Christopher Caldwell Loses It

Is Obama more like Nixon, Gorbachev, or Mao?

By Nathan Pippenger

New York magazine asked 53 historians—many of the country’s most distinguished among them—to weigh in on President Obama’s legacy. They also reached out, for a negative take on the last six years, to The Weekly Standard’s Christopher Caldwell. Caldwell, perhaps concerned that his views might not stand out alongside the opinions of over 50 prominent scholars, decided to pen an especially distinctive contribution to the symposium.

Caldwell’s piece is a revealing tour through the conservative mind: a reminder that millions of voters, and not a few elite journalists, are convinced that this Administration is drunk with power, contemptuous of the law, and guilty of extraordinary—maybe even unprecedented—corruption. The litany of Obama-era pseudoscandals attests to this unshakeable conviction: birtherism, Fast and Furious, Solyndra, the IRS, Benghazi. Each of these was promised to be “worse than Watergate,” but each outrage quietly faded away as investigations consistently failed to uncover the promised corruption.

Faded away, that is, except among a group of stubborn true believers that evidently includes Caldwell. He is appalled at Obamacare, the passage of which involved notorious “quid pro quos […] that passed into Capitol Hill lore.” Among these, Caldwell cites the so-called “Cornhusker Kickback,” which isn’t actually in the law. No matter. Now undeterred by reality, Caldwell goes on to condemn the President’s summoning of radical youth cadres to intimidate and kill enemies of the party ideology:

Gay marriage has meant Cultural Revolution-style bullying of dissenters (notoriously, Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty and the Mozilla founder Brendan Eich). You can call this normal politics, too, but the 1964 Civil Rights Act did not pass that way.

The Cultural Revolution, unleashed by Mao Zedong, lasted about a decade, unleashed an uncontrollable nightmare of harassment, humiliation, torture, and violence, and killed (on many estimates) at least a million people. Just before Phil Robertson was suspended from his cable TV show (a suspension which was later reversed), Obama said his family “seems like a pretty fun bunch.” Chilling stuff—I can see how that mobilized the party youth brigades. Improbable though it may sound, the above may not even be Caldwell’s most bizarre claim about LGBT politics. He also writes that “there is reason to believe” that Obama’s gay marriage legacy will not endure, since “thirty states have voted to ban gay marriage, and almost everywhere it survives by judicial diktat.”

In an essay full of strange assertions (I can’t even get to most of them), this might be the strangest. Incredibly, Caldwell issues his prediction without a single mention of clear trends in public opinion, and without acknowledging that even many social conservatives are ready to throw in the towel on marriage equality. Most people would look at their own lives, and at polling data, and conclude that attitudes have simply changed on gay marriage. But just a few sentences later, Caldwell proclaims gay marriage to be “a typical Obama achievement,”a “triumph of tactics, not consensus-building.” It’s hard to know what to make of a judgment so starkly at odds with the experience of most of the country over the last several years—except to say that consensus can apparently look pretty different, depending on the company you keep.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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