Secret Muslim. Socialist. Amateur. Anti-American. Criminal.
Throughout the presidency of Barack Obama, and even before it, a chorus of writers has stood stage right, reinterpreting the era but mainly eviscerating the man. Obama, initially little known, became a literary subgenre and publishing obsession, with countless volumes attacking the president, promising to unmask who he really is, what he really thinks and why he does the things he does. And for a while, at least, the books sold well.
Selecting a representative set among dozens and dozens of titles in the Obama hatred literature is not easy. Do you go with “Impeachable Offenses” or “The Manchurian President”? “Divider-in-Chief” or “The Obama Nation”? “Culture of Corruption” or “The Roots of Obama’s Rage”? A sample of such books, spanning 2008 to 2016, shows that, while the anti-Obama canon can be predictable, it is by no means static. The aversion to the president is always growing, and the nature of that aversion is always evolving toward harsher conclusions.
In the beginning, there was ignorance, and the void of our Obama knowledge was filled with speculation, bits of autobiography and family lore. The senator from Illinois was deemed dangerous for all that he might be: distant, unfamiliar, foreign in so many ways. Once he sat in the Oval Office, however, the attacks shifted, and the president became that most recognizable of political creatures: unprincipled, corrupt, Chicago. As conservative disdain intensified throughout his first term, Obama came to be seen as a bungler, in over his head (think the Libya intervention or Operation Fast and Furious). Yet soon he was redefined once more, this time as a brilliant subversive: It’s not that Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing but that he knows all too well. That leads, inevitably, to the final and most damning judgment — that this president is a criminal.
Donald Trump’s rise in GOP presidential politics has drawn sustenance and inspiration from the anti-Obama literature, regardless of whether its authors support the candidate. Indeed, the arc of Trump’s criticisms of the president, from his birtherism in 2011 to his more recent charge that Obama is “the founder of ISIS,” traces, in a distorted and exaggerated way, these portrayals of the president, from unknown outsider to recidivist lawbreaker.
These books and writers do not necessarily agree with one another. But they do build upon each other. And if the 2016 Republican presidential nominee has succeeded in tapping into right-wing anger, it is an anger that has been chronicled, reflected and stoked by the anti-Obama literary canon.
In “The Obama Nation,” published in August 2008, Jerome Corsi paints Obama as a racial and religious opportunist, a compulsive liar, too beyond the mainstream to become president. The best-selling book, one of the earliest tomes in the Obama hatred literature, is a conspiratorial jumble. Corsi questions Obama’s commitment to Christianity, for instance, yet constantly links him to a radical black liberationist version of Christianity, all the while suggesting that Obama is secretly sympathetic to Islam. He speculates that Obama has hidden the Islamic education he received during his childhood in Indonesia — “again, we simply don’t know,” Corsi writes — and suggests that, thanks to his Kenyan-born father, Obama “could claim to be a citizen of Kenya, as well as of the United States.” (In 2011, Corsi would go on to publish “Where’s the Birth Certificate? The Case That Obama Is Not Eligible to Be President,” though, unfortunately for his sales, the book became available shortly after Obama made his birth certificate public.)
Corsi is a fan of guilt by rhetorical question. “If Obama takes pains to hide his smoking from us, what else does he take pains to hide?” The contradictions in this book are not hard to find, as they sometimes appear in consecutive sentences. “Obama, we argue here, is and always has been a radical on the far left,” Corsi writes. “He is at heart a coldly calculating politician, driven more by winning at all costs than by the lofty principles he espouses.” So what is he: a radical ideologue or a shameless pol? Yes. Both. Whichever one scares you most.
Columnist Michelle Malkin, author of “Culture of Corruption,” prefers to bash Obama for his Chicago connections, not his overseas ones. Published just six months into the president’s first term, Malkin’s book makes excellent use of the administration’s early missteps. “This is a government of the crony, by the lobbyist, and for all the well-heeled, well-connected people Barack Obama spent his entire campaign demonizing,” Malkin writes. She lists all the could’ve-been Cabinet secretaries and senior officials who stepped aside over tax improprieties (remember Tom Daschle?), conflicts of interest or other ethical baggage, and reminds us how quickly the administration disregarded its professed ban on hiring lobbyists.
