Commentary Magazine


Obama and the Angry Mob

Unlike candidate Barack Obama, President Barack Obama has been unable to use mob anger to his advantage. The White House position on a comprehensive release of terrorist interrogation materials and on potential prosecution of Bush administration officials is incoherent and stultifying. Casting himself as restorer of national decency, Obama first denounced tough interrogations as a betrayal of American ideals. Yet he recommended “reflection, not retribution,” vowing to “move forward” and not prosecute interrogators because “nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.” However, days later, he decided that laying blame for the past is actually up to the discretion of the attorney general and it was therefore best the president not “pre-judge” the matter.

The salivating hordes pounced. But criminal proceedings risk tearing the country apart, vindicating those who were casually defamed, and even redounding poorly upon Obama intimates and other Democrats. A more thorough airing of details around CIA interrogations has revealed that controversial methods were both effective and widely encouraged by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The Obama administration suddenly became less keen on exposing gory details. On Wednesday, Hillary Clinton called Dick Cheney a liar on the topic yet denied him the means to defend himself through the full release of documentation. On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs implied that Obama was against Bush administration prosecutions after all. “The president determined the concept didn’t seem altogether workable in this case,” Gibbs said. Also on Thursday, Obama advised congressional leaders not to pursue Bush officials through truth commissions.

The administration spent the week stuck somewhere between the president’s original admonition that we “come together on behalf of our common future” and feeding the Bushies to the lions.

The interrogations affair is not the first time President Obama has proved unable to make the livid multitudes work for him. His attempt to lead the have-nots in the AIG-bonus class war delivered populist rage right to the White House doorstep when it was discovered that his administration was responsible for the $160 million loophole that allowed for executive bonuses. Another instance of anti-Bush policy gone wrong may be developing in regard to the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. On Thursday, an anonymous administration official told the New York Times, “We’re at a complete impasse,” on how to relocate prisoners, and added, “I don’t know that there’s a viable ‘Plan B.’”

But the real problem was the viability of Plan A. Or the viability of all the Plan A’s that attempted to turn reckless mob passion into constructive policy. It’s not that Obama can’t charm a crowd. During the presidential election he courted millions with eerie success. But consummating a national courtship on Election Day is different from elevating the will of the mob into a sustained course of action. Obama can feed the mob red meat, but he can’t train it to suspend its fervor for the sake of practicality. He can fan the flames of populism or Bush hatred, but he can’t adjust the heat to his own governing needs. When the pitchforks are raised, Obama walks back his call for action.

Obama cannot capitalize on public hysteria because there is no orderly way to capitalize on public hysteria. It won’t behave; it won’t accept limits. There is no wisdom to the mob. You can’t satisfy it with a gesture and a follow-up call for reflection. You can’t make what the psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich called “the mass psychology of fascism” work for you surgically or as the collective conscience of democracy. Crowds want blood, not memos. They want executives ruined, not protected. They want prisoners liberated, not shuffled around. Barack Obama is finding out that mobs can’t be organized as if they were communities.

There is one way to make the mob work for you, and that is to share its appetites and goals. Leaders with the pathological capacity to shepherd the mob simply deliver the bodies. That’s the story of demagogic regimes throughout history. The Communists purged; the Nazis exterminated. The strength of today’s theocrats is derived from their promise to eradicate Israel. The mass psychology of fascism can only be used to achieve the political reality of fascism.

In America, we don’t deliver the bodies. Administrations don’t feed their predecessors to the public. The danger in playing on mob sentiment is great. While Obama doesn’t want, in the end, what the mob wants, he wants to convince them that he does. He whets their appetites and raises their destructive hopes.

Last October, Fouad Ajami noted in the Wall Street Journal: “the tragedy of Arab political culture has been the unending expectation of the crowd — the street, we call it — in the redeemer who will put an end to the decline, who will restore faded splendor and greatness.” The brilliance of American political culture has been our unstinting faith in the empowerment of individual citizens. To flirt with an America that seeks redemption from a leader of crowds is to risk bringing the whole glorious experiment to an end.  

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