Boris Johnson, the weird-haired and meaningless Mayor of London with a certain oddball Tory charm (he did have the best description of the 2012 Olympics: As I write these words there are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade immortalised by Canaletto. They are glistening like wet otters and the water is plashing off the brims of the spectators’ sou’westers. The whole thing is magnificent and bonkers.), helpfully revived one of the dumbest single controversies of the whole Obama Administration: the Bust of Churchill. To recap, George W. Bush, for whom Churchill ranked as the finest British leader (though if he could name any beyond Thatcher and Blair, I’d be stunned), was gifted a bust of Winston Churchill early in his Presidency, and he kept it on his desk for inspiration. Obama gave it back, or moved it, or something: the point was, he didn’t keep it on his desk. We finally got to the bottom of it this week.
What’s nice is that it reminded us of how ludicrous the opposition to Obama has been, and how ungrounded in reality the bulk of it is. In retrospect, it set the template for all the idiocy regarding his Presidency.
Let’s upack why this was such foreshadowing nonsense. We can start with a quote by Ted Cruz, because it kind of sums everything up.
“One of the very first acts President Obama did upon being elected was sending Churchill’s bust back to the UK, and I think that foreshadowed everything that was to come the next six years.”
–Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), remarks at Iowa Freedom Summit, Jan. 24, 2015
This is peak Obama panic, and shows the lengths that they go to to contort everything the President does into some dark conspiracy regarding his anti-Americanism and insidious Alinskyism.
It shows that he is more connected to his Kenyan roots than his American ones, and is therefore working against America.. Johnson floppily brought this up in his op-ed, positing that because Winston was an ardent defender of the British Empire, Obama would be against him, since Kenya fought the British. This has been a long-standing “charge” against Obama: that his Kenyan roots make him that the colonialist west, and therefore America. Mike Huckabee once made this very clear in what might be the most remarkable statement in the history of American politics:
…I guess that’s part of it because it’s clearly spelled out and I’m quoting a British newspaper who really were expressing the outrage of the Brits over that bust being returned and the point was that they felt like that due to Obama’s father and grandfather it could be that his version and view of the Mau Mau Revolution was very different than most of the people who perhaps would grow up in the United States…
I think one could argue that even having a view of the Mau Mau Revolution would set Obama apart from most of the people in the United States. But this was part of a D’Souza-inspired frenzy on the right about how, because Obama believed America and the west were capable of doing bad things, he was, by definition, anti-American. But it is a really weird version of history, if you think about it. The implication is that Obama- and all Americans- should be against the side that is trying to overthrow the British Empire and rid the English army from their land. That is to say, being pro-independence is to be, essentially, anti-American.
It’s a blisteringly insane proposition, and it gets to the heart of why they hate Obama so much. He has disproven the Reagan-ite mythology that has dominated the right for decades, the idea that is America does something, it can’t be wrong. Obama has shown that to question that, and to act differently, isn’t un-patriotic. Returning the bust of Churchill is, in their weird minds, a rejection of a white-dominated moral superiority, that what we (and Britain, most of the time) do is good and virtuous simply because we do it. They can hold in their heads the contradictory truths that the Founding Fathers were impeccably good for overthrowing the British yoke but that Kenyans were just disruptive militants. By questioning that, Obama questions the very basis of their moral reckoning. That’s why they have to paint his as unpatriotic and anti-American, because a different definition of patriotism terrified them.
That’s how we get to the backwards conclusion that not having a bust of a foreign leader is anti-American. Just think about that, and it’s easy to see why the whole project is crazy.
But that doesn’t matter. It has, like so many other things– Keystone XL, Benghazi– become removed from what it actually is or was, and has become a totemic item of dark magic on the right. It’s a tribal incantation, a signifier. It’s why Cruz could make an offhand remark about Oval Office decor and his audience would understand what he meant.
Obama has been far from a perfect President (who has been?), and has, in reality, erred far more on the side of an aggressive, “exceptional nation” foreign policy than he has the other way, as radical as his FP has been. But that doesn’t matter. He governs as if America is a nation who is bound by rules, both moral and those of stark reality. He doesn’t act as if it is wise of good or decent to demand the fealty of the world, and knows that it is unrealistic to impose ourselves and not expect to collapse from overstretch and blowback. It’s a slow unwinding, but even these scant concession to empirical historic truth is terrifying to those on the right whose epistemological beliefs demand American perfection. It’s a matter of faith, and faith is nothing without the corresponding symbology. The Bust of Winston Churchill, and the bizarre reaction to it, demonstrated early on that Obama’s true radicalism was daring to live in the real world.