On a mid-September evening in northern Virginia, a group of true believers gathered in a spare meeting room at the Hyatt Arlington to celebrate the 221st anniversary of the signing of the US Constitution. This special event, sponsored by the political advocacy group the Conservative Caucus, drew some 40 or so people to gather at the feet of Caucus Chairman Howard Phillips, one of the grand architects of the religious right.
Among the presenters were Thomas DiLorenzo, who offered a repudiation of Alexander Hamilton, and M. Stanton Evans, who delivered a paean to the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy. The evening's highlight was the presentation of the Conservative Caucus' Andrew Jackson Champion of Liberty Award to Cliff Kincaid, the longtime purveyor of a theme that would be picked up by the McCain camp in the final weeks of the campaign—that of Obama as spawn of a socialist, even communist, milieu.
Far from the ad makers and messaging experts, the personal shoppers, makeup artists, and campaign planes, here was the ill-funded alternate universe of the earnestly paranoid, led by a man who, through sheer force of personality, helped inspire a viral effort to plant doubts about the Democratic presidential nominee.
As the 2008 presidential campaign draws to a close, much of the swirl of insinuations about Obama traces back to Phillips and the ideology he represents, an admixture of ferocious anti-communism, vehement anti-feminism, and politicized Christian chauvinism. As a key player in a string of right-wing organizations, Phillips sits at the nexus of an alliance of activists who, beginning in primary season, advanced a fear-based case against Democratic candidate Barack Obama that would be disseminated throughout right-wing media, and eventually make its way, in a softened form, into the rhetoric of John McCain and Sarah Palin. And that rhetoric, about whether Obama shares America's values, or has plans for the redistribution of wealth, has embarrassed the party's moderates, some to the point of repudiating McCain.
She may not know it, but Palin herself owes a career debt to the Phillips worldview. Her first campaign for mayor of Wasilla was reportedly pushed by Mark Chryson, then chairman of the Alaska affiliate of Phillips' Constitution Party, and his associate Steve Stoll, an activist for the anti-communist John Birch Society with whose president, John F. McManus, Phillips often collaborates.
Another of Phillips' close associates is Jerome Corsi, author of The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality, which portrays Obama as a closet socialist, and of course Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, cowritten with John E. O'Neill, which became a New York Times best-seller. Phillips is in frequent contact with Corsi, who, late last year, abandoned a bid for the Constitution Party's presidential nomination in order to devote himself to promoting another of his books, this one about immigration, The Late Great USA: The Coming Merger With Mexico and Canada.
Cliff Kincaid, whom Phillips called "a good friend," told the Conservative Caucus gathering that he supplied much of the research for Corsi's Obama book, as well as for David Freddoso's The Case Against Barack Obama. Kincaid leads America's Survival, Inc., and is a longtime writer and editor for Accuracy in Media, both right-wing media outfits funded by foundations controlled by right-wing financier Richard Mellon Scaife.
The story told by Phillips' followers is familiar by now: that Obama, who may not have been born in America, was mentored by socialists and communists, and pals around with domestic terrorists. As backlash to the Palin pick grew and McCain flubbed his handling of the financial crisis at that critical moment in September, the desperate candidate seemed only too happy to run with parts of the poison package handed him by Corsi and Kincaid.
Palin and McCain have built on the right's theme, calling Obama a socialist for advocating a more progressive tax system. Meanwhile, the idea that Obama is foreign born is advanced on blogs like The Corner at the National Review's website and Atlas Shrugs, as well as on Internet news sites such as WorldNetDaily and Newsmax. The foremost purveyor of the alleged Obama birth-certificate mystery is Corsi, who, Phillips said when he spoke to me on Monday, "is in Hawaii right now, doing his best to check out the natural-born-citizenship status of Barack Obama." (The nonpartisan group FactCheck.org has vouched for the validity of Obama's Hawaii birth certificate, which its researchers said they have seen and touched.)
But Phillips has his sights set on more than defeating Obama; he'd like to blow up the Republican Party as well. For more than a decade, Phillips has been hard at work building the infrastructure of the Constitution Party, which he believes could pick up the most socially right-leaning fragments of the GOP in the event of an intraparty split. If Barack Obama wins the presidency, Phillips believes, this could be that moment.
More than a decade ago, Phillips explained to me that he well understood that the US electoral system favors the two-party setup; the question, he said, is which two parties. He also predicted a financial crisis—which he then saw as imminent—that would "terminally undermine confidence in whomever controls the presidency when it hits and, to a lesser extent, in the other party, as well," he said. "The whole purpose" of his party's presidential bid, he said, "is to position for that crisis and to be able to pick up the pieces when it's over." And indeed, speculation today is rife over a potential crack-up of the Republican Party, especially after the