Republican rallies: the myth of a crazed mob
The liberal media’s depiction of McCain supporters as a Weimar-like gang of rednecks shows their own fear of the white working class.
Republican John McCain’s campaign made clear at the start of last week that it would raise questions about Democrat Barack Obama’s character. Trailing in the polls and unable to make up ground on the issue of the economy, McCain was looking for a way to turn the contest around – and ‘going negative’ on Obama was his answer.
His vice-presidential running mate, Sarah Palin, kicked off the new message in a speech in which she criticised Obama for ‘palling around with terrorists’ – that is, Bill Ayres, one-time member of the Vietnam-era Weather Underground. McCain made similar criticisms at a rally on Monday, but didn’t touch the topic when he was face-to-face with Obama during the primetime debate on Tuesday, and then resumed the character attacks the next day.
But the McCain-Palin approach didn’t work. The week’s discussions were not really about Obama’s ties to Ayres or any other questionable associations or views he might have. Instead, all of the talk in the media was about angry crowds at Republican rallies, allegedly stirred up by McCain and Palin’s ‘hate campaign’.
At a rally in New Mexico on Monday, McCain asked the crowd ‘Who is Barack Obama?’, and video footage shown afterwards suggests that someone shouted the reply: ‘Terrorist!’ (1) At a Palin rally in Florida on the same day, as the VP candidate was describing the Obama-Ayres link, a member of the audience reportedly yelled ‘Kill him!’ (though it wasn’t clear whether ‘him’ referred to Obama or Ayres) (2). The next day, while Palin was criticising Obama on the issue of Afghanistan, a rally-goer called out ‘Treason!’ (3)
What began as media coverage of a few cases of anti-Obama ranting turned into an all-out game of ‘find a freak’ – especially by amateur video camera operators. One video of Republicans entering a McCain-Palin rally in Ohio highlighted an individual referring to Obama as a terrorist because of his ‘bloodlines’ (4). Another featured a man on his way into a Pennsylvania arena holding up a monkey doll with an Obama hat (5). One video showed people from Kentucky – ‘drunken rednecks’, as the video-maker called them – saying ‘we do not need an Arab president’; it quickly did the rounds in the media last week, even though it was originally posted on YouTube in June (6). All three videos became viral and received far more attention than the McCain campaign’s ‘Obama is risky’ advertisements.
Of course, all of these expressions are obnoxious and any one is one too many. But they were fairly isolated instances: thousands of people attended the rallies, but the media chose to focus on the few individuals shouting out insults and threats. Worse still, these individuals were presented as being typical of the entire audience. White working-class people at the rallies were now portrayed as members of an angry, crazed mob. Greg Sargent of the website Talking Points Memo referred to ‘the unhinged frenzy gripping crowds at McCain-Palin gatherings’ (7). Liberal New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote about ‘Weimar-like rage at McCain-Palin rallies’ and warned that ‘each day the mob howls louder’ (8). Apparently, all it takes is a few nutjobs sounding off to declare that we’re witnessing the rise of a fascist movement.
What’s more, these relatively few cases led many to express their fears that one from this mob would go beyond an outburst of violent rhetoric, and actually try to assassinate Obama. Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates calls it ‘the unthinkable’, and says the attacks on Martin Luther King’s character before his assassination are ‘the ghost that the McCain campaign is summoning’ (9). John Lewis, civil rights veteran and congressman from Georgia, also referred back to the Sixties. He said McCain and Palin are ‘sowing the seeds of hatred and division’, and likened the atmosphere at Republican events to those featuring George Wallace, the segregationist former governor of Alabama and 1968 presidential candidate: ‘George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights.’ (10)
Frank Rich argues that ‘the McCain campaign has crossed the line between tough negative campaigning and inciting vigilantism’ (11). And pro-Obama blogger Andrew Sullivan writes that: ‘This is a moment of maximum physical danger for the young Democratic nominee. And McCain is playing with fire… This is getting close to the atmosphere stoked by the Israeli far right before the assassination of Rabin.’ (12)
Obama himself has, for a long time, dismissed such fears, citing his Secret Service detail: ‘I’ve got the best protection in the world, so stop worrying.’ (13) That hasn’t stopped talk of assassination from being an undercurrent among his supporters (see Please kill this Obama ‘assassination porn’, by Brendan O’Neill). Now this discussion is more out in the open.
But these fears are not expressions of reasonable concerns about Obama’s security: as Obama himself notes, he has presidential-like security, and the odds of anything happening remain extremely low (although, of course, it is always a possibility, as with any candidate). Instead, his supporters’ worries really represent their fears of the white working-class population. The Democrats – once seen as the party of the mass of working people – are cut off from, and suspicious of, what once was their base of support. Rather than living among the working class and representing its interests, they are distant and live in fear of it.
Even the criticisms of McCain and Palin for using inflammatory rhetoric that could ultimately result in violence are, at bottom, condemnations of the working class. Critics are essentially saying: don’t McCain and Palin know that they are playing with a dangerous group that is easily led to violence? Liberals know that the idea that Obama is a terrorist is absurd, that most people don’t believe it to be true, and even that the McCain campaign is not explicitly saying such a thing. But some of them worry that there is a mob out there that is stupid enough to take McCain’s and Palin’s criticisms of Obama as a cue to become violent.
You can blame the McCain camp for many things, including running a lacklustre campaign that has very little to say about the key issues of our time, such as the financial crisis. You can also say that McCain’s decision to ‘go negative’ and attack Obama’s character smacks of desperation (if this was such an important issue, why wait until the last few weeks to bring it up?). But it’s not true, as many have suggested, that he and Palin seek to incite violence against Obama. Yes, Palin does use the word ‘terrorist’ when she tells her line about Obama and Ayres, but there’s a very long way from that to saying ‘Obama is an Islamic terrorist’.
At the beginning of the week many wondered how the Obama campaign would defend itself from the McCain attacks. In the event, they did not have to answer direct challenges, because all of the focus was on the Republican rallies. With allies from the media, they have managed to depict any McCain and Palin reference to Ayres or Obama’s qualifications in general as being tantamount to inciting violence. But in reality, the Obama campaign and its supporters are the ones who have incited fears – fears of a dangerous, reckless white working class. This may work to get their man elected in November, but it comes at the price of further alienating a group that is sceptical about, if not outright hostile, to the Democrats. Thus the Democrats may find that they win the election battle, but, in doing so, they have damaged their chances of winning the governing war.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.
(1) Obama Hatred At McCain-Palin Rallies: “Terrorist!” “Kill Him!” (VIDEO), Huffington post, 6 October 2008
(2) In Fla., Palin Goes for the Rough Stuff as Audience Boos Obama, Washington Post, 6 October 2008
(3) Obama Hatred on Display Again at Palin Rally, Supporter Screams “Treason”, Huffington post, 7 October 2008
(4) The McCain-Palin Mob, YouTube
(5) More Racism at a Palin Rally in PA, YouTube
(6) Patriotic drunk rednecks, YouTube
(7) McCain Supporter Rants About “Hooligan” Obama And “Socialist” Takeover — And McCain Agrees, TPM Election Central, 9 October 2008
(8) The Terrorist Barack Hussein Obama, New York Times, 11 October 2008
(9) The Unthinkable, The Atlantic, 9 October 2008
(10) Civil rights icon says McCain stirs hate, Politico, 11 October
(11) The Terrorist Barack Hussein Obama, New York Times, 11 October 2008
(12) The Dangerous Panic On The Far Right, The Atlantic, 11 October 2008
(13) Cited in The Terrorist Barack Hussein Obama, New York Times, 11 October 2008