This week has epitomized the bizarro world American politics has become. It’s a week during which the media and politicians have been enraptured by a debate over whether or not a Muslim could become president.
Never mind that no Muslim candidates are running. Never mind that this is, legally speaking, a settled question, as our constitution forbids religious tests for office. Never mind that the guy who claimed otherwise, Dr. Ben Carson, is a vanity candidate with no real chance of winning office. Never mind that his attempt to clarify his position involved invoking a hysterical right wing conspiracy theory about “sharia law” being imposed on the U.S., which is this century’s version of the old fluoride-is-mind-control John Bircher nuttery.
Nope, our entire national press has to be riveted to a hypothetical question for which there is already an answer.
Why? Well, Ted Cruz’s answer to a question about this new controversy hinted at what is really going on here. After affirming that he can read by noting that the constitution requires no religious test for office, Cruz said, “The broader question, and what I think Ben was trying to get at, is what are the consequences been in the last six and a half years of the Obama presidency?”
Say what? Carson said he didn’t think Muslims should be allowed into the office and then he backtracked saying that he just meant that members of that mythical cabal of sharia-law-in-America politicians should be barred. Obama is neither a Muslim nor part of a larger conspiracy to impose sharia law on the United States. So how, exactly, was Carson talking about him?
Obviously the answer is that both Carson and now Cruz are referencing the widespread belief amongst conservatives that Obama is secretly a Muslim but is concealing his true beliefs for nefarious reasons, possibly to impose sharia law on the nation. (Any day now.) The last public poll on this belief showed that 86 percent of Republicans are warm to it, with 54 percent believing that Obama is a Muslim and 32 percent saying they are unsure. Only 14 percent of Republicans correctly describe Obama’s religion as Christian.
In other words, the belief that Obama is a Muslim is an entrenched “fact” on the right, much like the belief that global warming is a hoax or Planned Parenthood is a for-profit company that makes its money selling fetal parts. Carson and Cruz aren’t really talking about a hypothetical Muslim president in some future world. This is all a coded way to talk about Obama.
In that light, the discussion makes more sense. When Carson says that “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation,” he’s aligning himself with right wing forces that don’t accept the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency, even going so far as to float conspiracy theories that Obama faked his birth certificate to conceal his Kenyan origins.
When Cruz replies by saying, “there shall be no religious test for holding public office” but “what are the consequences been in the last six and a half years of the Obama presidency?” he’s rejecting the birther part of the conspiracy theory, but still arguing that Obama is launching “an assault on Christians.”
No one is going to come right out and accuse Obama of being a foreign invader—or maybe just a secret Muslim—who comes to ruin Mom and apple pie, because they want to be taken seriously by the mainstream media. So they just talk in coded language that their conspiracy theorist supporters understand but which coats their discourse in plausible deniability. If confronted, they can just say they aren’t talking about a specific person who happens to be a Muslim in the White House who is out to destroy us all through nefarious means. Just a hypothetical one, wink wink.
There are a couple of major benefits to this game, beyond just being able to demonize political opponents without being called out by the media for lying. For one thing, it reinforces the conservative narrative that they’re victims of a liberal elite suppressing their great truths through the almighty power of political correctness. After all, they have to talk in coded language like they’re all in some spy network! Clearly, they are being oppressed and censored by people who can’t handle the truth.
This sort of thing also happens to send liberals spinning, since there’s no good way to respond. If you point out that this is just a new way to propagate the lie that Obama is a secret Muslim, you fear giving credence to the idea that there’s anything wrong with being a Muslim in the first place. But if you start by arguing that the anti-Muslim-in-office position is bigoted and unconstitutional, you fear reinforcing the idea that Obama is, indeed, a secret Muslim. After all, why are we debating this thing if it’s not an imminent issue in the real world?
The whole thing, whether by design or accident, is a rhetorical trap to ensnare liberals. Do you fight the implicit lie or do you fight the anti-Muslim bigotry? In our soundbite-driven world, doing both at once is a near impossibility.
There may be a silver lining with conservatives increasingly relying on coded language and ever more complex rhetorical traps. Yes, the strategy helps conservatives communicate radical ideas to each other under a blanket of plausible deniability. Yes, they drive liberals up the wall while they do it. But they’re starting to sound like a bunch of jabbering idiots to people who aren’t already well-versed with the various conspiracy theories and coded beliefs. Pissing off the liberals is fun, but it might be at the expense of making sense to voters who don’t speak fluent Right Wingese.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.