Please kill this ‘Obama assassination porn’

The Obama clique’s fear that their man will be killed by ‘rednecks with rifles’ reveals their almost aristocratic dislocation from the masses.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics USA

From Albuquerque to Zimbabwe, their mugshots were splashed across the front pages of the papers. They were The Men Who Wanted To Kill Barack Obama.

They certainly looked the part. With badly dyed mullets, pierced ears and faces ravaged by alleged use of methamphetamines, Nathan Johnson, Tharin Gartrell and Shawn Adolf were, in the words of the UK Guardian, ‘rednecks with rifles’. They were arrested as the Democratic Convention kicked off in Denver last week, and were found to be in possession of high-powered rifles, a telescopic sight, wigs and a bulletproof vest. Apparently they ‘didn’t believe a black should be leader of America’ (1). ‘Barack Obama knew from the start he could be a target for a crazed racist’s bullet’, said the UK Sun. ‘But it is shocking how swiftly the threat has become reality…’ (2)

Only it hadn’t become reality. At all. A few hours later, the authorities in Denver cleared the men of plotting to kill Obama. Troy Eid, US attorney for Denver, said: ‘There is a difference between a true threat and the reported racist rantings of drug abusers. This involved a gang of meth-heads who were all impaired at the time.’ (3) The frontpage image of dead-eyed Lee Harvey Oswalds hellbent on putting a bullet in the chest of the ‘first black president of the United States’ was not based in reality – it was conjured up by the feverish fear amongst the Obama clique and its supporters that their man will be assassinated by some member of that unknowable blob: ‘red America’.

From the moment he entered the primary race to become the Democratic candidate for president, Obama, his team, his security detail and his backers in the media and literary worlds have been positively obsessed by the possibility that he will be bumped off. Caniadian newspaper columnist and unapologetic neocon, Mark Steyn, refers to it as ‘Obama assassination porn’, part of a self-flattering, ersatz ‘determination to appropriate Camelot and [its] mythic narrative’ (4).

The palpable fear of assassination is certainly revealing. In the past, it was aristocrats – isolated princes, kings and dukes – who were consumed by assassinophobia, whereas democrats, from Abraham Lincoln to Bobby Kennedy, tended to make a public display of their lack of fear of the lone gunman (5). The Obama crew’s fear, even fantasy, that America harbours a killer who wants to take down their candidate reveals much about Obama’s aloofness, and about political crisis in the Democratic camp.

It is of course true that American presidential candidates and presidents, from JFK to RFK, Lincoln to Reagan, have been the targets of assassins. So, too, have black public figures: Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X (though Obama would certainly not compare himself with the latter). So it makes sense that presidential candidates be afforded ideally discrete police protection, and that serious death threats against them be investigated. Yet there is more to ‘Obama assassination porn’ than sensible policing; rather, assassinophobia has been a continual undercurrent in the discussion about Obama, frequently revealing a broad-ranging fear of Americans rather than a specific fear for Obama’s life.

Supporters of Obama often talk about the wonderful things he will do ‘if he survives…’ The UK Sun hopes Obama ‘lives long enough to bring in the reforms that could rehabilitate America’ (6). Doris Lessing, the British Nobel Laureate, caused a stink in February when she declared that Obama would not survive in the White House: ‘He would probably not last long. They would kill him.’ (7) She didn’t specify who ‘they’ were, but she didn’t need to: ‘they’, in the words of one newspaper, are those ‘pockets of the US, and they are deep and large, that simply will not vote for a black man and where racism is ingrained’ (8).

Earlier this year, the Daily Telegraph reported that some Democrats are ‘reluctant to vote for Mr Obama because a Southern racist might shoot him’ (9). Darkly ironically, their desire to save Obama from a bloody fate by not electing him is given sanction by the Obama camp itself. From day one, his circle has organised around the possibility of assassination. He was given Security Service protection in May 2007, ‘far earlier than previous presidential candidates’, and since then his security detail has been ‘stepped up amid fears he could be an assassination target’ (10).

