Ted Nugent’s violent remarks at the NRA’s annual paranoia-fest triggered (pun intended) a new round in the always-good-for-cable debate over extreme rhetoric in the political discourse. The episode showed—no surprise—that GOP presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney was unwilling to condemn an out-of-bounds Obama-hater when his campaign released a mealy-mouthed response to the uproar, ignoring Nugent’s specific comments and noting that “Mitt Romney believes everyone needs to be civil.” And Nugent’s threatening words were nothing new; in 2007, he held up two machine guns at a concert and told Obama to “suck on my machine gun,” adding, “Hillary, you might want to ride one of these into the sunset, you worthless bitch.” But his latest rant, in which he denounced Obama’s “vile, evil America-hating administration,” was part of a never-ending Republican/conservative crusade to portray the president as not a true American. And it’s an effort that Romney has played footsie with.
For years, conservatives have said (or implied) that Obama is not really one of us: He was born in Kenya, he’s a secret Muslim, he pals around with terrorists. They have also endeavored to attach this otherism to all Democrats. Ex-presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) accusedObama and his wife of holding “anti-American views” and called on the media to investigate Democratic members of Congress to determine if they were anti-American, too. Last week, Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), a tea party darling, declared that “there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party.” After he was lambasted for uttering this absurd charge, he defiantly proclaimed that he did not regret his statement and reaffirmed his stance: “I’m not going to back down. I’m not going to be afraid about the fact that I called a spade a spade.” (House Speaker John Boehner said nothing about West’s derogatory and fact-free claim.)
Labeling anyone left of center a commie or traitor who hates America is a time-tested tradition of conservative politics that stretches back decades, from the Palmer Raids to the McCarthy era to Richard Nixon’s criminal administration to Ronald Reagan’s attempt to smear the anti-nuclear movement as a Moscow spin-off. Romney is too moderate (and too fearful of losing independent voters) to engage in DEFCON-1-level rhetorical nuking. But he has devised a way to speak to—and exploit—this sentiment without contracting cat-scratch fever.
“Obama the Apologizer” is not Romney’s only jab designed to depict the president as apart from the great American public. He repeatedly charges that Obama does not truly understand this nation or grasp that America is special. As if Obama were an outsider.