Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Dangers of Demonization and the Conspiracy Temptation

Published in Commentary Magazine on March 2, 2011



Good grief. Former governor Mike Huckabee said in an interview that President Obama grew up in Kenya. His press spokesman clarified that Huckabee meant to say Indonesia. One problem, of course, is that, in the interview, Huckabee mentioned the Mau Mau revolution, which occurred in Kenya, not Indonesia. For another, Huckabee was asked, “How come we don’t have a health record, we don’t have a college record, we don’t have a birth cer – why Mr. Obama did you spend millions of dollars in courts all over this country to defend against having to present a birth certificate. … Don’t you think we deserve to know more about this man?” Huckabee’s response was, “I would love to know more. What I know is troubling enough. And one thing that I do know is his having grown up in Kenya, his view of the Brits, for example, very different than the average American” (h/t: Andrew Sullivan).

This is not encouraging.

How about starting today, Republicans and conservatives accept the following two propositions: Barack Obama was born in the United States and he’s a Christian. He may be wrong on a vast array of public policy issues, as I believe he is; and his animating philosophy (contemporary liberalism) may be defective in all sorts of ways. But he is not an alien, nor is he a Muslim, nor can his views be explained by Kenyan anti-colonialism. To argue otherwise, or even to hint otherwise, is irresponsible. It’s also politically discrediting.

We live in an era in which it is fashionable in some quarters not simply to question the policies of an Obama, a Bush, or a Clinton; one has to call into question their very legitimacy. It is a cast of mind that allows one’s grievances to find refuge in conspiracy theories (Bush knew in advance about 9/11 and purposely lied about WMDs in Iraq; Bill Clinton was behind the “murder” of Vince Foster and a drug-smuggling operation at the Mena Airport; Barack Obama is a Muslim who was born in Africa).

Entertaining these myths and giving them wings is dangerous stuff. The reason is obvious: our nation depends on its citizens accepting the legitimacy of democratic outcomes, including ones that don’t go our way. If people believe without supporting evidence that our president is not just wrong but illegitimate, that he’s not simply misguided but malevolent, essential bonds of trust are ripped apart.

This is not to say that presidents should be immune to tough, even fierce criticisms. That is perfectly appropriate, and sometimes it’s even necessary. But criticism is one thing; demonization and embracing wild conspiracy theories is quite another. If we get to the point where we assume that our political differences can be explained only by some deeper, hidden evil in our opponents, then self-government itself is trouble.

It’s worth bearing in mind something else as well: America’s greatest political leaders — including Washington, Lincoln, King, and Reagan — showed a tenacious commitment to certain ideals and a generosity of spirit toward others. Holding on to both things at once isn’t easy. But it is at least worth striving for.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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