The Biggest Threat to Our Democracy: The Swamp of Crazy

Did you know that during the 2016 election, Donald Trump wasn’t the only one that talked about “the swamp?” Here’s a clip of Barack Obama talking about “the swamp of crazy.”

Obama’s line about how “If I watched Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me” captured something very important. Based on lies and conspiracy theories, a caricature of the former president was created by right wingers that leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell not only didn’t correct, but used to fuel the fear that was required to justify their strategy of total obstruction.

It is obvious that Jim Geraghty bought into the caricature that was created about Obama when he suggested that during his speech in South Africa this week, the former president decried the political habits that drove his career.

Yesterday, President Obama stood in a cricket stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, and said a lot of things that could, or should, get conservatives nodding in agreement. But as he offered a grim assessment of both modern American politics and the broader geopolitical scene, you had to wonder when, if ever, he would confront the fact that he had a lot to do with the shaping of modern American politics and the broader geopolitical scene. He certainly had more influence on it than you or I did.

The rest of the article contains a series of examples from Geraghty purporting to demonstrate that what Obama said this week contradicted what he said/did while in office. The latter aren’t in any way connected to reality, but are simply recitations of the Obama that was created by Republicans and right wing media. For example, Geraghty suggests that Obama struck a blow against identity politics in his speech, in contrast with his actions as president.

…he took a shot at identity politics: “You can’t [change minds] if you insist that those who aren’t like you — because they’re white, or because they’re male — that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.”

Of course … this is the president who made Al Sharpton his “go-to man on race” and who said Latinos needed to “punish” their “enemies.” It’s great that Obama realizes that identity politics can be corrosive to civil society and that they can Balkanize a once-thriving, relatively harmonious society. It just would have been good to hear this wisdom from a president instead of an ex-president.

The reference to making Sharpton his “go-to man on race” dates back to when the administration asked for his impressions after visiting Ferguson during the height of the unrest in that city. The reference to Latinos was Obama’s attempt to ensure that when they went to the voting booth, they would be clear about who was blocking comprehensive immigration reform.

What Obama was talking about in the quote from his speech in South Africa was the importance of empathy, which was such a common theme with him that an entire web site was devoted to documenting all of the ways he talked about it. One example was included in his book, The Audacity of Hope, where he writes, “I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal … We are all shaken out of our complacency.” When it comes to the need for empathy in discussions about race, Obama gave a speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Day 2008 where he talked to an entire congregation of African Americans about the need for empathy and got down into the weeds about it.

…for most of this country’s history, we in the African-American community have been at the receiving end of man’s inhumanity to man…All of us understand intimately the insidious role that race still sometimes plays on the job and in the schools, in our health care system, and in our criminal justice system.

And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King’s vision of a beloved community.

I won’t go through the rest of Geraghty’s examples because perhaps you get the point. He was basing his entire critique of Obama on the lies spread by the swamp of crazy, which had nothing to do with the reality of who Obama was, what he said, or what he actually did.

What this points out is that the swamp of crazy didn’t begin with Donald Trump, it is what gave him the platform to succeed. Republicans and right wing media did the exact same thing to Hillary Clinton that they had done to Obama, with huge assists from mainstream media in the process. I am reminded of David Roberts’ twitter rant.

Everything  rural and suburban whites (R&SW) know or hear about Democrats or liberals, they get through a media filter. That mostly means Fox News (et al). And Fox is in the business of crafting a ludicrous, bug-eyed, cartoon-evil caricature of liberals. THAT is what R&SW hear from/about Dems. And it’s not just right-wing media. “Mainstream” media like CNN etc. have adopted pretty much the same caricature. They know that “arrogant liberal mocks salt-of-the-earth diner guy” stories are catchy. They sell. They pop. Everybody knows the caricature already.

There’s a reason Obama spent 8 years reaching out to the other side, begging for cooperation, being scrupulously respectful toward Republican voters … and one, single, off-the-record, wildly-distorted comment is all most R&SW people know about him. That didn’t just happen. It’s the result of RWM & MSM alike peddling the same hackneyed morality tale that country mice have been telling about city mice since there were cities. That impression of Obama, so at odds with the reality, was deliberately & vigorously cultivated…

My point: if the media wants to reinforce a narrative of snooty coastal libs looking down their noses at heartland rubes — and it *very, very much wants to* — there’s no stopping it…They can craft empathetic messages until they’re blue in the face — THEY DON’T CONTROL WHAT THOSE PEOPLE HEAR. (Sorry for yelling.)

To me, this is the biggest threat to our democracy. All of the other challenges could at least be the subject of informed dialogue if there was a way to clean up the swamp of crazy.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .