Opinion

Shock poll: Why do so many Republicans think Obama is a socialist, a Muslim, or even the anti-Christ?

A new poll shows that a quarter of Republicans think Obama may be the anti-Christ. Apocalyptic right-wing rhetoric is going mainstream, as Republican lawmakers stoke the flames of epithet-hurlers and conspiracy theorists.

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Healthcare reform supporters who tuned in to the Glenn Beck Show the morning after Sunday’s vote for a dose of schadenfreude were sorely disappointed. For months Mr. Beck, a conservative radio talk-show host, had bewailed the fate of the nation should the healthcare bill pass into law. He warned it would be “the nail in the coffin of our country.”

Yet not 12 hours after the bill’s passage in the House, Beck appeared on air in a chipper mood. Chin up, he told his listeners. If we elect conservative Republicans willing to repeal the bill, the country can be saved.

In other words, no need for panic: The apocalypse has been postponed until November 2010.

Entertaining as it is to watch the goalposts move, the right’s end-of-life-as-we-know-it language has real consequences. It has eliminated opportunities for political compromise and threatens to reduce the Republican Party to a hodgepodge of epithet-hurlers and conspiracy theorists.

Apocalyptic rhetoric has a long history in American politics. The New Republic recently compiled the dire predictions that accompanied progressive legislation like Social Security (“It will go a long way toward destroying American initiative and courage”) and the minimum wage (“a step in the direction of Communism, bolshevism, fascism, and Nazism”).

Catastrophic predictions also occur on the left, of course. When progressive Theodore Roosevelt ran for president in 1912, he rallied his followers by bellowing, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!” More recently, Naomi Wolf penned “The End of America,” arguing that America under the Bush administration was well on its way to dissolving into a fascist dictatorship.

But it is in today’s GOP that the election cycle and the end times have become one and the same, that extreme rhetoric has infected the party stem to stern.

Lawmakers have led this charge, making them more troubling than the protesters who (flung racist and homophobic words at Democratic legislators as they marched to vote Sunday. These elected officials in good standing with the Republican Party can’t be explained away as a few bad apples. From Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” in the middle of President Obama’s first State of the Union to Rep. Randy Neugebauer’s “Baby killer!” chucked at Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak during Mr. Stupak’s speech supporting healthcare reform, Republican officeholders are behaving badly and encouraging their supporters to do the same.

At least 10 House Democrats have reported death threats or security concerns at their offices in recent days.

Leaders on the right ratchet up the temperature even higher by spinning dystopian fantasies of Democratic politics. Sarah Palin, one-time vice-presidential candidate for the GOP, claimed that if healthcare passed, death panels would dot America as the government determined who would live and die. The rumor took hold: In August 2009, an NBC News poll showed 45 percent of Americans believed death panels were likely to happen.

Right-wing commentators and politicians also go to extremes to demonize the commander in chief, daily denouncing Obama as a statist, a dictator, or in the words of Rep. Steve King a “Democratic socialist.” Mr. King had also warned that upon Obama’s election, “the radical Islamists and their supporters will be dancing in the streets.”

Given this, should anyone be surprised at the latest Harris poll that reveals how thoroughly such overblown rhetoric has infused the GOP? Of the Republicans polled, 2 out of 3 believe Obama is a socialist, nearly as many think he is Muslim, and a full quarter suspect the president may be the anti-Christ.

That’s right: The anti-Christ. This is the current state of the Republican Party. So what’s the end result of all these stoked fears and raised temperatures? For one, they ensure that no matter how postpartisan Obama would like to be, he will not be given that chance. While Democrats compromised on the public option and abortion language in the healthcare bill, Republicans refused to even glance across the aisle, much less reach across it.

How could they? They’ve sold their supporters on the idea that Democratic legislation is the first step to totalitarian dictatorship. Over the past week, Sen. Lindsey Graham threatened not to work with Democrats on immigration reform if they pushed through the healthcare bill. Sen. John McCain went one step further and promised “no cooperation for the rest of the year.”

Over-the-top rhetoric also means the Republican Party will move even more right in the coming years. Politicians who betray a hint of moderation will face Tea Party challengers as formerly local races become national battles to purge the party of any but the most conservative.

David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, sees disaster for the GOP in this strategy. Immediately after the vote on Sunday night, he declared it the Republican Waterloo. But even Mr. Frum can’t figure out a solution to the Republicans’ extremism problem. Until someone does, the GOP and its supporters will be reduced to railing against an apocalypse that never comes.

Nicole Hemmer is a lecturer at Manchester College and a PhD candidate in history at Columbia University. She is writing a history of conservative media.

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