Some Obama supporters have been rattled by the suspicion and heavy-handedness of his security detail. It is reported that ‘tensions have flared’ at some of the crowded pro-Obama rallies, where chanting and passionate crowds have ‘caused major headaches for his Secret Service bodyguards’ (11). At the Iowa caucus in January, Obama’s bodyguards drew their weapons when a man ran towards Obama shouting ‘Obama, Obama!’ The man only wanted to shake Obama’s hand. Later, an Obama aide said to the man: ‘Hey, you can’t do that man. Be careful.’ (12) It seems that while the Obama camp publicly heralded these mass displays of support as a ‘new kind of politics’, privately it viewed them as ‘security nightmares’ where every passionate supporter was a potential killer (13).

Some Obama-backers have seemed almost to fantasise that he will be killed. Writing in the Ottawa Sun, Earl McRae said: ‘Barack Obama is waving his arms. The crowd is cheering… I see Barack Obama, one minute smiling, the people crying his name. I see Barack Obama grab his chest and his eyes widen and his mouth opens, and the crowd screams as Barack Obama, black candidate for the presidency of the United States of America, falls to the ground, dead, an assassin’s bullet inside him.’ (14)

This is what Mark Steyn labels ‘Obama assassination porn’. Steyn points out that where it was the opponents of George W Bush who fantasised about his possible assassination – remember the Channel 4 made-for-TV-movie Death of a President? – it is Obama’s supporters who talk endlessly about his possibly being killed. ‘Obama assassination porn is written by his worshippers and testifies to one of the most palpable features of the senator’s campaign’, said Steyn: its desire to ‘appropriate Camelot’ (the figurative name for JFK’s administraton from 1961 to 1963) (15).

Steyn has a point: fears of an assassination attempt have left the realm of practical policing and become part of a political drama, part of a story about Obama being the heir to the slain Kennedys and Dr King who is risking everything to save America. In lieu of a clear-cut political programme or radically new vision, the ‘assassination story’ has unofficially, but stealthily, been co-opted as evidence of Obama’s dual vulnerability and bravery, and of the sacrifices he is willing to make to ‘rescue American values’ (16).

Yet the widespread assassinophobia also reveals Obama’s and the Democratic Party’s increasing dislocation from the masses. It captures the continual decline of the Democrats from a mass political party with sometimes passionate grassroots support into a kind of court outfit bereft of democratic vision and essentially fearful of the populace. Traditionally, aristocratic elements most feared assassination, sometimes turning mad as a result of their assassinophobia. In his 1859 book, The Past, the Present and the Future, Henry Charles Carey, an economic adviser to Lincoln, made a distinction between the fearfulness of feudalistic regimes and the hoped-for openness of democratic systems. Princes in particular, he said, who, all going well, will ascend the throne, lived in ‘perpetual fear of assassination, as shown in thousands of instances’; nobles in general, he argued, lived in ‘perpetual fear of insurrection, manifested by the building of forts and castles, and by the unceasing prohibitions of the use of even the most simple arms by the unhappy people’ (17). It is striking that some of the purveyors of ‘Obama assassination porn’ have argued that the alleged threat to Obama’s life shows that it is time to enforce serious gun control in the US – that is, to disarm ‘the unhappy people’ (18).

Part of the reason why assassinophobia was a central element in feudal life is because, before the emergence of mass democracy, espionage – ‘unparallelled in the world for its baseness and meanness’, according to Henry Charles Carey – was one of the few ways to dispose of unwanted or unfavourable leaders. Assassinophobia also expressed royals’ and aristocrats’ essential disconnection from the people, and their fear of potential threats lurking within the wide, wild mass of the population. One Russian Empress so feared assassination that she moved her bed to a different room every night; even her ‘passion for changing and redecorating interiors was connected to her fear of assassination’ (19). When he was Prince of Wales, Edward the son of Queen Victoria lived in ‘endless terror’ of being shot (20). So key was assassinophobia in the feudal era that in his book The Prince, Machiavelli argued that the ‘principal brake’ on the cruelty of princes is not their adherence to Christian morality but their ‘fear of assassination’; he encouraged good princes, good statesman, to govern their people in such a way that they will not be motivated to slit their throats (21).

In striking contrast, many democratic politicians, even those threatened with assassination, have refused to hide from the world. Following his Emancipation Proclamation for slaves, Lincoln received hundreds upon hundreds of death threats ‘infested with brutal and vulgar menace’. And yet, while he sometimes became despondent as a result, his aides had to fight long and hard to convince him occasionally to wear a disguise or to avoid public rallies. ‘I have received a great many threatening letters but I have no fear of them’, Lincoln said. ‘I can die only once; to [live] continually in fear is to die over and over.’ (22) By this reckoning, the paranoid Obama campaign is dead already.

