A new ad campaign paints the president as a communist on health care—complete with hammer and sickle. The Daily Beast’s John Avlon on why the Obama-Soviet iconography degrades our country. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
As the tea-party movement takes to the town halls, Nancy Pelosi is accusing protesters of “carrying swastikas.” Actually, she’s got her dictatorships mixed. The in-imagery among the fringe isn’t Nazi—and it goes a lot further than the Obama-as-Joker posters with the “socialist” label.
No, the wingnuts are hurtling right into Obama-is-communist mode. The Soviet hammer and sickle is being slapped on emails and T-shirts, associating the president of the United States with a totalitarian state that murdered more than 100 million people.
This imagery is at least as insulting and stupid as the far left’s attempt to link George W. Bush with Adolf Hitler during the 2004 campaign. But it is already more widespread, available on a barrage of T-shirts advertised by smiling girls on conservative Web sites, purchasable on bumper stickers, tote bags, and mugs. It’s becoming a disturbingly common part of the anti-Obama landscape proliferating on the Internet.
If you take the murderous toll of communism seriously—as most conservatives rightly do—then comparing the president of the United States to a communist should be clearly unacceptable.
When Florida neurosurgeon and an anti-health-care-reform activist David McKalip forwarded an image of the president as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose to a tea-party listserv group under the subject header “funny stuff,” it might have just been another example of the racist anti-Obama emails circulating among the fringe. But there was a twist—the hammer and sickle through the “c” in “Obama Care.”
Search online for “Obama” and “communist” or “hammer and sickle” and hundreds of images pop up. The proliferation of Obama-as-communist gear is presumably supposed to be sarcastic opposition or ironic commentary—Noisebot.com actually labels its wares as a “funny Obama communist T-shirt”—but there is nothing funny about calling someone a communist, just as there isn’t anything funny about calling someone a Nazi. In fact, the death toll was higher under Stalin and Mao than Hitler.
This associational attack isn’t limited to Obama—it’s been leveled at Democratic presidents and candidates before. I remember walking into a political memorabilia shop near the White House in 1995 and seeing a red bumper sticker where the “c” in the word “Clinton” had been turned into a hammer and sickle. Similar attacks were lobbed at Hillary during her campaign, before she became some neocons’ favorite member of the Obama Cabinet. And T-shirts and bumper stickers are available that show the NAACP and ACLU logos with hammer and sickles through the respective Cs in their names.
Before the end of the Cold War, comparing Democrats to communists was considered bad form even for committed conservatives. The United States was engaged in a bipartisan Cold War foreign policy, and anti-communism was aggressively pursued by Democrats from Harry Truman to JFK to LBJ. In the age of Reagan, the memory of McCarthyism was fresh enough—and the presence of communists real enough—that the slander was not loosely applied, even to a lightning rod for conservative opinion like Jimmy Carter.
But 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have gotten callous and clueless. Conservatives who rightly condemned the comparisons of George W. Bush to Hitler shrug off the Obama-Soviet iconography as the base just acting up—an act of spirited resistance. But if you take the murderous toll of communism seriously—as most conservatives rightly do—then comparing the president of the United States to a communist should be clearly unacceptable. It debases the dead and degrades our county by creating an appearance of moral equivalence between the United States and the Soviet Union.
This uptick in Obama-as-communist imagery is another sign of the bad craziness that is snaking around out there—the Obama Derangement Syndrome that is distorting our political discourse with its paranoid incivility. Republicans need to stop their fringe from blurring with their base before it’s too late. Opposing the president on policy can be principled and patriotic—comparing him to a communist dictatorship is offensive and idiotic.
John P. Avlon is the author of I ndependent 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.