The Ebola-Obama Panic, from the Fever Swamps to the Bumper Sticker Factory

A conservative Obama/Ebola meme follows on months of panic that liberals would let the disease spread.

Ebola virus

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Truth Revolt, a conservative news site founded by wunderkind-turned-mogul Ben Shapiro, scored a viral hit yesterday. "Some Southland drivers," represented by three cars photographed by the California-based site, had slapped on bumper stickers reading EBOLA, the middle letter replaced by the iconic Obama campaign "O."

The photos have since circulated on conservative media; the original post was recycled in full at one of Alex Jones' websites. There's no real evidence that the stickers have spread beyond those three cars. Still, the ingredients have been there for a political Ebola moment – fueled by conservative outrage – for months.

It was way back in July that Representative Phil Gingrey of Georgia, a medical doctor who gave up his seat for an unsuccessful Senate bid, insisted that immigrants were streaming across the border "carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis." One month later, Representative Todd Rokita of Indiana told a radio host about the conversation he'd just had with a colleague who was also a doctor.

"He said, ‘Look, we need to know just from a public-health standpoint,’ with Ebola circulating and everything else — no, that’s my addition to it, not necessarily his — but he said we need to know the condition of these kids as well," recalled Rokita.

Then came the panic about the Islamic State. In the rest of August, and September, speculation about the nightmares crossing the Rio Grande focused on IS, and whether potential terrorists were leaving prayer rugs in the desert as hints of their intentions.

Over the last couple of weeks, Ebola took back its rightful role of chief panic-inducer. There have been fewer wild theories about the border, because there's been no need for them -- the airborne arrival of a Liberian citizen in Dallas, a man who passed away Wednesday, is being interpreted as yet another tribulation sign of the collapse of government. 

Well, yes, and as proof that the border is too porous. "Why should we be surprised?" asked Mike Huckabee about Ebola, rhetorically, on his Fox News show. "We've seen our borders routinely ignored. So if someone with Ebola really wants to come to the US, just get to Mexico, and walk right in." 

The press generally laughed off the border/Ebola hysteria this summer, largely because it was baseless. (What better way to shake off a deadly disease than a walk through the desert?) The new iteration of the panic fits into a more reasonable narrative. "It plays into this notion that things have sort of begun to spin out of control around the world," The Washington Post's Dan Balz suggested this week, "and that some of it may be coming home with this Ebola crisis."

Add to this the discomfort Democrats now feel in talking about Ebola. It was just one answer to one (not very hard) question, but Republicans are greatly cheered by Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor's befuddled assessment of how the Obama administration was responding to Ebola.

 

Why did that stump him? Republicans have simply prepared more answers to reporters asking about Ebola and voters worried about it. They can accuse the president of leaving the border open to plague-carriers; they can ask why the White House hasn't endorsed the idea of an Ebola czar (an idea backed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman); they can simply put the Obama "O" in the word Ebola.

They don't have the whole country on their side yet. A Pew poll released this week found that 58 percent of Americans were at least reasonably confident that the government could short-circuit an Ebola threat, and only 32 percent worried that they or someone they knew would be exposed to the virus. (As of right now a whopping 0.00025 percent may have been exposed to the Dallas patient.) But the electoral map is redder than the country at large, and what looked like kook-bait in the summer can become a popular bumper sticker in October.

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