27 July 2012

OIP Derangement Syndrome and Conspiracy Theories

On Sunday the Boston Globe plumbed the depths of OIP Derangement Syndrome in Leon Neyfakh’s article headlined “Revealed! Obama’s Secret Agenda”:

On the fringes of American politics, on conservative radio, and even on the campaign trail, a whole parallel Obama has emerged over the course of the 2012 race—a shadowy figure who has craftily concealed his ideological extremism and is merely awaiting his second term to unleash it. Taken as a whole, this other Obama—and what you might call his “Muahahaha strategy” of post-election bait and switch—offers a vivid picture of the fears that the president has inspired in some critics, fears that appear only to have grown during a real-life first term that has failed to produce much in the way of radical legislation.

As fanciful as they may sound, these rumors reflect something real in the nation’s political imagination—and shine a light on the particular kind of distrust that tends to accumulate around those in power. And they’re also seeping into mainstream political discourse, even into the race itself. Mitt Romney has invoked the issue of Obama’s secret intentions, telling a group of newspaper editors recently that Obama “doesn’t want to share his real plans before the election, either with the public or with the press,” and that it was up to journalists to make him come clean. “His intent is on hiding; you and I are going to have to do the seeking,” Romney said. “He wants us to reelect him so we can find out what he’ll actually do.”
Of course, Romney is keeping plenty of secrets himself, both about his personal finances and about the cuts he’d have to make to keep his outlandish budget promises.

Neyfakh acknowledges that there’s long been a paranoid strain in American politics, but not on this scale:
But in modern times, no presidential candidate has been accused of keeping more secret plans in his back pocket than Obama. Part of it is rooted in suspicion of his strange name and his ethnic background, of course, but it’s more than that. The speed of his ascent to national fame, his early days as a hipster in New York, even the fact that he may or may not be sneaking cigarettes outside the Oval Office, have all combined to fuel a frothy, nightmarish vision of a comic-book-style supervillain: frightening, fascinating, and very good at hiding things.
As the Globe noted, people on the far right have spread and expanded upon their rumors without being able to point to much in Barack Obama’s policies to support them. For example, even after two highly publicized mass shootings by lunatics who bought extra-big ammunition clips to kill more people, the White House hasn’t campaigned for reasonable gun control. But that doesn’t stop conspiracy-minded  lobbyists!
Perhaps the most widely circulated theory about Obama’s secret intentions is that he’s going to go after the rights of gun owners and eventually abolish the Second Amendment. NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre has called it a “silent but sophisticated long-term conspiracy,” . . . As for the actual long-term plan that Lapierre has alluded to, [NRA spokesman Andrew] Arulanandam declined to be specific, returning instead to Obama’s existing record. “Who knows what he’s cooking up?” he said.
When one has no evidence whatsoever, it’s always wise to decline to be specific. Because people in the throes of OIP Derangement Syndrome don’t need evidence. The lack of evidence is evidence enough:
But the most significant reason why there have been so many theories about Obama’s radical second-term plans may be rooted in something less intuitive: namely, that his first term, so far, has turned out to be surprisingly—that is, suspiciously—moderate. And while the president’s most ardent critics on the right may disagree, the fact is his approach to foreign policy has been downright hawkish, while his signature domestic policy achievement to date is a health care plan whose most controversial provision was originally hatched by a conservative think tank.

For his most vocal detractors, that can only mean one thing: He’s been deliberately prudent, so as to save up his political capital for when he no longer has to worry about reelection. The less evidence of his radicalism, in other words, the stronger the case that he is, in fact, hiding something.
Especially for people who find the sight of this President disquieting all by itself.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

The "most significant reason" for the crazy crazy theories about Obama's secret radical agenda is - his moderation. I don't buy it. Telling me something is counterintuitive doesn't absolve you from having to produce proof. Of course, first we'd have to have another black president with a weird name to compare him to.

I have a theory for what's upped the crazy. The crazy's lack of effect. When Clinton was impeached the crazy right wing got the satisfaction of seeing the system take on the malefactor personally. Obama floats unscathed above the fray - and seems poised to be reelected. Even majorities of Republicans polled think Obama will gain a second term. What are they afraid of? Their own irrelevance. They certainly haven't been knocked out of the fight and I'm not counting them out, that's sure. But I think what's going on has more to do with their internal dynamic than with Obama. Suppose Obama had proposed more liberal policies - and gotten them through that overwhelmingly Democratic Congress of his first two years? Is Neyfakh seriously proposing the crazy would be LESS?

J. L. Bell said...

I think it's significant that President Obama's right-wing critics haven't come up with anything new since his initial run. The NRA was trumpeting the same warnings in 2008. Since then the administration has actually loosened some federal laws on guns, but the NRA hasn't changed its message. Some gullible folks have even gone on sprees echoing that paranoid warning. The lack of development does indeed suggest that nothing the Obama administration could reasonably do has had a significant effect on the belief system.

Richard Bensam said...

There's a weird gap in the whole theory of the purported bait-and-switch strategy. So, we are told, Obama has been concealing his true goals until he's elected for his second term when he'll enact his sweeping radical agenda. And...then what?

Are we supposed to assume he'll suddenly be declared a monarch who needs no Congressional approval for his actions? That the Supreme Court will be dissolved? That everyone including Republicans would sit idly and say "what can we do, he's a second term President which gives him more unrestricted power than any emperor who ever lived"? That his radical changes would have such widespread popular support the opposition would be powerless to stop him? That if any President made such a drastic about-face, his own party would not have to worry that no one would ever trust them again? I mean, what exactly is the theory here?

Truth is, even the people who say they believe this don't really believe it. They're indulging in some weird performance art, venting their frustrations at everything going wrong by taking it out on a scapegoat: in this case, the imaginary foreign radical President. Making their vision conform to logic or reality would only spoil it.

J. L. Bell said...

Indeed, since the 22nd Amendment any reelected President has been a lame duck, and has usually proved less able to steer domestic policy in a new direction than at the start of his first term.

For the NRA and other lobbying organizations, pumping up the "threat" of the Obama administration means that they can raise more funds from gullible contributors. But pocketbook pressures aren't working on everyone who comes up with these loony theories. The notion that they don't really believe what they say makes as much sense as anything else.