Have Republicans Turned Into a Weird Religious Cult?
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Something strange has happened in America in the nine months since Barack Obama was elected. It has best been summarised by the comedian Bill Maher: "The Democrats have moved to the right, and the Republicans have moved to a mental hospital."
The election of Obama - a black man with an anti-conservative message - as a successor to George W. Bush has scrambled the core American right's view of their country. In their gut, they saw the US as a white-skinned, right-wing nation forever shaped like Sarah Palin.
When this image was repudiated by a majority of Americans in a massive landslide, it simply didn't compute. How could this have happened? How could the cry of "Drill, baby, drill" have been beaten by a supposedly big government black guy? So a streak that has always been there in the American right's world-view - to deny reality, and argue against a demonic phantasm of their own creation - has swollen. Now it is all they can see.
Since Obama's rise, the US right has been skipping frantically from one fantasy to another, like a person in the throes of a mental breakdown. It started when they claimed he was a secret Muslim, and - at the same time - that he was a member of a black nationalist church that hated white people. Then, once these arguments were rejected and Obama won, they began to argue that he was born in Kenya and secretly smuggled into the United States as a baby, and the Hawaiian authorities conspired to fake his US birth certificate. So he is ineligible to rule and the office of President should pass to... the Republican runner-up, John McCain.
These aren't fringe phenomena: a Research 200 poll found that a majority of Republicans and Southerners say Obama wasn't born in the US, or aren't sure. A steady steam of Republican congressmen have been jabbering that Obama has "questions to answer". No amount of hard evidence - here's his birth certificate, here's a picture of his mother heavily pregnant in Hawaii, here's the announcement of his birth in the local Hawaiian paper - can pierce this conviction.
This trend has reached its apotheosis this summer with the Republican Party now claiming en masse that Obama wants to set up "death panels" to euthanise the old and disabled. Yes: Sarah Palin really has claimed - with a straight face - that Barack Obama wants to kill her baby.
You have to admire the audacity of the right. Here's what's actually happening. The US is the only major industrialised country that does not provide regular healthcare to all its citizens. Instead, they are required to provide for themselves - and 50 million people can't afford the insurance. As a result, 18,000 US citizens die every year needlessly, because they can't access the care they require. That's equivalent to six 9/11s, every year, year on year. Yet the Republicans have accused the Democrats who are trying to stop all this death by extending healthcare of being "killers" - and they have successfully managed to put them on the defensive.
The Republicans want to defend the existing system, not least because they are given massive sums of money by the private medical firms who benefit from the deadly status quo. But they can't do so honestly: some 70 per cent of Americans say it is "immoral" to retain a medical system that doesn't cover all citizens. So they have to invent lies to make any life-saving extension of healthcare sound depraved.
A few months ago, a recent board member for several private health corporations called Betsy McCaughey reportedly noticed a clause in the proposed healthcare legislation that would pay for old people to see a doctor and write a living will. They could stipulate when (if at all) they would like care to be withdrawn. It's totally voluntary. Many people want it: I know I wouldn't want to be kept alive for a few extra months if I was only going to be in agony and unable to speak. But McCaughey started the rumour that this was a form of euthanasia, where old people would be forced to agree to death. This was then stretched to include the disabled, like Palin's youngest child, who she claimed would have to "justify" his existence. It was flatly untrue - but the right had their talking-point, Palin declared the non-existent proposals "downright evil", and they were off.