McCain feeds dark heart of conservatism
It built up over the course of last week, as supporters at the rallies of John McCain and Sarah Palin started randomly screaming “terrorist!” and “off with his head!” and “treason!” and even “kill him!” at the mention of Barack Obama’s name.
Then there was the man at a Florida rally who shouted at an African-American CNN cameraman: “Sit down, boy.” You don’t need to know your history of the American south to know that “boy”, directed at a black man, is overtly and undeniably racist.
But things got worse two weeks ago in Wisconsin, when a man stood up to “ask” a “question” and, veins popping in his neck, delivered himself of the following: “I’m mad. I’m really mad. And what’s gonna surprise ya is not the economy. It’s the socialists takin’ over our country. [Lengthy applause] Sit down. I’m not done. Let me finish, please [laughter] ... when you have Obama, [Nancy] Pelosi and the rest of the hooligans up there gonna run this country, we gotta have our head examined. It’s time that you two are representing us, and we are mad! So go get ‘em!” [Extended chanting: “USA! USA! USA!”]
Meanwhile, videos are circulating of McCain supporters expressing their views of Obama as they enter rallies. Is Obama a terrorist, they are asked? He’s “a one-man terror cell”. “He’s got the bloodlines. Just think about it, look at the name.” “Socialist swine.” In this election we are seeing, from (happily, at least for the time being) much of the country, a great deal of what is good and decent about the United States. But we are also seeing in smaller proportion what is chilling.
The people in those videos have no proof to back up their beliefs, because of course no such proof exists. They just feel it, and that’s enough. But that isn’t what’s most disturbing. There will always be such people in all societies. What’s most disturbing is that McCain and Palin are egging them on.
Not once in any of the above situations did McCain, a man who has subjected the rest of us to lectures about how important his integrity is, step in to say: “Now wait a second, folks.” To the Wisconsin man quoted above, McCain said: “Well, I think I got the message. And could I just say, the gentleman is right.”
McCain and Palin are doing even worse than that. The emotional core of their campaign now is Obama’s alleged close relationship with Bill Ayers, the former terrorist who, long before Obama came on the Chicago scene, was welcomed back into Chicago society and became an education professor. They are demanding that Obama confess the real nature of this relationship.
Now usually, when a candidate calls on his opponent to own up about something, there is a specific allegation on the table. A newspaper has published an investigation, say, and the opponent hasn’t yet confronted the charges therein, and the candidate demands that the opponent do so. Even if the candidate himself leaked all the material to the newspaper as a set-up so that the candidate could then, once the charges were “impartially” published, go out and demand the opponent come clean, well, that’s how the game is sometimes played.
But in this case there are no serious specific allegations. Only dark intimations of intense ideological kinship. “[Obama] has dismissed it by saying he was just a guy in the neighbourhood,” McCain said in an interview. “You know it’s much more than that. Let’s reveal all the details of that relationship and then the American people can make a judgement.”
McCain knows nothing specific here. He’s fishing, wishing and hinting. Obama and Ayers served on a board and a commission together. Average people may not know how boards and commissions work, but McCain knows very well that they typically meet a few times a year and that co-board membership implies nothing about deeper friendship. More broadly, McCain also has to know that the entire issue is pathetic. Obama is now one of the most examined men in the world.
No one has turned up actual evidence of radical beliefs. He’s pretty much a standard liberal with, if anything, a cautious bent that seeks to placate adversaries, a picture we have on the authority of his former conservative colleagues at the Harvard Law Review, who found him an accommodating consensus-builder.
This is standard guilt-by-association gruel that we expect to find on borderline-psychotic websites. But an alleged man of integrity ought to know better. And he does, I’m certain, understand the nature of the difference between asking a man to answer specific allegations and demanding that he disprove vague accusations (“it’s much more than that”), and he knows how doing the latter will reflect on him.
But he’s a desperate man, watching his decades-long dream slip away, no doubt infuriated that this neophyte who hasn’t suffered as he has is running circles around him. That’s a shame for him, but McCain’s mental state is not the thing to be worried about here. The thing to be worried about is the impact that his campaign—“a national disgrace,” wrote Joe Klein of Time magazine—is having on the nation.
He and Palin—“his Sancho Panza”, as George Will mockingly wrote in the Washington Post—are deliberately stoking rage that is based on lies that they know to be lies (well, that at least McCain knows to be lies). The normally reserved commentator David Gergen said: “There is this free floating sort of whipping around anger that could really lead to some violence. I think we’re not far from that.”
We are seeing the dark, Gothic heart of resentment conservatism. It’s going to be a disgusting three weeks.—