On September 12, tens—perhaps hundreds–of thousands of white people descended on the streets of Washington D.C. It is impossible to come by a more exact crowd count, but the marchers seethed with a racist anger palpable to outside observers.
One homemade poster declared that “The Anti-Christ is Living in the White House.” Another simply said, “Oppressive Bloodsucking Arrogant Muslim Alien.” And a host of slogans painted the first black president of the United States as an anti-American “Other.”
Standard Republican Party oriented signs opposed any Democratic Party initiated health care reform. The more standard refrain, however, was that Obama was a “Communist,” or a “Socialist,” or a “Nazi,” (sometimes all three in the same breath), as racism has donned the garb of anti-communism in a mass way, perhaps for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
The march was organized by a dozen far-right groups, including Freedomworks, a corporate financed conservative Republican outfit now chaired by Dick Armey, a former congressman from Texas. It would be a mistake, however, to think of this massive demonstration as some kind of fake grassroots mobilization completely ginned up by inside-the-beltway lobbyists. Christian right organizations, anti-tax libertarians, anti-immigrant vigilantes, third party constitutionalists, and yes, white nationalists of every tendency, have also had a hand in building the opposition to Obama. In fact, the march against Obama on September 12 was only the latest episode in a string of mass mobilizations that stretch back to last April.
The protests began with a number of Tea Parties, supposedly named for the Boston Tea Party which set off the American colonies war for independence. Last April, more than 260,000 people showed up at over 300 Tea Party protests across the country. Mainline Republicans were among the protesters. Sponsors of note were Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty, known for its far right version of libertarianism, and the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association, long a pillar of the Christian right. Minuteman and other anti-immigrant activists also added to the count.
April 15 is when American income taxes are due, and the complaints focused on fiscal debt and taxes–two staples of the Republican Party opposition. But immigration and guns, issues usually considered the province of gun lobbies and nativists further to the right were also part of the mix.
The Tea Parties were repeated again on July 4, when tens of thousands of middle-class white people in hundreds of different cities from coast to coast registered their opposition to the Obama presidency. At that point mainline Republicans backed away from the protests, and the aforementioned Campaign for Liberty and American Family Association (AFA) carried most of the water. The AFA website posted the names of more than 1,500 people who had signed up to organize protests in their communities.
In Evansville, Indiana, the crowd stood at about 1,700, and one attendee told the local newspaper that, “My strongest concern is that our president can say we aren’t a Christian nation and it’s hardly even noticed.” Almost 300 souls turned out for the Tea Party in downtown Terre Haute. Among their grievances: lax immigration rules, socialized medicine and welfare. And in Oklahoma City news reports noted that several attendees believed President Obama was actually born in Kenya.
The notion that Barack Obama is not a natural-born American, a requirement for the presidency found in the Constitution, was first circulated by the Republican Party’s dirty tricks machine during the 2008 election campaign. Despite all evidence that he was born in the state of Hawaii, this idea has been continually trumpeted since by conservative radio and television promoters. Now, a stratum of Obama opponents exhibit a religious-like devotion to this obviously false idea, and it has resurfaced in all the various forums of opposition.
At a meeting in Delaware, one woman stood up and claimed that Obama was a citizen of Kenya. “I want my country back,” she told the crowd. If a person believes, like many do, that white people built this country alone, and as whites, it is not a long next step to think that President Barack Obama is not a genuine bona-fide natural born American. In this regard, the irrationality of the birther conspiracy mongers becomes less significant than the visible sense of white dispossession expressed in these protests.
Obama’s nomination in May of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court added fuel to this fire. Born in the New York of Puerto Rican parentage, Sotomayor had benefited from affirmative action measures that recognized her scholastic achievements and allowed her to attend an elite university and law school. As an appellate judge, she had let stand a hiring program for firefighters in Connecticut that gave black and Latin applicants a leg up for jobs that had been held almost exclusively by whites. Her confirmation in July was taken by the opposition as another sign that Obama was disempowering white people, and it led to another round of claims that “their” country was being taken away from them, and they wanted it back.
By the time of the August congressional recess, when Democratic politicians returned to their home districts to discuss health care reform in “town hall” settings, a loud and angry opposition movement had congealed. It was not strictly Republican; in fact Republicans were struggling to keep up with the high levels of raw emotion found in the white middle class grass roots. Although race is at its core, this new movement has so far not declared itself explicitly and self-consciously racist. However, some white nationalist organizations and individuals have decided to change all that by trying to turn these melanin-deprived protests into a recruiting zone.
In this regard, national socialists and others created a discussion thread on the Stormfront website, calling for a Tea Party for Americans Coalition. “We need a relevant transitional envelop-pushing flyer for the masses. Take these Tea Party Americans by the hand and help them go from crawling to standing independently and then walking towards racialism,” one post argued.
Not everyone was entirely optimistic about the results of such activity. An opinion piece in the Council of Conservative Citizens’ tabloid newspaper, The Citizen Informer, weighed the possibilities. On the positive side was, “the fact that hundreds of thousands of white people got up the nerve to oppose the government [was] astonishing.” On the other hand, the “negative tendency that plagues Tea Party activism…[is] to deny the racial dynamic empowering the movement.” The piece concluded that, “The future of this revolution, if that is what it is, depends on white zealots.”
Another account yet, by Billy Roper’s group, White Revolution, described their intervention at a Tea Party in Russellville, Arkansas. They held signs opposing “illegal immigration,” handed out leaflets stating general principles and then came back after the Tea Party disbanded to have a protest of their own.
In Goodland, Kansas, Tea Partiers transformed themselves into the High Plains Constitutional Society. The constitutionalists sponsored a talk by Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff who became a darling of the militia movement in the mid-1990s. And Mack has been stumping around small towns in Montana, drawing large crowds to public meetings, according to the Montana Human Rights Network.
In fact, the militia movement has appeared again, dressed in camouflage fatigues and carrying assault-style weapons on “training” exercises in the woods. It has popped up in Montana, Michigan and other states where it was strong during the Clinton presidency. Further, several high-profile incidents—the murder of a doctor whose practice included abortions in Wichita, the shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. that resulted in the murder of a security guard, and the assassination of a Latino man and his nine-year old daughter in Arizona by a gang of anti-immigrant vigilantes—echoed the type of racist violence that had swelled in the mid-1990s.
Nevertheless, the opposition to the Obama presidency cannot be reduced to a simple return of Clinton-era militias and white nationalism. Something new is developing, the ultimate shape of which has not yet been established. It looks now like an opposition “bloc,” with many different political elements: ultra-conservative Republicans of both the Pat Buchanan and free market variety; anti-tax Tea Party libertarians from the Ron Paul camp; Christian right activists intent on re-molding the country into their kind of Kingdom; birth certificate conspiracy theorists, anti-immigrant nativists of the armed Minuteman and the policy wonk variety; third party “constitutionalists;” and white nationalists of both the citizens councils and the Stormfront national socialist variety.
For the angry white Middle Americans who are the spine of this opposition, the issue is whose America is the real America—theirs or Barack Obama’s. These are existential questions of national identity – questions that will continue to burn long after the current debate about health care policy are settled.
For white nationalists, the results are mixed. They still have not developed any kind of program aimed at white people hardest hit by the economic crisis. Instead, they have chosen to insert themselves into someone else’s parade. And these points of political weakness among the white power set can not be remedied by murdering doctors, museum guards and nine-year girls.