Going Nuts

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 7:10 PM EDT

Over at the Daily Standard, Andrew Ferguson says that Dinesh D'Souza — who thinks Barack Obama harbors a neocolonial rage toward all things Western — is either a hysteric or a cynic. Or maybe both. In any case, Ferguson has seen it before:

Throughout the nineties I heard mainstream Republicans describe the president as a shameless womanizer and a closeted homosexual, a cokehead and a drunk, a wife beater and a wimp, a hick and a Machiavel, a committed pacifist and a reckless militarist who launched unnecessary airstrikes in faraway lands to distract the public’s attention from all of the above.

At gatherings of conservative activists the president was referred to, seriously, as a “Manchurian candidate.” Capitol Hill staffers speculated darkly about the “missing five days” on a trip Clinton had taken to Moscow as a graduate student. Respectable conservatives in the media—William Safire, Robert Novak, Rush Limbaugh—encouraged the suspicion that Clinton’s White House attorney, a manic depressive named Vincent Foster, did not commit suicide, as all available evidence suggested, but had been murdered by parties unknown, to hush up an unspeakable secret from the president’s past.

So what happened? How did the left-wing, coke-snorting Manchurian candidate become the fondly remembered Democrat-you-could-do-business-with — “good old Bill,” in Sean Hannity’s phrase?

Barack Obama is what happened. The partisan mind — left-wing or right-wing, Republican or Democrat — is incapable of maintaining more than one oversized object of irrational contempt at a time. When Obama took his place in the Republican imagination, his titanic awfulness crowded out the horrors of Bad Old Bill; Clinton’s five days in Moscow were replaced by Obama’s three years in that mysterious Indonesian “madrassa.”

It's true: having a Democrat in the White House does this to conservatives. But here's a question: are liberals any different? Was Bush hatred any different from Clinton hatred or Obama hatred?

It's a serious question. A few years ago there were liberals who were convinced that Bush would declare martial law before the 2008 election and stay in the White House forever. There were liberals who thought Bush knew about 9/11 beforehand and allowed it to happen. There were liberals convinced of a gigantic conservative conspiracy to rig the voting machines in Ohio to steal the 2004 election. I sat across the table one day from a friend of my mother's, a lefty but a mild-mannered one, who was genuinely afraid that Bush was turning America into a fascist state. Another friend called during the 2008 campaign convinced that Sarah Palin had faked Trig's birth.

In other words, there are bizarro ideas on both sides of the fence. No argument there. And yet, there are differences. Here's my list: (1) Conservatives go nuts faster. It took a couple of years for anti-Bush sentiment to really get up to speed. Both Clinton and Obama got the full treatment within weeks of taking office. (2) Conservatives go nuts in greater numbers. Two-thirds of Republicans think Obama is a socialist and upwards of half aren't sure he was born in America. Nobody ever bothered polling Democrats on whether they thought Bush was a fascist or a raging alcoholic, but I think it's safe to say the numbers would have been way, way less than half. (3) Conservatives go nuts at higher levels. There are lots of big-time conservatives — members of Congress, radio and TV talkers, think tankers — who are every bit as hard edged as the most hard edged tea partier. But how many big-time Democrats thought Bush had stolen Ohio? Or that banks should have been nationalized following the financial collapse? (4) Conservatives go nuts in the media. During the Clinton era, it was talk radio and Drudge and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. These days it's Fox News (and talk radio and Drudge and the Wall Street Journal editorial page). Liberals just don't have anything even close. Our nutballs are mostly relegated to C-list blogs and a few low-wattage radio stations. Keith Olbermann is about as outrageous as liberals get in the big-time media, and he's a shrinking violet compared to guys like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

None of this is very satisfactory, though. I think it's correct — though I'd hardly expect conservatives to agree — but it's incomplete. There's something different about left-wing and right-wing craziness that goes beyond just the ideological differences. I've never been able to really put my finger on it, though. Maybe someday.