How Obama's Election Drove the American Right Insane
The following is adapted from "Over the Cliff: How Obama’s Election Drove the American Right Insane," due out next month from PoliPoint Press.
On the day Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, much of the nation -- particularly those who supported and voted for him -- celebrated the election of the first African American to the country's highest office. For those who voted for his opponent, John McCain, there was naturally the usual bitterness and disappointment.
Among a certain subset of those Americans, however -- especially those who opposed Obama precisely because he sought to become the nation's first black president -- it went well beyond the usual despair. For them, November 5, 2008, was the end of the world. Or at least, the end of America as they knew it.
So maybe it wasn't really a surprise that they responded that day with the special venom and violence peculiar to the American Right. Like the noose strung in protest from a tree limb in Texas.
Students at Baylor University in Waco discovered the noose hanging from a campus tree the evening of election day, near a site where angry Republican students had gathered Obama yard signs and burned them in a big bonfire. That same evening, a riot nearly broke out when Obama supporters, chanting the new president's name, were confronted outside a residence hall by white students who told them: "Any nigger who walks by Penland [Hall], we're going to kick their ass, we're going to jump him." The Obama supporters stopped and responded, "Excuse me?" -- and somehow managed to keep the confrontation confined to a mere shouting match until police arrived and broke things up.
There were also the students on the North Carolina State University campus, in Raleigh, who spent election night spraypainting such fun-loving messages as "Let's shoot that Nigger in the head" and "Hang Obama by a noose." The university's administration was so upset by this behavior that it protected the students' identities and refused to take any legal action against them or discipline them at all.
Those were just warm-ups from the student cheering section. The real thugs, exemplars of the dark side of the American psyche, were shortly to make their mark.
That night, four young white men from Staten Island "decided to go after black people" in retaliation for Obama's election. The men first drove to the mostly black Park Hill neighborhood and assaulted a Liberian immigrant, beating him with a metal pipe and a police baton, as well as their fists and feet. They drove next to Port Richmond, where they assaulted another black man and verbally threatened a Latino man and a group of black people.
The hooligans finished up the night by attempting to drive next to a man walking home from his job as a Rite Aid manager and club him with the police baton. Instead, they simply hit him with their car, throwing him off the windshield and into a coma for over a month. The pedestrian was actually white, but this crew of geniuses managed to misidentify him as a black man. All four of the thugs wound up convicted of hate crimes and will spend the duration of Obama's first term in prison. Look for them to turn up on Fox News in a few years claiming to be victims of the oppressive Obama administration.
The day after the election in Midland, Michigan, a discarded Ron Paul activist named Randy Gray (he had been peremptorily dismissed from the Paul campaign when his white-supremacist activism was revealed), dressed in full Ku Klux Klan regalia, stalked the sidewalk in the middle of a heavily trafficked intersection and waved an American flag. He also toted a handgun.
Police talked to Gray but let him continue his display after he told them his behavior had nothing to do with Obama winning the presidency.
A bus full of schoolkids in Rexburg, Idaho, started chanting "Assassinate Obama" just to tease the tiny minority of their fellow schoolkids who were Obama supporters. In Rexburg -- where the population is more than 90 percent Mormon -- that's about three kids in the entire school. District officials didn't discipline the children who had led the chants, but they did send a letter to the kids' parents reminding them that students are to be told such behavior is unacceptable.
Then there were the arsons.
On election night, a black family in South Ogden, Utah, came home from volunteering at their local polling station to discover that their American flag had been torched.
In Hardwick Township, New Jersey, a black man taking his eight-year-old daughter to school emerged from his front door the morning after the election to discover that someone had burned a six-foot-tall cross on his lawn, right next to the man's banner declaring Obama president. It had been torched too.
Another cross was burned on the lawn of the only black man in tiny Apolacon Township, Pennsylvania, the night after the election. A black church in Springfield, Massachusetts, was burned to the ground the night of the election; three white men were arrested and charged with setting the fire as a hate crime.
And if the election itself wasn't enough to bring the haters out of the woodwork, there was Obama's inauguration on January 21, 2009.
Two days before the big event, arsonists in Forsyth County, Georgia, burned down the home of a woman who was a public supporter of Obama; she was in DC for the inauguration at the time. Someone also painted a racial slur on her fence, along with the warning "Your black boy will die."
On inauguration day, someone taped newspaper articles featuring Obama onto the apartment door of a woman in Jersey City, New Jersey, and set fire to the door. Fortunately, the woman had stayed home to watch the inauguration on TV and smelled the burning, and she was able to extinguish the fire before it spread. If only she could have done the same for the hate that sparked the act.
The day after the inauguration, a large, 22-year-old skinhead from Brockton, Massachusetts, named Keith Luke decided it was time to fight the "extinction" of the white race, so he bashed down the door of an African American woman and her sister and shot them both; one died. Police cornered and arrested Luke before he could pull off the next phase of his shooting rampage. According to the district attorney, Luke intended to "kill as many Jews, blacks, and Hispanics as humanly possible . . . before killing himself." When he appeared in court a month later, Luke had carved a swastika into his forehead with a razor blade.
The pain and violence inflicted by these haters were just beginning.
In all, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), in Montgomery, Alabama, counted more than 200 "hate-related" incidents in the first weeks after the election of Barack Obama, a number that more than doubled after the inauguration. We called up the SPLC's Mark Potok for his thoughts on what was happening. Here's what he said:
I think there's something remarkable happening out there. I think we really are beginning to see a white backlash that may grow fairly large. The situation's worrying.
Not only do we have continuing nonwhite immigration, not only is the economy in the tank and very likely to get worse, but we have a black man in the White House. That is driving a kind of rage in a certain sector of the white population that is very, very worrying to me.
We are seeing literally hundreds of incidents around the country -- from cross-burnings to death threats to effigies hanging to confrontations in schoolyards, and it's quite remarkable. I think that there are political leaders out there who are saying incredibly irresponsible things that could have the effect of undamming a real flood of hate. That includes media figures. On immigration, they have been some of the worst. There's a lot going on, and it's very likely to lead to scapegoating. And in the end, scapegoating leaves corpses in the street.
Among the indicators of this spike in violent white racism was a sharp increase in business for white-supremacist Web sites like the neo-Nazi forum Stormfront. It collected more than 2,000 new members the day after the election. One poster to the Stormfront site, a North Las Vegas resident going by the moniker Dalderian Germanicus, reflected the consensus sentiment in the comments: "I want the SOB laid out in a box to see how 'messiahs' come to rest. God has abandoned us, this country is doomed."
That theme popped up a lot among the denizens of the extremist Right in the weeks after the election. One middle-aged Georgian, quoted by an Associated Press reporter, voiced the typical view: "I believe our nation is ruined and has been for several decades, and the election of Obama is merely the culmination of the change."
For the American Right, 2008 was indeed the end of the world.
From Over the Cliff: How the Obama Election Drove the American Right Insane © 2010 by John Amato and David Niewert. Reprinted with permission from PoliPointPress, LLC, Sausalito, CA.