In an interview this week, Noam Chomsky gave voice to a dystopian fantasy that imagines far right Tea-baggers scapegoating undocumented immigrants as they– the T-Bs– increase the volume of their virulent attacks on the federal government and Obama Administration. The mood of the country is frightening, Chomsky says, and he imagines a particularly disturbing dystopic scenario in which the far right takes up arms:
“Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force. And if it happens it will be more dangerous than Germany.”
Chomsky’s eye on undocumented immigrants is spot on in terms of identifying how undocumented immigration plays into recent dystopian narratives. Look no further than the arizona legislature. Or, consider how the branding of immigration has provided an axis around which partisan politics has spun new and interesting webs around the presidency of Barack Obama. Immigration Reform still may or may not end up being the hot button issue for 2010, but one thing is certain: the politics of Barack Obama’s early presidency owes a good deal to the undocumented immigration meme.
Quick background: The salience of the undocumented meme for Obama starts at the October 2007 democratic party debate as a turning point in Obama’s journey to the nomination. It is quite possible that had Hillary Clinton not stumbled on the question about Real ID and drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, the prevalent sense of inevitability about her candidacy at that time would not have faltered, and Obama would not have been able to reverse Clinton’s double digit lead in the polls.
During the waning days of the 2008 campaign, as Obama himself looked increasingly invincible against the aging John McCain and his incredibly lackluster campaign, McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin tried to turn Barack Obama into an undocumented immigrant. She turned the notion of ascriptive citizenship into a campaign issue when she started questioning Obama’s eligibility to be president. Where Barack Obama was born? Was he a citizen? What’s his religion? The obvious subtext was that Barack Obama was undocumented (no papers/ birth certificate?), and as such, disloyal, a fifth column manchurian candidate who held no legitimate claim on the presidency and would serve the interest of “the other” were he elected.
As the undocumented meme connotes Obama was too be considered different, too foreign, too black, too “muslim”, too liberal, too threatening ever to be president.
After the inauguration, “know-nothing” attempts to discredit the legitimacy of the Obama presidency spread to virulent personal attacks against Obama, almost crippling his presidency during its first year. Witness the health care reform debate. In (September) 2009, during Obama’s health care address to both chambers of congress, Joe Wilson shouted “you lie” when the President declared that HCR would not cover undocumented immigrants. The breech of decorum aside, Wilson’s outburst was an exclamation mark on the branding of the president as an “illegal alien.” Since Wilson interrupted Obama’s speech, this back bencher had his 15 minutes of fame as a cause celebre among right wingnuts. Among other things he received plaudits from Operation Rescue’s Randall Terry; Tea-Party Patriots; Palmetto Scoop gave away “I’m with Joe Wilson” T-shirts, others urging folks to open their wallets. Wilson himself issued a YouTube video trying to raise money from those who think Obama “want’s to give health care to illegals.” It didn’t matter that undocumented immigrants were excluded from the health care exchanges under consideration, that Wilson’s shout was the lie. In fact, Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” is all that is needed when it comes to branding an immigration crisis.
In April 2010 it was reported that a “Birther” in the armed forces was going to be court marshaled for saying he would not follow orders because the commander in chief lacked legitimacy. Also in April 2010, former governor Sarah Palin addressed a Tea-Party rally near the original Boston Tea-Party site in Boston, reminding them of President Obama’s foreignness and of the un-American policies he espouses. She was followed a week later by former representative Tom Tancredo urging the president to be sent “back to Kenya” where he belongs.
Each day public policy debates are spun more and more to resemble Super Bowl advertisements. The more surreal the situation, and the more absurdly over the top the claim describing the product/policy, the more the cash flows into right wing republican coffers and the product sells. In fact branding Obama an alien has become a hugely successful fundraiser for right wing Republicans, particularly Tea-partiers, who looked to extort huge sums of money from hapless followers and cynical corporate sponsors.
Next, Chomsky’s claim of white males being branded as the persecuted minority is similarly grounded in the reality of the erstwhile Minutemen and the marauding Tea Party and militia response to changing demographics in the United States. They may distrust the Census Bureau as a federal government agency and may not fill out their own census forms but they certainly have no problem exploiting the census projection of a white minority by 2030 and using this figure as a rallying and fundraising cry to grow this scary white nationalist threat.
(parts of this post expand upon an recent op/ed I published in the Baltimore Sun and earlier posts on koulflo memo).