The Magazine

The Roots of Lunacy

How not to understand Obama

Oct 25, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 06 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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The Roots of Obama’s Rage
by Dinesh D’Souza
Regnery, 258 pp., $27.95

The Roots of Lunacy

Barack Obama Sr., ca. 1965

Reuters

I remember a press conference in 1993 got up by Empower America, a now-forgotten Republican think tank. The purpose was to mark the end of the first year of the Clinton administration. A murderers row of famous-for-Washington conservatives took turns denouncing the Democrats who had seized the White House after a dozen years of Republican benevolence. The upshot of the press conference was tersely summarized by Jack Kemp, a man not known for terseness: President Clinton, Kemp said, had brought to Washington something it had never seen before, the “first frankly left-wing administration in history.”

In retrospect, of course, the charge looks nuts. We know now that within another 18 months, playing defense against a newly elected Republican Congress, Clinton was triangulating his way to the most conservative Democratic administration since the great Cleveland was trundled back to New Jersey. Yet even then, in 1993, a few wise and dispassionate observers saw that Kemp’s alarm was wildly overdone. In that first year, Clinton had embraced economic policies that made him, as he privately lamented, an “Eisenhower Republican.” Inevitably he made a few wacky appointments (Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders) but overbalanced each with much saner and more significant choices (Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen). He modified but didn’t eliminate the ban on gays in the military. After a brief hesitation, he worked hard for the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement. 

His most “frankly left-wing” idea, a nationalized health care system, was no more outlandish than the plan Harry Truman had pushed in the late 1940s. And by 1993 Truman was being lionized by Republicans as a tough-minded man of the people, far preferable, professional conservatives said, to the Clinton radicals who had lately made his once-noble party a crash pad for ex-hippies.

Now it’s 2010, and among his former enemies, Clinton is enjoying a Truman-like renaissance. Even such sweaty anti-Clinton paranoiacs as the investigative journalist Christopher Ruddy and the newspaper proprietor Richard Mellon Scaife have decided he wasn’t so bad after all. It’s almost enough to make you forget the insanity that gripped Clinton’s political opponents. Kemp didn’t know the half of it! Throughout the nineties I heard mainstream Republicans describe the president as a shameless womanizer and a closeted homosexual, a cokehead and a drunk, a wife beater and a wimp, a hick and a Machiavel, a committed pacifist and a reckless militarist who launched unnecessary airstrikes in faraway lands to distract the public’s attention from all of the above.

At gatherings of conservative activists the president was referred to, seriously, as a “Manchurian candidate.” Capitol Hill staffers speculated darkly about the “missing five days” on a trip Clinton had taken to Moscow as a graduate student. Respectable conservatives in the media—William Safire, Robert Novak, Rush Limbaugh—encouraged the suspicion that Clinton’s White House attorney, a manic depressive named Vincent Foster, did not commit suicide, as all available evidence suggested, but had been murdered by parties unknown, to hush up an unspeakable secret from the president’s past.

So what happened? How did the left-wing, coke-snorting Manchurian candidate become the fondly remembered Democrat-you-could-do-business-with—“good old Bill,” in Sean Hannity’s phrase? 

Barack Obama is what happened. The partisan mind—left-wing or right-wing, Republican or Democrat—is incapable of maintaining more than one oversized object of irrational contempt at a time. When Obama took his place in the Republican imagination, his titanic awfulness crowded out the horrors of Bad Old Bill; Clinton’s five days in Moscow were replaced by Obama’s three years in that mysterious Indonesian “madrassa.”

We should probably be grateful for this psychological limitation. Without it the negativity of our politics would be relentless. Like Ronald Reagan before him, George W. Bush was reviled for eight years by Democrats driven mad by a sputtering rage—the “most right-wing president in history”!—but it’s only a matter of time until they rediscover him as a mild-mannered figure, the signer of campaign finance reform, funder of African AIDS relief, would-be grantor of amnesty to illegal aliens; an able if sometimes misguided man whose public service stands in stark contrast to whatever revolting Republicans have come after him. The Dubya renaissance will begin the moment President Christie takes his hand off the Bible and begins his Inaugural Address.

It’s in this light that the anti-Obama hysteria of recent months should be seen. Among professionals, political loyalties and hates are as changeable as the weather, bearing no relation to the plain evidence that normal people try to rely on. Taking the long view means never taking them seriously. Lucky for us, the hysterics make it so easy not to take them seriously. 

On the evidence of his new book, we can’t be sure if Dinesh D’Souza is a hysteric or a cynic. Newt Gingrich, for his part, thinks D’Souza is a visionary, and he’s been praising the visionary and his book with the patented Gingrichian intensity. D’Souza is the possessor of a “stunning insight,” Gingrich said recently, in an interview with National Review Online’s Robert Costa. This insight is “the most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama,” Gingrich continued, while poor Costa looked for a table to duck under. “Only if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior can you piece together [Obama’s actions]. That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”

As a professional partisan with a Ph.D., Newt Gingrich will take anything seriously if it suits his immediate purpose and has the necessary intellectual pretensions (whatever happened to the Tofflers anyway?). D’Souza’s thesis, with its exoticism (Kenya) and its scholarly tags (anticolonial behavior), looks tailor-made for the former speaker. The insight with which D’Souza has stunned him is purely abstract and syllogistic: (1) Barack Obama really admired his father, Barack Obama Sr., and wanted to be like him; (2) Obama Sr. grew up in Kenya and became an anticolonial agitator; therefore (3) Obama Jr. wants to be an anticolonial agitator, too, and since he’s simultaneously president of the United States, he gets to be anticolonial in a very big way and drag us along with him. 

