On Monday Rep. Louie Gohmert said President Obama “has done more to stir up racial tension and violence than any administration since, you know, the sixties.”

In The Center Holds, Jonathan Alter calls such comments “Obama Derangement Syndrome.” (More)

The Center Holds, Part I: Obama Derangement Syndrome

This week Morning Feature looks at Jonathan Alter’s new book The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies. Today we begin with the president’s enemies and what Alter calls “Obama Derangement Syndrome.” Tomorrow we’ll see how President Obama’s introversion, and some miscalculations, added to his challenges. Saturday we’ll conclude with how the Obama campaign built and carried a winning message to hold America’s center and block radical conservatism in 2012.

Jonathan Alter is an award-winning author, reporter, columnist and television analyst. The Center Holds is his third New York Times bestseller, along with The Promise: President Obama, Year One (2010) and The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope (2006). He spent 28 years at Newsweek, where he was a longtime senior editor and columnist, and also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications. Since 1996 he has been a frequent analyst and contributor on NBC News and MSNBC.

“Since, you know, the sixties.”

Alter’s book was written in 2012 and early 2013, and already in print before Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) said this on Monday:

I tell you what though, in that release there was a great statement that I’m glad somebody in this administration finally admitted because they’re constantly screaming about all the hate violence and all of this kind of stuff. Of course we know that this president, this administration has done more to stir up racial tension and violence than any administration since, you know, the sixties. I thought that we were going to have a post-racial president and he’s become the president of division, of envy, of jealousy.

Yet in that quote, Rep. Gohmert perfectly illustrated what Alter calls “Obama Derangement Syndrome,” part of the radical conservatism at the core of today’s Republican Party.

“‘Our negroes’ were happy with their lot”

Evoking the 1960s was no accident. In that decade, President Lyndon Johnson advanced three landmark bills – the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act – that challenged a century of legal discrimination known as Jim Crow laws. Then, as now, many whites blamed black Americans who resisted Jim Crow for “stir[ring] up racial tension and violence.” As Howell Raines touchingly recalled for the New York Times in 1991, he did not recognize that fallacy until he talked with Gabby, the black woman who worked as his family’s maid:

She speaks of the curbside justice administered with rubber hoses by Bull Connor’s policemen, of the deputy sheriff famous in the black community for shooting a floor sweeper who had moved too slowly, of “Dog Day,” the one time a year when blacks are allowed to attend the state fair. She speaks offhandedly of the N.A.A.C.P.

“Are you a member?” I ask.

“At my school,” she says, “we take our dimes and nickels and join the N.A.A.C.P. every year just like you join the Red Cross in your school.”

It seems silly now to describe the impact of this revelation, but that is because I cannot fully re-create the intellectual isolation of those days in Alabama. Remember that this was a time when television news, with its searing pictures of racial conflict, was not yet a force in our society. The editorial pages of the Birmingham papers were dominated by the goofy massive-resistance cant of columnists like James J. Kilpatrick. Local politicians liked to describe the N.A.A.C.P. as an organization of satanic purpose and potency that had been rejected by “our colored people,” and would shortly be outlawed in Alabama as an agency of Communism.
From that day, I knew they were wrong when they said that “our Negroes” were happy with their lot and had no desire to change “our Southern way of life.”

Representative Gohmert apparently never talked with anyone like Gabby. Like many white Republicans, he refuses to admit that race was an issue, then and now, because of white privilege … not because Presidents Johnson and Obama inspired people of color to resist that privilege.

And as Alter frankly documents, much of the outrage against President Obama was and is about race. Rush Limbaugh’s “Barack the Magic Negro” and “Moochelle Obama” – like Donald Trump’s demands to see President Obama’s birth certificate and then his college transcripts – reflected many white conservatives’ refusal to admit that a black man earned the right to live in the White House.

“A hinge of history”

But Alter insists that Obama Derangement Syndrome was not entirely about race. His author’s note begins:

Since graduating from college in 1979, I’ve covered nine presidential elections, which may qualify me as a masochist. Every four years, at least one candidate piously claims that this election is the most important of our lifetimes. It was never true – until 2012. The last election wasn’t the closest contest of recent times, but it may have been the most consequential, a hinge of history.

Alter develops that theme throughout the book. He documents the vast gulf that had opened between President Obama and Democrats – who champion the pragmatic centrism that Alter calls “driving down the median strip of U.S. politics” – and the modern GOP’s truly radical conservatism.

That radicalism, Alter emphasizes, was not limited to ‘stray’ comments about “legitimate rape” or birth control being “harmful to women.” It did not end with the failed candidacy of Newt Gingrich, who said poor kids should work as school janitors.

While he paints 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney as a decent human being who lacked the courage to challenge his party’s conservative base, Alter reminds us that Romney chose Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) for his running mate, who authored a House GOP budget that even Catholic bishops scolded as a moral failure. In discussing Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comments, Alter emphasizes that Scott Prouty – the bartender who recorded the video – was more upset by Romney’s glowing admiration for and investment in Chinese sweatshops.

With a Tea Party that expelled moderate Republicans in the 2010 midterms, an anemic economy and stubbornly high unemployment, and a GOP nominee whose first major ad declared “Day one, job one, repeal Obamacare,” Alter writes that the 2012 presidential election truly was “a hinge on history.”

A Romney victory would not only have ended President Obama’s signature health care reform law. By affirming GOP voter suppression campaigns across the U.S., and enabling the likely passage of a Ryan budget, a Romney administration would have been poised to roll back President Johnson’s Great Society and President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The stakes could not have been higher and, as we’ll see tomorrow, President Obama’s victory was not certain. His introversion – and some miscalculations – nearly tipped the scales against him.


Happy Thursday!