by Patrick Baker November 2, 2008
In the provinces we have been bewildered by the McCain campaign’s last desperate attempts to save itself from oblivion. Bewildered, and disquieted. Ever since the selection of Sarah Palin, we have watched with mounting unease as the McCain machine rummages ever deeper in the skeleton closet of America’s electoral past in search of the right whip to drive the electorate to irrational fear of the opponent. Sadly, they seem to believe that only a frenzied, frightened, and hateful populace can hand them victory.
First there was Bill Ayers. With dazzling sleight of hand, Palin linked Obama through Ayers to contemporary terrorism, thereby suggesting an unspoken connection to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida. This was really nothing new, considering the continuous but untraceable attempts to depict Obama as a Muslim, and the stress, even at official Palin rallies, on Obama’s middle name, Hussein. But this was different; this was proof, right? The willful association with Bill Ayers also had another aim: to conflate Obama, who has no connection to Sixties culture, with the extreme radicalism of that age. As such it was an attempt to fit this election into a worn-out mold, characterizing it as a choice between the respectable upholder of traditional order, and the irresponsible, often violent whims of ignorant youth.
Then there was socialism. When Bill Ayers’s viewer ratings dropped too low, McCain turned to the antiquated but tested tactic of red-baiting. Out of nowhere he transformed Obama’s keen observation about our progressive tax system – that its aim is indeed to spread the wealth around – into the slogan of a revivified Eugene V. Debs campaign. At the same time McCain aligned himself with a cartoon character known as Joe the Plumber. For the benefit of vapid voters these two have agreed to share the same fantasy universe of straight capitalism, in which Joe, as an unlicensed plumber in arrears, does actually make over two hundred and fifty thousand dollars annually, and where McCain, taking on the guise of yet another cartoon character, Grover Norquist, would never dream of taxing him at all. Anything else would be as un-American as sturdy bridges in the Midwest.
Now, with less than forty-eight hours until election day, the question is whether McCain will risk it all on a last roll of the tried-and-true dice of irrationalism and hate. Will he race-bait? In one sense he already has. His campaign’s praise of “small-town values” and average “Joes” acts at least in part as an understood blame for what are often called “urban problems” – “urban” of course being the current euphemism among politicians, journalists, educators, and sociologists for “black.” But will things get uglier? In the third week of October, McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, suggested that low numbers on the home stretch might necessitate highlighting Obama’s relationship to his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright – something McCain earlier pledged he would not do. If snippets of Wright’s incendiary sermon do make their way into prime-time attack adds, it will be for one purpose only: to terrify ignorant Americans with the image of an angry black man supposedly inciting his following of thousands to rend their teeth on the “real America.”
McCain has been an illustrated dictionary’s entry for desperation ever since the South Carolina primary of 2000. That was when he learned that mavericks were tolerated by the RNC only so long as they shot off their mouths, not their guns. His about-face on a host of issues sacred to the back room of the Republican machine – tax cuts for the super- wealthy, the status of evangelical religion, even the acceptability of torture – show where his desperation has driven him, and the lengths to which he will go for power. Will a man who has already sacrificed his honor, indeed his very self, in his bid for the presidency resist the temptation to trample on the vestiges of racial harmony in America? And should he win by using such a tactic, what will happen on the streets of our nation? As Americans get set to decide the fate of the whole world, it feels strangely comforting to watch it from the provinces.