Popular culture is an informal type of public opinion. In its best instances, popular culture is a powerful lens into our collective fears, hopes, and anxieties. I was rewatching David Mamet's Edmond, a great film which explores questions of existential angst, a man's descent into madness (or sanity depending on one's point of view), and his subsequent imprisonment. The final scenes of the film are challenging and provocative; they are a great example of how the "popular" and "political" can intersect in some surprising ways.
While it is little discussed in the mainstream press, or among the pundit classes, I would argue that the New Right and the Tea Party GOP's anti-Obamamania is driven by a sense of imperiled white masculinity. The "angry white man" has been a part of our political and cultural vocabulary for several decades. He ultimately found a home and a political party in the Tea Party GOP. Although white men are the single most powerful and wealthy group of people in this country, the Right has been able to successfully manipulate a sense of grievance, anxiety, and fears of a lost future where "the blacks," "the minorities," "the women," and "the gays" have taken over.
This is a shrewd political strategy that plays on the relationship between psychology and politics. The petit authoritarianism that is contemporary conservatism fears nothing more than a loss of control. As such, what better way to advance one's political goals than to create a narrative of white victimology?
Ultimately, the fears of the New Right, the Tea Party GOP, and the aggrieved, imperiled white masculinity that Mitt Romney and other Republican elites pander to, are responses to a collective nightmare, what is a waking dream where they are being metaphorically raped and dominated by Barack Obama and people of color.
During Bush 2's rule, Republicans were obsessed with how the American public, as well as the Democratic Party, should "respect" the Office of the President of the United States. Curiously, a few years later the Tea Party GOP has shown nothing but utter disrespect for President Obama since he won the office in 2008.
There are many examples of this paranoid and conspiratorial behavior.
The State of the Union Speech was interrupted in an unprecedented fashion by a Republican who yelled "you lie" at the President. Major political figures on the Right and in the mass media have alternatively suggested that President Obama is not a United States citizen, is a closet Muslim, takes orders from his dead father's African ghost, and is an "affirmative action" hire who sneaked his way through Columbia and Harvard. Obama has also been faced with threats of violence, mass rebellion, secession, and naked racism. The Tea Party GOP was willing to risk economic Armageddon during the debt-ceiling crisis in order to embarrass Barack Obama.
These conspiratorial fantasies are ultimately about respect, authority, and legitimacy. Partisanship, and an extremely polarized public that has been subjected to Right-wing propagandists who are deeply invested in crisis and rumor mongering, are central to this story too. But, "normal" politics cannot be decoupled from the symbolic politics that are necessarily embodied--quite literally--in Barack Obama, the country's first black president. For many conservatives, and especially aggrieved whites who are made insecure by the United States' changing demographics and a sense that America is not "their country" anymore, Obama is seen as pure evil--he is their anti-Christ.
In the conservative political imagination, people who look like him, his family, and those other black and brown folk with some degree of political and/or economic power, do not belong in or near the White House. White reactionary conservatives may not state the following as plainly as I am willing to: The United States has long been the white man's country; the Tea Party GOP, as a White Party, are willing to do almost anything to regain this true lie and fictive past.
As I have written about numerous times, Mitt Romney is a sociopathic racist. His campaign ads have recycled naked and racist stereotypes about Barack Obama--and by implication black Americans. Moreover, Romney's use of both naked racial appeals and dog whistle politics represent one of the most sophisticated uses of racial animus in recent American political history. As the election approaches, Romney and Ryan are going to go places that McCain never would have dared. White racial resentment, and manipulating white racial anxiety in order to win over white voters, is one of the few remaining weapons (along with voter suppression) that Romney and the Tea Party GOP have left in their arsenal given the unpopularity of their proposed policies.
I am not suggesting that Mitt Romney is experiencing, nor that he is moved by, the same racial fears and white anxieties which motivate the Tea Party GOP base. Romney and his backers are billionaires. They fear nothing. But, Mitt Romney is willing to use the petty fears of reactionary white conservatives and right-leaning independents in order to further his political and economic goals.
In these conversations about President Obama, legitimacy, white voters, and the Tea Party GOP, one variable has been consistently ignored by most pundits and analysts. The Tea Party GOP is a Southern, White political party. Its leaders made a bargain decades ago to absorb the Southern racists, the Dixiecrats, into their fold. By doing so, they flipped the South "red." This choice also meant that the Republican Party was now the party of Jim and Jane Crow, the slaveocracy, and all of the other assorted political, racial, and cultural baggage that comes with it.