“The central tenets of [Obama Sr.’s] anticolonial ideology,” D’Souza writes, “are alive and well three decades later in the White House. .  .  . We are today living out the script for America and the world that was dreamt up not by Obama but by Obama’s father.” 

From that set of radical ideas flows every policy of Obama’s that has annoyed Republicans and confounded the public: the bank bailouts, the takeover of the auto industry, the huge fiscal stimulus, the health care bill, the hostility to the rich, the feckless approach to foreign affairs, even NASA’s budget cuts. D’Souza applies his insight with a clever simulation of the scientific method, insisting on his own clinical detachment at every step. Sometimes he sounds like a lab technician holding up a petri dish to a classroom of third-graders. “The best way to verify a theory is to test its explanatory power,” he writes, pedantically. “If the theory can account for Obama’s major policies and .  .  . also explain the little details about Obama, details that otherwise seem puzzling or mysterious, that would give our paradigm a degree of confirmation that very few comprehensive theories enjoy in politics.”

Readers will not be shocked that D’Souza’s paradigm easily passes D’Souza’s test, thanks to the author’s misstatements of fact, leaps in logic, and pointlessly elaborate argumentation. The misstatements range from the very small to the very large. As “further evidence that this anticolonial reading is on the right track,” he cites Obama’s press conference after the Gulf oil spill. 

“Time and again,” he writes, Obama “condemned ‘British Petroleum’—an interesting term since the company long ago changed its name to BP. Given our anticolonial theory, it’s no surprise that Obama wanted to remind Americans of what BP used to stand for.”

Right you are, Holmes! Except .  .  . I’ve read the transcript of the press conference, and Obama didn’t make a single reference to British Petroleum—a name which, in any event, is commonly used by many people of a certain age (including me) who are sworn enemies of anticolonialism. D’Souza makes many errors of this sort, citing facts that aren’t facts in support of an otherwise unsupported conclusion. He says that Obama, in his memoir Dreams from My Father, never mentions his father’s drunkenness. Obama mentions it often. Indeed, D’Souza misreads the entire memoir: Far from admiring his father and emulating him, Obama makes his disillusionment with his father one of the themes of his own life story. 

And where facts are missing altogether, faulty reasoning bolsters the case. “Wonder why Obama went to Harvard?” D’Souza slyly asks. “Here is a clue: It is the leading academic institution in America. And here’s another: His father went there.” Forget that neither of these facts is a clue, technically. Surely the first assertion is enough to adequately answer the question without recourse to the second, which is simply gratuitous as well as conjectural. But D’Souza always sees absence of evidence as evidence of something or other.

Let’s linger at Harvard a moment longer. “At Harvard,” D’Souza writes, “his real mentor was Roberto Mangabeira Unger.” Unger is a brilliant crackpot who championed critical legal studies, a left-wing academic fad of the 1980s. I’ve never heard before that Unger served as the president’s mentor. How does D’Souza know it? “Obama took two of Unger’s courses,” he writes. Well, then. “Obama’s attraction to Unger’s work is obvious.” Obvious, but undemonstrated. “So what does Obama say about Unger in his speeches and writings? Nothing.” Aha! “Unger has simply disappeared from Obama’s official record, and not because his influence was minor; in fact, quite the opposite.” QED.

In this respect it’s worth mentioning the just-released Radical-in-Chief, a long, elaborately annotated study in which the writer Stanley Kurtz aims to prove that Obama is a socialist—a term that D’Souza, in his much less careful book, explicitly rejects in favor of “anticolonialist.” Yet Kurtz, in 485 pages tracing Obama’s intellectual geneology, never once mentions Unger. These guys have got to get on the same page.

Will this confusion—the uncertainty over whether Obama is an anticolonialist or a socialist, evil or merely deranged—unsettle the audience that D’Souza writes for? Probably not. A week after its release, The Roots of Obama’s Rage appeared at number four on the New York Times bestseller list. Buyers of partisan books know what they like, and D’Souza is happy to give it to them. Yet the most innocent among them, those readers not yet trained in the Pavlovian relationship between these authors and their eager customers, might want to consider how unnecessary D’Souza’s theory and its “explanatory power” are.

There is, indeed, a name for the beliefs that motivate President Obama, but it’s not anticolonialism; it’s not even socialism. It’s liberalism! 

Nearly everything that Obama has done as president, including the policies that D’Souza cites as proof of his inherited anticolonial ideology, would have been as eagerly pursued by President John Edwards or President John Kerry. And the points where they might differ—in the escalation of troops in Afghanistan, for example, or energetic education reform, or the push for nuclear power—mark Obama as more moderate than either of them. Come to that, many of the policies that D’Souza identifies as anticolonial were advanced by George W. Bush, who doesn’t (I’m guessing) have an anti-
colonialist bone in his body. Bush began the auto bailout, approved TARP, vastly increased federal spending, expanded entitlements, pushed through a large and probably unnecessary fiscal stimulus of his own, and often chided Americans for their “addiction” to foreign oil.

Trained as a young man by Jesuits, D’Souza must be familiar with the principle of Occam’s razor: The simplest explanation is always the best; if it fits the case at hand, there’s no need to go looking for more complicated theories. Yet there’s a cramp in the mind of the committed party hack, a terrible need to believe that one’s adversaries are more ominous or sinister than observable reality suggests. Thus Bill Clinton wasn’t merely an opportunist; he had to be a committed leftist and a criminal to boot. George W. Bush wasn’t merely a well-meaning, incompetent conservative; he had to be a Falangist. What Obama truly represents—unchecked liberalism, genus Americanus—is worrisome enough without dragging in the sad, gin-soaked carcass of his father or the hypnotic power of Roberto Mangabeira Unger.

 

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.

 

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