyrant. John Avlon on how the party is test-driving a political attack for 2012.
Drop that crumpet: The weirdest new narrative in American politics seeks to recast President Obama as a British monarch.
It’s percolated from Revolutionary War re-enactors at Tea Party protests to online ad imagery in the healthcare fights and now to the upper echelons of the GOP with a new Web campaign, RememberNovember.com, put forward by the Republican Governors Association to mark Guy Fawkes’ debut in U.S. domestic debates.
“Liberal neo-monarchists” is the money shot in that speech.
For those of you who’ve let your 17th-century British history slip, Guy Fawkes was a would-be terrorist who plotted to blow up the parliament building, and the king within, as part of a Catholic v. Protestant uprising in 1605. The plot was stopped and Fawkes’ execution day is marked by a U.K. national holiday in which bonfires are lit and songs sung—the most famous of which has the following first verse: “Remember, remember the fifth of November/Gunpowder, Treason and Plot/I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason/Should ever be forgot.”
The RememberNovember.com campaign and its Fawkes-ian invocations was first highlighted by Michael Scherer over at Time’s Swampland blog. The video itself is well-produced coverage of the usual overheated indictments—allegations of an ideological plot to undermine our constitutional Republic, with high-profile cameos from Al Sharpton, Alcee Hastings and Fidel Castro. It is anti-administration but in no way advocates violence—the title of the effort itself is the only overt reference to Fawkes. The real news is the awkward stretch across the Atlantic for inspiration, enflaming one of the ugliest anxieties that pervades our politics—the feeling that losing an election is like living under tyranny.
The mental math that makes Obama a British monarch is tough to follow at first. It begins with broad historical self-congratulation—conservatives as the true inheritors of our revolutionary forefathers. They are the modern-day Paul Revere’s warning complacent fellow citizens that the British are coming, now offered with a contemporary twist: it is not an invading army but a social democratic bureaucracy that is determined to drive out American-style individual freedom. Ergo, Obama = King George III.
The roots of this narrative—as with much current conservative iconography—began with Ron Paul’s quixotic 2008 campaign. It was the Paul-ites who carried off the first contemporary “Tea Party” themed protest—and they also were the first to appropriate the anti-government rebellion themes of Guy Fawkes to launch a $4 million money bomb in 2007. They see themselves as defenders of constitutional purity with the added appeal of libertarian rebellion against the established elites. It has been picked up and pumped up with books like Glenn Beck’s repackaging of Tom Paine’s “Common Sense.”
One prime grassroots expression of the paranoia came from the pen of a sometime conservative columnist and current GOP candidate for Congress in New York’s 19th district named Kristia Cavere, who's been in local news recently for claiming that "the Republicans are the ones who liberated Europe in World War II" at an upstate editorial board meeting. Last fall, she wrote: “Barack Obama has shown himself to be as despotic as George III through overly harsh taxation and forcing his will on the people. Like George used the Parliament, Obama is using Congress to assert his supremacy in a socialist empire.”
This narrative really caught fire at CPAC, where speaker after speaker echoed the idea that conservative values are American values—making liberal ideas de facto un-American. This was most memorably captured in a well-written speech delivered by 2012 front-runner Mitt Romney, who asserted, “with all due respect, President Obama fails to understand America.” Romney went on to explain this extraordinarily dismissive indictment with a history of American innovation: “The founders launched an entirely new concept of nation, one where the people would be sovereign, not the king, not the state. And this would apply not just to government, but also to the American economy: the individual would pursue his or her happiness in freedom, independent from government dictate….This creed is under assault in Washington today. Liberals are convinced that government knows better than the people how to run our businesses, how to choose winning technologies, how to manage healthcare, how to grow an economy, and how to order our very lives. They want to gain through government takeover what they could never achieve in the competitive economy—power and control over the people of America. If these liberal neo-monarchists succeed, they will kill the very spirit that has built the nation.”
“Liberal neo-monarchists” is the money shot in that speech. Its ideology and history all tied up with a red, white and blue bow—a high-brow summation of all the themes of un-Americanism and anti-Americanism that dog President Obama. It manages to cast the son of a single mother on food stamps as the aristocratic elite from the perspective of the son of a former governor, auto-executive and presidential aspirant. Seen through a partisan lens, meritocracy becomes arrogance, a usurpation of the old order, motivated solely by a desire to seize power and then impose a welfare state. It would sound unhinged if it weren’t being embraced—or at least deployed—by some of the leading members of the Party of Lincoln.
Another late entry in the Obama-as-Redcoat sweepstakes comes from the normally restrained and responsible former Governor of New York, George Pataki, who demurred on a draft-campaign to run for Senate against Kirsten Gillibrand for the privilege of launching “Revere America,” a new organization pushing a petition to repeal healthcare under the slogan “respecting our history—protecting our future.” Its opening ad invokes—inevitably—the midnight ride of Paul Revere.
When the duly elected President of the United States becomes a proxy for an unelected tyrant we fought a war of independence against, we are deep into a political world without perspective. Normally, the absurdity of this claim would cause it to stop in its tracks—for example, the far-left’s attempts to cast W as King George never really caught on.
But this conservative campaign narrative is getting mainstreamed and coming soon to a political campaign near you. It is carries with it not just the invigoration that comes with the invocation of first principles, but an ugly arrogance that does not care when fellow citizens—or the president himself—is cast as fundamentally un-American. It is the newest extension of the insulting idea that any one party can lay exclusive claim to the American flag or even the concept of freedom itself.
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. 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.