The story of the week has been the noxious fruit of the McCain campaign's recent "character attacks" on Barack Obama. As the Washington Post's Dana Milbank reported, lead by Sarah Palin's inflammatory cheerleading, McCain's campaign rallies have turned increasingly ugly and angry. Reporters and non-coolaid drinkers are being greeted at McCain rallies with cries racist epithets, homophobic jeers, and the ubiquitous charge that Obama is a "terrorist." This is all very alarming stuff and I wish it was just stuff I had seen on the intertubes, but an incident I witnessed this week reinforced the fact that the bile unleashed by McCain-Palin is not isolated to a few wackos at a campaign rally. It's widespread. It's deep. And it's scary.
Silly Season? Scary Season.
At lunch on Wednesday, the boyfriend and I overheard the proprietor chatting with a customer about the election. The proprietor is a big fan of both George W Bush and John McCain, but a nice enough fellow. A customer at the counter, a fellow picking up an order, happily confided that he was pretty sure McCain would win by very big numbers. A couple sitting in the booth over from the boyfriend and I joined the conversation to say they doubted it, considering how bad the economy was.
The guy at the counter objected, "You must be crazy. Nobody's gonna vote for Barack Hussein Obama. The guy's dangerous."
"Whatever you think of Obama," responded the man in the booth, "he can't be worse then the last eight years. I'm done with all of that."
The guy at the counter frowned and squinted. Then he extended his right pointer-finger and dramatically pushed it into the side of his neck below his left ear. As he slowly dragged it across his neck, he stared directly at the couple in the booth and said the following with considerable intensity: "Barack Obama wants to cut your throat. FROM EAR. TO. EAR."
Then, as almost an afterthought as he turned and headed for the door, he added, "And his wife too."
I was pretty stunned.
By now, the McCain campaign must realize it has unleashed something horrible. McCain tried to calm an angry rally in Minnesota with assurances that Obama, their disagreements aside, was a decent person. He was met with boos.
What should be clear to McCain is that his campaign is now being used as a vehicle for the vilest segments of American political culture. People who shout "terrorist!" are indifferent to McCain -- in fact many dislike him. They support him because they hate and fear Barack Obama and believe he is the only alternative. McCain has openly courted this segment by promoting the accusation that Obama "palled around with terrorists," but he did so thinking that they could be quietly mobilized. What he didn't expect, was that they would be so vicious, so appallingly racist, and so indifferent to how their bile would imperil his appeals to the moderate (read: not crazy) portion of the electorate.
Racism is nakedly emotional. As a political strategy, it is extremely difficult to control. Once unleashed, it may well bite its master or it may simply enslave him.
The likelihood is that this gambit will be disastrous for the McCain campaign (McCain's attempt to back-down suggest they believe it now is). But the more frightening possibility is that, despite McCain's sudden "change of heart", this strategy will succeed.
Moderate Republicans and anyone who doesn't believe Barack Obama is a terrorist should think hard. Even if they love John McCain, even if they prefer McCain's policies to Barack Obama's, they should consider what their party will look like in the wake of such an electoral strategy's success. It will not be moderate. It will be built on the mobilization of xenophobia and racism. John McCain's control over such a party will be tenuous. The monster enslaves its master.
The McCain campaign spent the summer attempting to deride Barack Obama as an effete, arugala-eating neophyte liberal. That was silly season. But wake up, folks. Silly season is over. It's scary season now.