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Reap the whirlwind?

October 7, 2008, 3:46 pm

I can’t quite figure out if John McCain and Sarah Palin are inviting their supporters to engage in racial violence or if that’s just the likely outcome of their latest efforts to whip up white resentment and votes. In the end, I’m not sure it matters.

To recap, in case you haven’t been paying attention, the McCain camp recently bragged that it would be going negative for the remainder of the campaign. Which begs an important question: as opposed to what? The high-minded rhetoric we’d been seeing from Sen. McCain over the previous months? Regardless, with the economy melting down, and Sen. McCain having admitted that he doesn’t know very much about such issues, his campaign has pivoted to an all-culture-wars-all-the-time strategy. Or are these tactics? It can be hard to keep track sometimes.

At one rally, Sen. McCain looked on, after having just cast Sen. Obama as a suspicious and untrustworthy character, perhaps even a threat to the Republic, while a member of the fired-up crowd shouted that Sen. Obama is a “terrorist.” In another case, this time at a rally where Gov. Palin assailed the press for revealing her ignorance on matters ranging from the Constitution to basic political literacy, a thug told an African-American member of the media to, “sit down boy.” But of course “boy”, like “uppity”, is just a term of endearment in Dixie, so that’s just folks being folks. But then, just this morning, at another Palin event, Alaska’s governor stood by as one of her admirers claimed that Sen. Obama is guilty of “treason.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t treason a capital offense? And if that’s the case, why is Gov. Palin not demurring when her partisans suggest that Sen. Obama has committed such a crime, that he might thus deserve to be put to death? And is Sen. McCain similarly complicit when he does nothing as his adherents label Sen. Obama a terrorist? Honestly, when it comes to apportioning responsibility for such behavior, I’m not sure what to think. Surely the McCain camp isn’t guilty of fomenting racial violence. But just as surely, Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are guilty of demagoguery, of stoking the basest instincts of the crowd. This must be cast as desperate and reckless behavior, behavior that might result in acts of violence.

Which brings to mind The Politics of Rage, Dan Carter’s study of George Wallace, a great book I fear may be forgotten amidst all the admiration for Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland (just keep hitting refresh; we’ll have a review up any minute now). Carter’s book explores how Gov. Wallace, with the perquisites of de jure segregation in doubt, used white working-class anger to fuel his political career. White voters were drawn to Gov. Wallace’s claim that he would hold back the tides of change, insuring that the races would remain separate now, tomorrow, forever.

Once again, enduring racial hierarchies appear in danger of crumbling; a black man with a funny name is now the odds-on favorite to win the presidency. And John McCain seems to be fashioning himself, albeit more subtly than Gov. Wallance did, as a champion of white supremacy. In other words, the politics of rage is precisely what the McCain camp is serving up, fresh off the griddle and in heaping portions. Sen. Obama is mysterious = he isn’t knowable, isn’t like us. Sen. Obama came from nowhere = he doesn’t know his place, isn’t properly deferential to whites in positions of authority. Sen. Obama associates with terrorists, is an extremist, and doesn’t place country over personal ambition = he’s a seekrit mooslim, a close personal friend of zombie Malcolm X (the bad one, not the mellower, multicultural X from after the Haj), and quite possibly a wholly owned subsidiary of Al Qaeda.

Why is Sen. McCain doing this? There are many answers to that question: the economic crisis and Wall Street bailout have fostered a cultural climate in which populist appeals resonate even more than usual; Gov. Palin embodies the kind of false populism upon which the politics of rage necessarily rests; and Sen. McCain himself is very angry that a younger black man might best him for the office that he, Sen. McCain, has coveted his entire adult life. More than any of that, though, the politics of rage works for the Republican Party. It has since the era of President Nixon and Gov. Wallace. If working-class white people were to stop voting against their class interests, this would fast become a one-party nation. And so Sen. McCain taps into deep wells of hatred, the lifeblood of modern Republicanism.

But as Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us, this hate has both a history and consequences:

Somewhere, slumbering in this country, there are men who aren’t clued in that this whole ‘terrorist’ thing is mere strategy. They have guns, and all their lives they’ve wanted to be famous. Don’t give them a reason. This is still America. We are never that far from the past.

One wonders if Sen. McCain, as megalomanical a politician as we have seen in many years, understands the forces he has unleashed. Indeed, the politics of rage consumed Gov. Wallace and not his enemies; his career effectively ended when an assassin’s bullet lodged in his spine, paralyzing him during the 1972 campaign. One hopes that this grim chapter in our history will not repeat itself, that the anger bubbling just beneath the surface of our politics will not claim another victim.

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