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What About Jindal?

Though rarely explicit (and certainly not exclusive) a large portion of the GOP’s closing argument this cycle has been to stoke white, working class fear and suspicion of the Other. The dark-skinned man with the foreign-sounding name may be a Muslim, or a socialist, or a friend of terrorists, or a racial huckster, or a fake U.S. citizen, or some other vague kind of “radical.” You may never be sure which he is (maybe all of the above), but in your gut you simply don’t “know” him the way you know the other candidates. This is not, to put it mildly, a message likely to benefit Bobby Jindal. ~Chris Orr

I agree with Ross that this is completely wrong.  As with so many of the controversies of this year, the increasingly negative Republican reaction to Obama from the start of the year until now has been tied directly to the growing perception that Obama was insufficiently Americanist such that he has been regularly described as someone who does not believe in American exceptionalism.  The idea that he does not believe in American exceptionalism happens to be as false as it is widespread, as any brief survey of Obama’s public remarks would make clear.  (What Americanists on the right forget is that American exceptionalism survives because it is a widely shared, albeit misguided, idea that has adherents across the political spectrum.)  Even all of the rumors and chain e-mails that cast doubt on Obama’s background were aimed at denying or questioning his Americanness because there was a presumption that an antiwar left-liberal Democrat (a veritable neo-McGovernite in the fantasies of some Republicans) was not Americanist enough or at all and it is this supposed lack of Americanism that makes Republicans revile him as much as they do.  As a source of anti-Obama sentiment, this has always been more important than his left-leaning politics or any specific part of his domestic agenda.  To some extent, it is not possible to disentangle Obama’s heritage, his particular experience of liberal Protestantism and his politics, but for the most part what has troubled Republicans, or at least what Republicans have focused on, is mainly the anti-Americanism of his past associates.  Even in the last sputtering gasps of the McCain campaign, the socialist charge is one last attempt to link Obama to an ideology that has often been defined as a foreign import.   

Now let’s turn to Jindal.  The response to him on the right today and in the future would naturally be entirely different.  It is worth remembering that some members of the Louisiana Democratic Party made a lame attempt to use Jindal’s given name, Piyush, to make him seem foreign and unfamiliar to Louisiana voters.  This attempt failed, and it is unlikely that Jindal would face this kind of attack were he to run in presidential primaries in the future.  At first glance, you might think that Jindal’s conversion to Catholicism and Obama’s to Protestantism could conjure up similar concerns about previous beliefs and upbringing, but in case this needs to be spelled out Jindal is doubly immunized against the sort of absurd attacks that have been used against Obama: converting from Hinduism to Catholicism provides him with all of the advantages of being recognized as a fellow Christian and there are also no real lingering doubts about his previous religion.  Most Americans may know little about that religion, but they hardly ever associate it with violence and as far as they are concerned it poses absolutely no threat to them.  As the child of immigrants, Jindal might seem to be at a similar disadvantage as Obama, and perhaps even at more of a disadvantage because both of his parents are from India, but his is the conventional story of assimilation and success that most Republicans respond to quite favorably.  It is hard to remember now, but mainstream conservatives were at one time practically falling over themselves in their admiration of Obama’s personal story as a testament to America as the land of opportunity.  This was quickly replaced by fear and loathing once they were convinced that he was a patriot of an unrealized, ideal America rather than America “as it exists.”  There will be the same gushing enthusiasm for Jindal’s success story, but instead of this being replaced by the fear that Palin expressed when she said that Obama does not see America the same way she and her audience see America, Jindal will receive the added boost from the recognition that he does see America the same way Palin and her audience do.   

The different treatment seems somewhat arbitrary, and up to a point it is, but it turns in an important way on how Jindal’s reformism is viewed when compared to Obama’s rhetoric of change.  Jindal’s agenda is interpreted on the right as essentially the repair of existing institutions, because his Americanism is not doubted because he does not subscribe to (and most important he is not portrayed as subscribing to) anti-American views.  The assumption that Obama is insufficiently Americanist derives largely from those associations the GOP has flogged so futilely this year.  This kind of attack would have been deployed against any Democratic nominee, and this kind of attack would pretty much never be used against a fellow Republican unless a candidate were to go out on a limb and, say, oppose an ongoing war or in some other way fundamentally question the morality or wisdom of government policy overseas.  Jindal has not done and is not going to do that, so it is rather unlikely that he will have to contend with anything like the smears and falsehoods that have been used against Obama.  If he runs into a serious problem in the early caucuses and primaries, it is more likely to be the product of anti-Catholicism among some conservative Protestants that undermined Sam Brownback’s efforts to cultivate social conservative support this time around.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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