Likewise, in 1968 Bobby Kennedy consciously opted for an open style of campaigning, despite numerous death threats and the assassination of his brother five years earlier. He drove in open-top cars and addressed sweaty, crowded mobs of supporters; his very visibility, says one of his biographers, was intended as a ‘symbol of hope’. Assassination has been a threat for as long as politics has existed, whether it was under the warped systems of the old courts or in the modern era of mass democracy. But the different ways in which that threat was dealt with reveals much about differences between the systems – from the fear and paranoia of feudal times, to hope and engagement in the democratic era.

The return of assassinophobia in the American presidential campaign shines a light on the current state of the Democratic Party. It reveals their disdain for large sections of the American populace and the new class snobbery that infects liberal sections of the US; as one pro-Obama assassination fantasist says, some Americans just cannot accept that Obama is ‘a better American than they are’ and so they turn ‘zealously’ to trying to ‘protect and perpetuate Roy Rogers, John Wayne, Mom’s apple pie and the cross of Jesus in every home’ (23). It also reveals the inexorable transformation of the Democrats into a kind of feudal outfit, essentially cut off from the people and suspicious of their beliefs and motivations. The end result of this ‘assassination porn’ could well be that an assassination attempt becomes more likely. The Duke of Wellington lived in fear of assassination while posted in Paris in the 1810s, but he refused to change his behaviour because ‘I say the danger increases with the appearance of apprehension of it’ (24). In continually advertising their apprehension of death, and even volunteering the kind of ‘rednecks with rifles’ who might make it a reality, the Obama camp may unwittingly be issuing an invitation to some racist nutjob to make their fanatasies come true. Their fears might be one kind of ‘porn’ that really does give rise to violence in the real world.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Clinton calls for unity as Democrats ponder a case of rednecks with rifles, Guardian, 27 August 2008

(2) The didn’t want a black president, Sun, 27 August 2008

(3) Race gang cleared of plot to kill Obama, London Evening Standard, 27 August 2008

(4) Obama the Muzak Messiah of the pseudo-revolution, Jewish World Review, 18 February 2008

(5) p48, The Darkest Dawn: Lincoln, Booth and the Great American Tragedy, Thomas Goodrich, Indiana University Press, 2006

(6) I hope Barack Obama lives long enough to fulfil his vision, Sun, 20 June 2008

(7) Obama ‘would be killed’, Independent, 11 February 2008

(8) I hope Barack Obama lives long enough to fulfil his vision, Sun, 20 June 2008

(9) Assassination fears follow Barack Obama, Daily Telegraph, 8 January 2008

(10) Assassination fears follow Barack Obama, Daily Telegraph, 8 January 2008

(11) Assassination fears follow Barack Obama, Daily Telegraph, 8 January 2008

(12) Assassination fears follow Barack Obama, Daily Telegraph, 8 January 2008

(13) See Why they’re scared of Obamamania, by Brendan O’Neill

(14) Cited in Obama the Muzak Messiah of the pseudo-revolution, Jewish World Review, 18 February 2008

(15) Obama the Muzak Messiah of the pseudo-revolution, Jewish World Review, 18 February 2008

(16) Obama sketches promise of America, Fox News, 28 August 2008

(17) The Past, the Present, and the Future, Henry Charles Carey, University of Michigan, 1859

(18) Man allegedly threatens Obama assassination, Globe and Mail, 7 August 2008

(19) See Five Empresses: Court Live in Eighteenth Century Russia, Translated by Kathleen Carroll, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004

(20) Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion, Helen Rappaport, ABC-CLIO, 2003

(21) The Prince by Machiavelli, in full here

(22) p48, The Darkest Dawn: Lincoln, Booth and the Great American Tragedy, Thomas Goodrich, Indiana University Press, 2006

(23) Cited in Obama the Muzak Messiah of the pseudo-revolution, Jewish World Review, 18 February 2008

(24) Supplementary Despatches and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur, Duke of Wellington, J Murray, 1865

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