Here, Obama is no longer exoticized but familiarized so much that he and first lady Michelle Obama come to resemble another political couple conservatives revile: the Clintons. “Their martial partnership is a business partnership that has profound domestic policy consequences,” Malkin writes. “Like Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama intends to play a hands-on role as a policy advocate the next four years — and she has filled her staff with seasoned Chicago operatives like herself with longtime big business ties and left-wing agendas.”
Once the president waded deeper into governing, the anti-Obama writers split over how to explain his record. They all agreed it was terrible, of course — but why was it so terrible?
In “The Amateur” (2012), Edward Klein describes Obama as “a president who is inept in the arts of management and governance, who doesn’t learn from his mistakes, and who therefore repeats policies that make our economy less robust and our nation less safe.” Obama, suffering from a “messianic complex” and fixated on becoming a “transformational” president, had become the “Bungler-in-Chief,” he writes. Klein, who has also produced multiple books critical of Hillary Clinton, points to the firing in 2010 of U.S. Department of Agriculture state official Shirley Sherrod (over a video that supposedly showed her admitting to racist decisions on the job, only it didn’t) as well as Obama’s complicated relationship with top military brass as examples of the president’s amateurism. The book is rife with dubious and disputed quotes as well as multiple sources who deliver their assessments of Obama in oddly similar phrasing, expressing, as Klein does, that while the president has a decent political sense, he lacks “executive sense.”
Dinesh D’Souza, the author of “Obama’s America” (2012), disagrees. “A growing chorus on the right contends that Obama is, well, not very smart,” he writes, explicitly citing Klein’s “bungler-in-chief” description. Instead, D’Souza asserts, Obama has skillfully advanced his agenda, but it’s just not an agenda most Americans endorse. D’Souza believes that Obama is at heart an “anti-colonialist,” mixing socialist economics with an anti-imperialist foreign policy, supposedly inspired by the beliefs of his Kenyan father, passed on to him by his American mother. Imbued with a certain “low cunning,” Obama has sought to redistribute global wealth away from the United States and scale back American military and financial influence around the planet, D’Souza writes, “so that America can no longer impose its will as a neocolonial superpower.”
The president, D’Souza emphasizes, is no amateur. “Obama’s actions suggest a man who knows exactly what he is doing.” (If you think you hear echoes of Sen. Marco Rubio’s robotic answer at the GOP primary debate in New Hampshire, you’re right.) The stimulus, the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, the response to the Arab Spring — all of it, according to D’Souza, fits Obama’s anti-colonialist worldview, which yields a strategy of “national suicide.” D’Souza’s vision of Obama, tendentious and artful, is a Jenga tower, fascinating precisely because it is so intricate and precarious.
If you accept that Obama is corrupt and determined to undermine America, it’s a short step to Ben Shapiro’s “The People vs. Barack Obama” (2014). Shapiro, a lawyer, radio host and editor of the conservative site the Daily Wire, lays out in vivid prose his case that the Obama administration has become “a full-fledged criminal enterprise.” IRS abuses against conservative groups, the Benghazi attack, the targeting of reporters, selective prosecution of undocumented immigrants — that’s just the start. Shapiro details multiple laws the president and his underlings have supposedly violated and calls for prosecution under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. “Using the power of law to leverage against allies and to protect friends is the essence of tyranny,” Shapiro writes. “The Obama administration has practiced and perfected such tyranny.”
Throughout the Obama years, these works show, the mystery surrounding the president has given way to familiarity, and contempt has supplanted fear. Or as D’Souza puts it, perfectly summarizing the evolving perceptions and self-perceptions of the anti-Obama literature: “Earlier we didn’t know him; now we do.”
The left takes for granted that much of the opposition to Obama indicates latent racism, a visceral resentment at seeing a black family in the White House. That is a serious charge, so it is no surprise that these authors sometimes protest that their views have nothing to do with the color of the president’s skin. “Obama’s liability is not his race, but his liberal stance on the issues,” Corsi stresses.
