The Second Coming of Barack Obama

Sara Robinson

Having apparently decided that the hole isn’t nearly deep enough yet (which is to say: they haven’t struck oil, but they do seem have located a big fat gushing sewer main), the Republicans seem doggedly determined to keep digging.

This new ad from the McCain campaign offends on so many different levels that it’s hard to know where to begin.

It is, of course, a continuation of their “Sure, he’s popular — but is he ready to lead?” line of argument, which was kicked off with the incoherent Brittney/Paris ad equating Obama with a pair of vacuous blonde cherry tarts who share his status as an International Celebrity. (All that was missing from that one was the tag line, “Barack — call me!”) It’s fascinating that the corporate elites are now willing to admit, this openly and publicly, that a candidate shouldn’t become president simply because a majority of the voters like him. Two stolen elections have already proved this in practice, of course; but now they’re baldly asserting it as a matter of accepted fact.

This new ad is aimed at undercutting Obama’s biggest political asset — his ability to speak in prophetic language that moves people to re-connect with their values and imagine a new kind of future based upon them. I’ve written before about the essential role this kind of visionary language plays in creating the cultural conditions that can open the way to transformational change. All of our greatest presidents have sung to us in similar chords and tropes when they needed to lead the country through our times of greatest danger. They apprehended that the first job of a crisis-era leader is to unify the nation by reminding us of our strengths, calming our fears, and keeping us focused on our common destiny.

The conservatives understand this power all too well: they entrusted this same role of articulating morals and visions to the religious right (with the express goal of destroying rather than fostering national unity) at the start of their own revolution in the 1970s. This ad reveals their undiluted terror in the face of Obama’s undeniable rhetorical strengths, and tries to downplay them in the hope that appealing to our cynicism will help McCain. On one level, it’s a frank admission that McCain is incapable of speaking to Americans in this language. To my mind, that also makes it an admission that he simply doesn’t have one of the most critical skills a leader will need to have to deal with the serious pile of problems confronting us.

On another level, this ad is a heavy-handed attempt to get secular Americans to dismiss Obama’s oratorical style as the ravings of an egomaniacal cult leader. The Cult of Obama meme has been floating around for months already. But with this ad, they’re making a blatant accusation that he’s a dangerous demagogue who’s poisoning the minds of our innocent children.

On a third level, this ad is a dog whistle blaring at air-raid volume to the religious right — a group that’s still not particularly thrilled with McCain. His campaign has apparently decided that since the Ancient Warrior is decidedly unlikely to win this critical faction over with the sheer force of his charismatic personality or his undeniable moral righteousness, they’re going to have to resort to the conservative movement’s Perpetual Plan B: Scare the devil out of them.

So what fundamentalists see when they watch this ad is a clear accusation that Obama is their long-awaited Antichrist. They’ve spent generations anxiously searching the signs and portents, waiting for a popular global leader preaching hope and progress who will turn out to be a totalitarian minion delivering the earth into Satan’s hands at last. This ad is an overt appeal to their deepest dread — another angle of attack that’s a Revelation-tinged echo of the Manchurian Candidate conspiracy theory appeals we’ve started seeing elsewhere in recent weeks.

Paranoia and conspiracy theories have always been a stock in trade of the darkest reaches of the extremist right. Dave Neiwert has long tracked the way these ideas — once considered completely whackadoodle by the vast majority of sane conservatives — have gradually and systematically worked their way down the conservative media’s “transmission belt” into the mainstream of Republican discourse.

You know that process has reached its Orwellian conclusion when “Our Opponent Is The Antichrist” is being offered up as a serious attack in a national campaign ad. We’ve known for years that the right wing is so far out of touch with reality that it probably shouldn’t be trusted with credit cards or car keys, let alone the keys to the White House. With this ad — suggesting that good oratorical skills are a weakness, hinting that popularity shouldn’t be the basis for choosing leaders, and threatening that Americans shouldn’t vote for the more competent candidate because the Big Bad He-God In The Sky will bring on the Rapture if we do — they’ve finally forfeited their last claim to sanity.

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