The Red Menace

President Obama will deliver two highly anticipated speeches this week—one crucial, the other fairly trivial.

The crucial one—a Wednesday night address to a joint session of Congress in which Obama will specify his demands for what should (and, perhaps, shouldn’t) be in a final health care bill—is receiving its share of attention, to be sure.

But, as is often the case, it’s the trivial one—a speech to the nation’s schoolchildren in which he will urge them to study hard and stay in school—that has captured the nation’s interest and stirred the strongest emotions, so much so that Education secretary Arne Duncan appeared on Sunday’s <Face the Nation in part to respond to the noise that the right has made.

You’ve surely heard about the objections by now, and they’re almost too silly to print again. But, for the record, it has been asserted that Obama will actually use the address to indoctrinate grade-schoolers into socialist ideology.

The resulting hysteria has led some conservative parents to say that they’ll keep their kids home on Tuesday and prompted some school districts to cancel plans to broadcast it. (It will be available over the Web and on C-Span.)

All of this makes for perfect fodder for the cable news channels and the blogosphere—more so than the relative merits of a trigger mechanism for a public health insurance plan. And all of why Education Secretary Arne Duncan appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday.

The first is actually fairly reasonable. As conservative media outlets were quick (and relentless) in noting, Democrats reacted with hostility when, in October 1991, President George H. W. Bush delivered a similar speech from a Washington, D.C., school.

“The Department of Education should not be producing paid political advertising for the president—it should be helping us to produce smarter students,” Dick Gephardt, then the House Majority Leader, complained.

What really raised Gephardt’s hackles, of course, was that Bush, whose domestic political standing was plummeting and who was due to face the voters in 13 months, stood to score a P.R. victory from his “non-political” speech, with Americans exposed to pictures and images of their president trying to inspire the best from the country’s youth.

It’s the same kind of P.R. victory, roughly speaking, that every politician who has ever visited a school or public library and been photographed reading to children is aiming for. So, just as the must-win-the-day demands of modern national politics led Gephardt to cry foul in ’91, it stands to reason that Republicans would now be irked by Obama’s speech.

But irked is one thing. The G.O.P.’s groundless and vicious hysteria and the party base’s eagerness to gobble it all up make this far more than a standard, knee-jerk partisan critique of a president about to reap political points with a “non-political” action. This is personal. And, when it comes to the right and Obama, it’s not new.

Since the spring of 2008, when it dawned on the right that Obama, and not Hillary Clinton, would be the Democratic nominee, a concerted effort has been afoot to portray Obama as a fundamentally anti-American figure—a man of questionable background and values hell-bent on destroying “the America we know.”

There is nothing rational about this effort. Without regard to reality, hostile conservatives tarred Obama with a slew of frightening and inflammatory labels—words that speak to a primal type of fear, not a reasoned reaction to specific policies and plans. The same epithets that were shouted at McCain-Palin rallies last fall—“socialist,” “Marxist,” “traitor,” “terrorist,” and on and on—have greeted every move Obama has made as president.

It is in this context that the right’s outcry over Obama’s speech is best viewed. How is it, you might ask, that so many conservatives could be so easily convinced—based on nonexistent evidence—that the president of the United States actually planned to lecture students on the importance of the proletariat owning the means of production?

The answer is that, more than ever, conservative leaders and opinion-makers are now free to shelter themselves from reality, with a host of newspapers, magazines, blogs and television stations offering an alternate rendering of the news—always with Obama in the villain’s role. Some outlets do this out of fundamental conviction. Others do it because of simple economics: They know there’s a sizable market for anti-Obama (and anti-Democratic) vitriol.

Either way, they feed the same beast—a simmering, irrational, and (probably) growing rage against the Obama caricature by a very vocal minority of the electorate. So when something as innocuous as a presidential address to schoolchildren about the merits of hard work is announced, it’s not just unsurprising but actually inevitable that an alternate rendering—socialist indoctrination!—would take hold.

Sadly, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that Obama’s ethnicity accounts for a lot of this. Yes, it’s true that the right would be fighting any Democrat who was president right now—something to which anyone who remembers the Clinton era will attest. But this goes further than the Clinton attacks ever did. The right isn’t just arguing that Obama is a terrible president or a bad man. The charge is that he is actively seeking to destroy “our” America, and the shrieks of “socialist” and “Marxist” are simply shorter ways of proclaiming that he’s not one of us.

The joke will eventually be on the right. The crazy talk about Obama from conservatives is going down great with the people who were always inclined to hate him anyway. But you have to wonder, after all the ranting about Obama’s secret commie plans to brainwash the children of America, whether the rest of the country will be able to take any of them seriously, on any topic, ever again.