If anything, several of them argue, it is the president who deploys race unfairly. Corsi suggests that Obama has no claim on the black American experience. “Where does Obama’s racial angst come from?” he asks. “Obama is not a descendant of a slave, he did not grow up in an urban ghetto in an impoverished family, he was not unjustly prosecuted for some crime he did not commit. Where is the social injustice he has suffered?” It is a very Trump-like notion, as though black America is an undifferentiated mass of poverty, urban blight and grievance.
D’Souza states simply that Obama gets a pass because he’s black. “Obama has also injected fear on the right, and inspired giddy enthusiasm on the left, by playing the ‘race card’ in a way never previously done in American politics,” he argues. “Such techniques not only enabled Obama’s meteoric political rise, they also enabled him to win the presidency. Moreover, they have muted effective criticism. . . . If Obama were white, he would have virtually no chance of being re-elected.”
Shapiro accuses Obama of injecting himself into the controversy surrounding the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin (recall the president’s famous remark, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”) for political purposes. “He was in the midst of a tough reelection race with Mitt Romney,” Shapiro writes, “and it was important for him to continue to push the notion, especially among his black supporters, that America is an irretrievably racist place — and that he was the cure for such racism.”
Klein, meanwhile, plays amateur race shrink. He suggests that Obama, insecure about his racial identity, defers to aide Valerie Jarrett because he considers her “the voice of authentic blackness” in the White House, and he posits, somewhat randomly, that “no minority group is more conscious of social status than blacks.” And in a sentence that carries disturbing undertones when describing a biracial commander in chief, Klein asks his readers: “Will Americans finally come to recognize the dark side of Barack Obama in the presidential election of 2012?”
A white Obama would lose the presidency, D’Souza argues, and apparently the president’s dark side renders him unfit for the office, too.
With the administration set to scroll its closing credits, the Obama hatred literature has lost some of its appeal. Conservatives are busy picking sides in the Trump wars — Klein goes out to lunch with the candidate, while Shapiro decries the alt-right’s influence in the Trump campaign and calls the nominee a “turd tornado” on CNN — and the latest New York Times nonfiction bestseller list features three anti-Hillary Clinton tracts, including “Hillary’s America,” by D’Souza. (The man knows his market.) We have moved on, at least until Obama reignites everything with a post-presidential memoir.
Yet there is one new book to add to the anti-Obama reading list, a dense work that will never be a bestseller but that nonetheless offers the most enduring conservative criticism of the Obama years. “Liberty’s Nemesis” (2016), edited by Dean Reuter and John Yoo and featuring some three dozen contributors, mixes scholarship, ideology and activism to argue that Obama has presided over an enormous and dangerous expansion of the administrative and regulatory state. “Its operations are so vast and its reach so sprawling that it lies beyond the control or comprehension of any one man or group of men,” Yoo writes, making “rational management impossible.”
In the introduction, Reuter promises that this book “is not a rant,” a pledge that is only mostly fulfilled (former Georgia congressman Bob Barr’s chapter on the Second Amendment feels quite ranty, as does Peter Kirsanow’s assault on the Obama administration’s housing, employment and lending regulations). But it attempts to transcend personal attacks and passing scandals to understand Obama’s impact on American governance. “As the federal government expands, individual liberty contracts,” Reuter writes, an axiom that guides the rest of the book.
This work does not merely criticize the president — though there’s plenty of that — but challenges conservatives to engage in the messy business of reforming and downsizing Washington. “Conservatives need to recalibrate their revolution,” Yoo concludes. The same could be said of many of their books. You don’t have to endorse the philosophy behind “Liberty’s Nemesis” to see that it poses a worthier challenge to Obama’s progressive project than any collection of anti-Obama screeds. Too bad it only arrives to see him to the door.
Books covered in this essay:
- The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality by Jerome R. Corsi. Pocket Star Books. 453 pp. $28.99
- Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies by Michelle Malkin. Regnery. 436 pp. $16.95
- The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House by Edward Klein. Regnery. 277 pp. $16.95
- Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream by Dinesh D’Souza. Regnery. 258 pp. $27.95
- The People Vs. Barack Obama: The Criminal Case Against the Obama Administration by Ben Shapiro. Threshold Editions. 292 pp. $16
- Liberty’s Nemesis: The Unchecked Expansion of the State by Dean Reuter and John Yoo (eds.). Encounter. 570 pp. $32.99
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