The disrespect and hostility demonstrated by the Tea Party GOP and the (white) New Right is a manifestation of a deeply aggrieved sense of order and place. Black and brown people are supposed to be subservient to white authority. As I wrote about here, the necessity of white male control over women's bodies is part of the same ideological and political cosmology. In all, Whiteness, especially as manifested by White Conservatism, is rooted in a deep fear of white oppression by black and brown people. This is their doomsday and nightmare scenario. Southern Confederates feared it; bloviators such as Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and others give voice to it almost every day with their fixations on how Obama hates white people and that agitprop fools like the New Black Panther Party are coming to kill white good white folks.
The ending of the film Edmond is a graphic and disturbing representation of these anxieties about white male authority and black domination. The main character played by white every man William H. Macy has been sent to prison for life. His cellmate is the black actor Bokeem Woodbine. Macy is prey; Bokeem is the predator. Macy will be forced into submission--one way or another.
This narrative is ideologically rich, potent with questions about race, representation, masculinity, authority, sex, and power. As we work through how race and popular culture intersect here, there are three elements of particular importance in this scene that I would like to highlight:
First. The conservative white masculinity channeled by the New Right and the Tea Party GOP conceptualizes Macy as a liberal punk, he is aggrieved with liberal white guilt, and wants to confront Woodbine, the violent, hyper-thug, black-beast rapist, with words and reason. Macy eventually surrenders to Bokeem's advances. For the Right-wing conservative gaze, he is the ultimate embodiment of "cowardly" "feminine" "liberalism" and "progressivism," because Macy eventually learns to accept his "relationship" with his abuser. "Real men" (read: conservatives) would never submit to such an arrangement. They would rather die.
Second. Macy's character represents the deep fears of white oppression that drive the Right-wing imagination in the Age of Obama. In this framing, they have already lost their country. The United States' demographics are changing. White men are scared and worried about their futures. The Great Recession has been emasculating, and in many ways economically castrating, for white "working class" men who fear being obsolete and unnecessary in this "new" America. The Angry White Men who comprise the base of the Tea Party GOP are symbolically represented by William H. Macy's character.
On some deep psychological level, or perhaps even on the near-surface, they are moved by a profound vulnerability, that one mistake, one bit of misfortune, could literally or metaphorically emasculate them. Thus, putting them at the mercy of a black man or other person of color. Whiteness is about authority and "normal" arrangements of power; Whiteness, and white masculinity in particular, fears nothing more than being usurped.
Three. Bokeem's black-rapist beast inmate character is what The White Gaze imagines all black men to potentially be. In popular culture, as well as the collective popular imagination, hyper-thug black masculinity is one of the dominant tropes and ways of representing black manhood. Here, despite our levels of education, refinement, or success, all black men are somehow a second away from becoming violent, impulsive, or dangerous.
Consider: much of commercial hip hop plays off of this age old cultural trope. The dream merchants on Wall Street have perfected marketing "blackness" and "black masculinity" in ways that fulfill the fantasies of the mass public: there is a tension which is skillfully sold, where black men are simultaneously the most envied and despised people in the world.
Barack Obama, as a black man, is also burdened by these representations. The Right plays with these deep fears and anxieties to cause fear in white voters. Conservatives have argued that the President has been called lazy, irresponsible, and more interested in hip hop barbecues at the White House than in being an effective leader. Romney has based his political campaign on painting the president as a permanent Other, "niggerizing" him as a lazy, angry, hostile black man.
In reality, Barack Obama is refined, intelligent, accomplished, and has an effortless sort of "cool pose" about him.
Individuals immersed in white racial resentment, and plain old fashioned white racism, are incapable of seeing these aspects of Obama's humanity.
The conservative white racial frame sees Barack Obama as Bokeem Woodbine's character in Edmond. He is a thug, a violent rapist thug, who enjoys dominating white people (read: men) just like them. Conservative pundits such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have even used the explicit language of rape to describe how Barack Obama, and the federal government under his leadership, has sexually violated the American people.
This view is generalizable. Many of the same white folks also see black men, all of us, in the same light.