"Get your goddamn finger out of the president's face."
That was my first thought upon seeing the photo of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) with President Obama at the Phoenix airport on Jan. 25. My second thought was that she was treating him like an errant servant: "Don't you sass me, boy!"
Despite the president's cool response as shown in the photo, Brewer later said that she "felt a little bit threatened" by Obama. Really? What did she think he would do? Joy-Ann Reid at theGrio wrote, ''Not surprisingly, for African-Americans, [Brewer's faux pas is] an unpleasant reminder of a stereotype that has dogged particularly black men for ages: that no matter how accomplished, or calm … they are, black men are 'intimidating.'''
The fact that Brewer chose to have this confrontation with the president in public suggests that her motive was not to discuss their differences but to play to her right-wing base. Sure enough, her book, Scorpions for Breakfast, whose accuracy Obama had dared to dispute with her, became a bestseller on Amazon.
The incident on the tarmac is but the latest in a series of public displays of disrespect for our nation's first African-American president. As Lauren Victoria Burke of Politic 365 catalogs in "The 10 Worst Moments of Disrespect Towards President Obama," previous examples include ''birtherism,'' Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) crying "You lie!" during Obama's address to Congress in September 2009, tea party signs, and Newt Gingrich in 2010 accusing Obama of having a "Kenyan, anti-colonial" worldview. On Jan. 13, Atlanta Jewish Times publisher Andrew Adler even suggested that Israeli Mossad agents resolve differences over Iran by assassinating Obama.
My friend Mark Thompson of Sirius/XM Radio said of Brewer's claim of feeling threatened, "That's the classic Fay Wray/King Kong syndrome — white woman, black threat." Mark is provocative, but is he wrong? He agreed that the finger-wagging suggested Brewer regarded Obama as an inferior who didn't know his place. A man named Glenn disputed this in a Facebook discussion, snidely referring to Obama as "the holy one" and writing, "I recall Bush getting no respect from the left during his two terms. So reap what you sow."
This oft-heard claim of equivalence between the two major parties is simply not true. The far left has never had the clout within the Democratic Party that the far right has within the GOP. Yes, some fools called President Bush a monkey; but after 9/11, a large bipartisan majority stood behind him. He proceeded to use the war as a pretext to divide the country to increase his power. Yes, former Rep. Cynthia McKinney (a Georgia Democrat at the time, now a member of the Green Party) accused Bush of complicity in 9/11; but the Democratic Party, which she left in 2007, considered her an embarrassment. Democrats raised questions about Republican vote-suppression tactics in 2000; but there was no relentless campaign portraying Bush as an alien and the Antichrist. Nor did Senate Democrats use the filibuster routinely. The level of obstruction and vilification is unprecedented, and is not concealed by the right's mocking pretense that liberals thought they were electing a messiah.
Republicans have been exploiting racial resentments since Richard Nixon launched his Southern Strategy; but the bigotry they stoke is not just toward racial minorities. The wounded sense of superiority and privilege embodied in the cry, "We want our country back," also targets immigrants, Muslims, LGBT people, and women. The caricatures, lies and vitriol are designed to halt Obama's liberal advances, such as the housing nondiscrimination rule announced by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan at Creating Change Jan. 28.
This year presents an opportunity for those who believe in the promise of equality to respond to its opponents in the unmistakable language of an electoral landslide. Let's get to work.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.