Watching President Obama’s acceptance speech in the early hours of that November morning, one had the feeling that history, for one of those seldom moments in life, was tangible, material… almost touchable.
It could have been the lateness of the hour or the cheap wine, but I was sure this was a demarcation point in American history – just as significant as the Gettysburg address or the falling of the Berlin Wall.
Its true impact is the remit of historians yet to come, though even the most dismissive of their discipline will surely note the general and widespread welcome that accompanied Obama’s victory. When else has the world rallied so universally around the story of one man?
However, lost behind the placards and crowds, overlooked by a media carouselled by the public mood were those who felt not so much the comforting hand of history, but a sharp jab to the stomach.
Racists from the wrong end of the Republic were dismayed. Those of equally bigoted bent around the globe no doubt felt the same. Yet a more subtle form of racism has since emanated from a hard-right fringe of political commentators for whom Obama’s election sticks in the craw.
We all winced at those moments during John McCain’s campaign when Republican housewives offered the microphone would use the moment to question Obama’s heritage.
“He’s a Muslim and an Arab,” was an oft repeated charge from the flag-waving throng.
These allegations have wandered even further down an intellectual cul-de-sac in recent months with a small group of conservatives actively seeking to delegitimise the election through increasingly wild claims about Obama’s birthplace.
Know as Birthers, the attackers are directly questioning Obama’s eligibility to be president by suggesting the Hawaiian-born Democrat was, in fact, born in Kenya, despite firm evidence to the contrary, including Obama’s birth certificate, issued by the Republican-held state.
The White House press office has even taken the step of placing the certificate online, making it freely available to download. However, the Birthers maintain the certificate is a forgery, thus making his presidency illegal under Article II of the U.S. constitution.
These claims have been widely vilified in the American press, yet the whispering campaign continues, some going as far as to suggest Obama is a plant, a Muslim agent, the centrepiece of an international conspiracy to take over the USA. Would the far right go down this road if Obama were anything but black? If Arnie, a non US-born white Republican, was to suggest a change in the constitution allowing him to run for the top job, it would be interesting to see what, if any, outcry would follow.
Unfortunately the Birthers – a collection of activists and conspiracy kooks – have received encouragement from some quarters with popular commentators, including radio host Rush Limbaugh and CNN’s Lou Dobbs, adding credence to their claims.
Recent weeks have seen plenty of disenchantment with the current administration, with conservatives rallying around town hall meetings to protest at healthcare reform. Is it Obama who is the source of their angst or his reforms? For the majority, it is probably the latter. Having been preached to about the evils of socialism since the end of the Second World War, is it any surprise that your average American is voicing concern over Obama’s proposed healthcare plans?
The Birthers have clearly benefited from a credulous population, many of whom will turn automatically to a conspiracy theory, comforted by the feeling that at least they know “the truth”. You hardly need to trawl the internet to find thousands of sites dedicated to ill-considered theories surrounding 9/11, the holocaust, the moon landings and now Obama’s birth.
During the election, many analysts felt uncomfortable predicting the outcome because of the Bradley Effect – a theory suggesting that some white voters wouldn’t vote for Obama simply because he is black. That Obama was elected suggests that the effect was minimal, though we’ll never truly know.
As such, the current town hall challenges facing the administration are more likely to be a result of the president’s progressive policies (warped by Republicans shouting “communism” at every opportunity) than the colour of his skin.
But the fact a conspiracy theory as bizarre as the Birthers’ can take root in the U.S. shows that, for all the optimism surrounding Obama’s win, America remains a society deeply troubled by race.