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This Year’s Election

My nightmare headline for November 3:

Admits Kenyan birth, Muslim Faith

A book I published this month with PublicAffairs, Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010, begins with the story of a rumor in Berkeley 42 years ago and ends at a Dylan concert on election night, on the campus of the University of Minnesota — Dylan's erstwhile alma mater, where he had never played before — 40 years after that. I didn't think that last piece was naïve when I wrote that America was not less racist the day after the election than it had been the day before it, and that there was no telling what kind of president a President Obama would be. But in fact the essay was, and is, almost moronically naïve.

I didn't expect that the Republican minorities in the House and the Senate would practice their own version of the Massive Resistance that the white South, which rested on the almost complete disenfranchisement of African-Americans, would promulgate after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. I didn't expect people at Tea Party rallies with signs that read "THE ZOO HAS AN AFRICAN LION AND THE WHITE HOUSE HAS A LYIN' AFRICAN" — including, in some versions, Obama with a bone through his nose — implying, among countless other things, that Obama, or all black people, belongs in a zoo.

Massive Resistance, in the 1950s and '60s, included the firebombing of homes and churches, murders by individuals, and organized lynchings. Massive Resistance today includes the conscious fostering a climate of assassination on the part of both Republican functionaries and leaders. Nothing would more effectively destroy the will of Democratic politicians than proof that their votes could get them killed. I don't mean that Republicans are working to kill Democrats, but that they are working to create a climate in which the murder of a political opponent will eviscerate their opposition.

Despite the all but unspoken fears of so many that a black president could not live, and the increase in threats against a sitting president logged by the Secret Service over the last two years (Time recently reported that the James von Brunn, who murdered an African-American guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2009, planned to kill White House adviser David Alexrod, because Obama was "too hard to reach"), for Republicans there is no need, and probably no real desire, to see Obama dead. That would be too much — and, really, any office holder would do. Not even a senator, a representative, or a governor would be needed. A candidate for any such office would suffice; so would a mayor, a state legislator, or perhaps even a school board member.

"Nobody likes paying taxes," Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts joked on Fox News last February 18, shortly after his election, in reference to the action of Andrew Stack who flew a plane into an IRS office in Austin, killing an African-American government worker. "I don't know if it's related," he went on, "but I can just sense, not only in my election, but since being here in Washington, people are frustrated, they want transparency, they want their elected officials to be accountable and open, and talk about the things that are affecting their daily lives. So I'm not sure if there's a connection, I certainly hope not, but we need to do things better." Other Republicans said much the same — doing their best, while keeping their ties straight, to legitimize the murder of representatives of the federal government.

Such a strain was evident at McCain rallies in the weeks before election day in 2008, with some of his supporters shouting "Traitor!," "Terrorist!," or "Kill him!" at the mention of Obama's name — shouts McCain finally tried to talk down. In this election year traitor, socialist, communist, and tyrant are commonplace buzzwords of Republicans for their Democratic opponents of any stripe — Obama first of all, but anyone who has supported or might support any initiative he might propose is infected with the same virus. And the project of altogether negating the legitimacy of the other side — which begins, most fundamentally, with the fantasy that the United States of America all but negated its Constitution by making a man president who, if not illegitimate in the common sense, is far more deeply illegitimate as the face of the country itself (in 2008, Scott Brown told an interviewer that while he had no reason to doubt that Barack Obama was born in the United States and when the interviewer mentioned that Obama's parents were married, he replied "Well, I don't know about that;" just as Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, replied to a question about Obama's Christian faith with "I'll take his word for it") — can legitimately take any form at all.

÷ ÷ ÷

Greil Marcus is the author of Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010, The Shape of Things to Come, Like a Rolling Stone, and The Old Weird America; a 20th anniversary edition of his book Lipstick Traces was published in 2009. Since 2000 he has taught at Princeton, Berkeley, Minnesota, and the New School in New York; his column Real Life Rock Top 10 appears regularly in the Believer. He lives in Berkeley.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Shape of Things to Come:... Used Trade Paper $5.95
  2. Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at... Used Trade Paper $8.00
  3. The Old, Weird America: The World of... Used Trade Paper $8.50
  4. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of... Used Trade Paper $17.50

Greil Marcus is the author of Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010

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