Waiting for the Barbarians
In case you haven't heard, there's a guy running for president named Barack Hussein Osama Nobama. This Nobama was born outside America and secretly schooled in Islamic terrorism at a Wahhabi madrassa. He then moved to the United States to take up the radical '60s teachings of the Weather Underground's Bill Ayers, while also organizing for ACORN, a subprime-lending, voter fraud-committing collective of affirmative-action welfare queens. All this happened before he became an elitist celebrity advocate of socialism, infanticide, the sexual abuse of children and treason.
Suffice it to say, this caricature stretches even the limits of comic imagination. The real Obama's Christianity, his patriotism, moderation and commitment to capitalism, law and order, and national security are matters of abundant public record--some of which displeases the left wing of his party. But this is of little import to the Republican rank and file. For them, the fallaciousness of the whole counts for less than the suggestive appeal of the parts. All John McCain, Sarah Palin and their surrogates need to do is raise the insidious question--"Who is the real Barack Obama?"--and the zealots conjure the rest, along with cries of "Treason!" "Kill him!" and "Off with his head!" The virulence of such rhetoric makes even Palin seem thoughtful; she at least inserts whole verb phrases like "palling around with" in between nouns like "Barack Obama" and "terrorists."
Such scenes are alarming not only because of the McCain campaign's willingness to stoke such murderous mania but also because of its apparent inability to control the madness once it has been unleashed. At more than one rally, McCain has been booed by the audience for attempting to interrupt panicked rants about the impending socialist or terrorist takeover of America. The crowd's immediate anger is directed not at Obama and the Democrats but at their own party's standard-bearers, who should be "representing us" but have so far refused to "take the gloves off" and "take it to Obama" and "hit him" in "a soft spot." If the GOP leaders don't give these folks what they want, they had best watch their own soft spots, for there is no shortage of backbenchers ready to seize the helm. Take Jeffrey Frederick, the 33-year-old chair of the Virginia Republican Party, who said that Obama and Osama bin Laden "both have friends that bombed the Pentagon." Denounced by the McCain campaign, Frederick has defiantly refused to apologize for his remark.
Perhaps he knows which way the wind blows: the Republican Party's electoral strategy of sowing resentment and fear--sprung from Nixon and nurtured by admen like Lee Atwater, Floyd Brown and the Swiftboaters--has finally taken on a life of its own. It thrives as a postmodern pastiche of conservative hate speech that no longer requires a master--a Frankenstein monster freed from his creator. What holds this beast together is not the fear and loathing of any particular despised identity so much as the idea that America is under siege, disordered, on the cusp of imminent and total collapse, threatened by terrorists abroad and undermined by enemies at home.
Of course, certain pariahs are useful in certain times. In the old lexicon it was Communists, feminists and gays who peopled the right wing's paranoid imagination, and if the sheer breadth of the slander by association against Obama is any indication, these bugaboos are still of value. But this time around the terror has been most sharply drawn along the lines of xenophobia and racism, a potent combination of hostile drives of which trolls like Andy Martin, the anti-Semite behind the "Obama is a Muslim" e-mails, are but minor instigators. The real enablers are demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin and Glenn Beck, who have made careers out of inciting frenzied aggression at anyone to the left of Joe McCarthy. Only now it seems that even these right-wing pundits have been outdone by their formerly loyal listeners. Coulter, whose contempt for Muslims ("invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity") is surpassed only by her scorn for liberals ("even Islamic terrorists don't hate America like liberals do"), has yet to call for the assassination of Barack Obama. But if she genuinely believes that liberals are more dangerous than Islamic terrorists, she should follow the courage of her convictions and do so.
To pre-empt such embarrassing displays of weakness, softer propagandists like Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens--who once brayed on and on about the left's "hatred of the United States" and its role as a "fifth column" "in favor of surrender and defeat"--have declared their support for Obama. But as Hitchens's recent endorsement in Slate amply demonstrates, he is not quite ready to give up the poisoned sword. Obama, he writes, is not a "capitulationist," even if he does "accept the support of the surrender faction."
If the polls are any indication, Obama will endure this smear campaign just fine, with or without the backhanded compliments of apologetic neocons. And if his election is not quite the ringing victory for civil rights and liberties, diplomacy and cosmopolitanism that we might like, it will at least beat back for a while the idea that defaming these values as traitorous constitutes sound electoral strategy. If Obama wins, and the barbarians do not show up to rattle the gates, what will the conservatives do next? For them, the barbarians were a solution, of sorts.
Copyright © 2008 The Nation