This past summer, On TV, I watched President Obama speak inside a New Hampshire high school. Outside angry protestors waved signs and one man, handgun strapped to his leg, made a veiled threat to kill him as he waved a sign, “It is time to water the tree of liberty.” I knew his type. He’s one of the millions of conservatives shouting that the president was born in foreign country and he’s building concentration camps, plans to kill the old and bankrupt the nation, brainwash our kids and open the borders.
This nightmare of being surrounded by enemies haunts the conservative mind. It is an old terror begun when European settlers slept on land stolen from natives, worked by Africans stolen from theirs. Each twig snap was a warning, each slave a shadow wanting revenge. To be a conservative in America is to inherit this nightmare that the wretched of the earth will take back their land and your life.
Rather than face our blood-stained history, conservatives transform it into what psychoanalysis calls a primal fantasy, a scene that re-imagines our origins. They use fantasy to re-enact the colonial violence that created our nation but instead of the perpetrator, white Americans are now the victims using violence to defend themselves against the heathen hordes. It’s why the Ur-text of the American nightmare is D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation. Even though few today know the movie, we inherited its mythology because it was the first mass media experience of the conservative fantasy. It’s narrative and scenes have been re-staged in films like John Wayne’s 1939 film Stagecoach, the TV series the Shield and in real life as in the white supremacist violence during the Civil Rights Movement.
Birth of a Nation contrasts two families, the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons. Congressman Austin Stoneman wants to punish the South for the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination gives him an excuse. He enlists mulatto protégé Silas Lynch, a hypnotic orator, to rally freed slaves to rule beaten whites. Enfranchised black militias terrorize whites and tax them to poverty.
Lynch becomes Lieutenant-Governor by getting black soldiers to turn away whites and when they’re gone, stuffing the ballot boxes. Soon blacks are elected and are seen, barefoot in the senate chambers, eating chicken and passing laws that tighten around white Southerners like a noose. But Ben Cameron creates the Klu Klux Klan. They don sheets and wage guerrilla warfare against the federal government. In the climax Cameron rescues Stoneman’s daughter from forced marriage to Lynch, another white woman from rape and then his Klan routes black Union soldiers, revokes their right to vote and saves the white South.
A blockbuster of its day, the film now serves as the unconscious frame of our origin for conservatives who see themselves nobly wage eternal war against “savages”. The Right is re-enacting this plot as it once again finds itself out of power, defeated by “liberal traitors” and a spellbinding Black orator. Their anxiety is translated through the Birth of a Nation fantasy into racist imagery surging from the fringe to the center but it can’t flow unfiltered. It must be transformed into serviceable slander. In psychoanalysis, one psychic strategy is called condensation, when one idea represents several overlapping associations. In terms of Obama, condensation allows conservatives to talk about race without openly discussing it.
From early in the presidential campaign, conservatives imagined Obama as a bearded terrorist, raised in a Muslim school and secretly foreign born. Right-wing pundits mispronounced his name as Osama and spat out his middle name, Hussein. They warned us he didn’t raise his hand at the Pledge of Allegiance or wear the flag pin.
These images condensed terrorism, Islamophobia and fear of immigration into one. All have the unifying element of race because all these threats come from non-whites. This fear expressed itself on election night. Obama was like Silas Lynch who “held the surging crowd in the palm of his hand.” The world danced in the street as conservatives armed themselves for an onslaught. I watched a story about white men crowding the Cheaper Than Dirt gun-store in Texas where one buyer said the election was, “The reason I’m here. I’m scared.”
Like Birth of a Nation, conservatives imagine liberals to be like fictional Congressman Stoneman, vindictive radicals who want to punish red-state America. Hence the rumors of FEMA camps set up by the Obama administration to imprison opponents. A rumor played with by Fox News bipolar celebrity Glen Beck. It is an example of another psychic strategy frequently used by conservatives, displacement. This is when an idea that is socially unacceptable can’t be expressed so its emotional energy is channeled through associative links to an acceptable one.
Racist images of Obama began early but the one that became popular on the Right was Obama as Joker, white-faced, red-lipped and smiling evil. Obama-Joker fuses the older and unacceptable red-lipped Sambo, a racist image of blacks as childlike mischief-makers with the anarchist Joker who cackles as “the world burns.” It’s an act of displacement with the linking feature being the red-lips and the twist, Obama-Joker is not a dumb Sambo but a demonic trickster who will destroy us.
Over the summer Beck said “The healthcare bill is the beginning of reparations. If you want to go medical school, they are going to get more federal dollars if they have proven that they are putting minorities ahead.” Again Beck is simply generating another version of the archaic scene from Birth of a Nation, in this case displacing the fear of black militias terrorizing whites onto a hospital scene where the linking image is incompetent angry blacks with sharp tools near a vulnerable white body.
Around the Obama as Joker signs was open scalding racism. At Tea Party protests some proudly flaunted signs reading “Obama’s Plan/White Slavery” or depicted Obama as an African witch doctor or Hitler. Most didn’t, but under the Tea-Bagger rhetoric of tax burden was the displaced racism of Birth of a Nation where corrupt black politicians steal from the treasury and bankrupt the state. It is a perceived violence against the state that in the conservative mind, quickly becomes sexualized. Richard Koenigsberg in his “The Psychoanalysis of Racism, Revolution and Nationalism” showed how the nation is imagined as a woman, often a mother who is shared in common and who is suffering from a foreign element inside her borders.
We can see the nation’s perils transformed into the image of a woman in danger in Birth of a Nation and in our politics. In the film an ex-slave turned Union soldier named Gus lusts after a white woman. He chases her and seeing his hungry face and hot hands, she flings herself from a cliff. The woman is seen here as a delicate vessel of a people’s dignity. The image of a defenseless woman fleeing from brutes unleashed by radicals originates in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France where he rhetorically defends the Queen from revolutionary rabble. Since the Right cannot openly use the scalding imagery of a white woman hunted by a black man, the idea is displaced on to the helpless grandmother preyed upon by Obama’s death panels, another vulnerable woman whose aged body represents the dignity of the people.
In the conservative re-enactment of Birth of a Nation, ACORN fills the role of carpetbaggers and black Federal troops who organize former slaves to steal the vote and then steal white people’s money. Which is why videotapes of undercover conservatives, posing as a pimp and a prostitute getting tax advice from ACORN employees, works so well. It confirms the conservative belief that Blacks are a sexual threat and that wealth is wasted on trying to improve their lives.
The Right has now moved to the fantasy’s final scene of armed violence. Men with assault rifles regularly stand outside the president’s speeches. Unlike Ben Cameron they don’t wear white sheets but rather the ideological whiteness of patriotism and sovereign rights but they carry real weapons to terrorize us back in line. The line they imagine runs between patriot and foreigner, Christian and heathen, human and ape. As long as they can play the role of guardians of civilization they delude themselves into believing they are still a part of it. Any social change threatens them and they react with vicious cowardice. So the guns are aimed and focused. They want to kill Obama and through the assassination of the first black president, kill our hope. So even as the Left has extinguished what little flare of hope it had, many people enclose him in their prayers. Obama’s election was the only experience of rapture they know. If a bullet does shoot him down, the blood will pour from the open wound of millions and flow through the streets like lava.