Over the weekend, Attorney General Eric Holder told ABC News that the "level of vehemence" directed at him and President Barack Obama indicates that there is a "racial component" motivating their opponents. He explained, "You know, people talking about taking their country back. ... I don't think this is the thing that is a main driver, but for some there's a racial animus."
This isn't the first time that Holder, Democrats, and their allies have claimed that racism is behind some of the opposition to Obama. Actor/filmmaker Robert Redford, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and columnist Leonard Pitts have expressed the same position. The criticism of Obama is so unlike the criticism of other presidents, they argue, that some of it must stem from racism.
No doubt, Obama and Holder have been subject to a lot of name-calling and demonizing (for instance, Ted Nugent's despicable "subhuman mongrel" slur). But is it really worse than what others have faced?
Recall that President George W. Bush also faced a slew of verbal abuse. In a 2002 protest in Portland, Ore., Bush was identified with Adolf Hitler and accused of allowing the 9/11 attacks to happen.
And then there were the assassination threats. One poster at the protest showed the barrel of a gun against Bush's temple; another poster - "Bush: Wanted, Dead or Alive" - had the word "alive" crossed out. His presidency saw the production of the books Checkpoint: How to Assassinate George Bush and The Assassination of George W. Bush: A Love Story; the movies "Death of a President" and "American Dreamz"; and the play "President and Man": all dealt with the murder of Bush (or, at least, a president strikingly similar to him). Talk radio pundit Randi Rhodes even ran a segment on her show which called Bush an "ungrateful whelp" followed by the sound of gunshots.
Has there been anything like this level of public discussion - even as "entertainment" - of assassinating Obama?
And keep in mind that some of the invective against Obama has come from the left, not the right. Activist Ralph Nader and journalist John Pilger each labeled Obama an "Uncle Tom" even before he was inaugurated. Rev. Jesse Jackson was caught saying, "Barack's been talking down to black people ... I want to cut his nuts off." And, of course, there have been all sorts of racist name-calling aimed at black conservatives, such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
And, as to the "take back the country" rhetoric that Holder decries, that's standard political hyperbole. The liberal group Campaign for America's Future used to hold an annual "Take Back America" conference, hosting Democratic Party luminaries such as John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.
Speaking ahead of Obama at a Labor Day rally in 2011, Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa raged against the tea party, urging, "President Obama ... Let's take these son of bitches out and give America back to an America where we belong." Was that what Holder would call "vehemence"?
The "their invective is worse" accusation in usually rooted in selective attention. If you overlook all the nasty things your own side has said, then, yes, your opponents will look like a bunch of name-calling jerks by comparison.
In fact, Vice President Joe Biden employed just this sort of amnesia, recently, speaking to the National Governors Association. He said that the political climate wasn't so rancorous back when he was in the Senate: "It was never personal. It was never cast in the context of you're good or bad." But that's exactly what Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.) said about President Ronald Reagan in 1984: that he was "evil."
As I've said before, there's so much name-calling in our political arena, there's no easy way to count it all up and come to a solid conclusion about who does more of it or whose invective is worse. So there's no reason to think that Holder is right and that racism is driving the animus toward Obama.
The sad fact is that American politics is full of appalling rhetoric, even when racism is nowhere to be found.
Alasdair Denvil graduated Virginia Commonwealth University with a B.A. in Philosophy, and attended NYU's graduate program. He has written for Facts on File and PolicyMic. Follow him on Twitter at @AlasdairDenvil.