Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Who you calling a millionaire?

In the 1930s, a candidate for governor of one of the Southern states produced a devastating charge against his opponent: he was a millionaire.

Nowadays we are routinely treated to the spectacle of multi-millionaire, right-wing conservatives denouncing their liberal opponents as members of the "elite." Obviously the popular definition of "elite" has changed.

One thing that has not changed is the sense of entitlement to power among the (economic) elite. This has always posed a psychological challenge in a democracy, where one is supposed to respect the will of the people; thus ever since Franklin Roosevelt's day, the common resort of the economically powerful to failure at the ballot box has been to portray their opponents' victory as somehow fundamentally illegitimate.

The attempts to portray President Obama as a secret Muslim, as foreign-born, as foreign-influenced, as a "socialist," as un-American; the sinister readings given his most innocuous moves — all might have been taken word for word (with the only possible exception being the substitution of "Muslim" for "Jew") from the flood of poisonous calumny, innuendo, and rumor that beset FDR throughout his presidency and indeed even after his death.

Of course, FDR was branded a "socialist," but that was nothing. "The rich," wrote William Manchester, "regarded the administration of Washington as though it were an alien government." FDR, according to stories that freely circulated in the better circles, had been infected with gonorrhea by Eleanor, who herself had got in from "a Negro." She was going to turn the country over to the Russians when he died. He was "nothing but a New York kike" anyway, whose family had changed their names; an elaborate genealogy proved he was descended from a Colonel van Rosenfeld.

Manchester catalogued the cliches repeated over and over: FDR was trying to destroy the American way of life; you can't spend your way out of a Depression; our children's children will be paying; half the people on relief are foreigners anyhow; the New Deal was under the "insidious influences" of "foreigners and transplanted Negroes."

In 1936 (in an article in Harper's titled "They Hate Roosevelt") Marquis Childs described the "fanatical hatred of the President which today obsesses thousands of men and women of the American upper class. No other word than hatred will do. It is a passion, a fury, that is wholly unreasoning. It permeates  . . . the whole upper stratum of American society. It has become with them an idée fixe."

Childs went on to say, with an optimism that we today would envy, that this irrational hatred of the President was "a phenomenon which social historians of the future will very likely record with perplexity if not astonishment."