As previously described, John McCain's body language shows he is a hater ("McCain's Body Language: He is a Hater", October 8, 2008). Now, his rhetoric has caught up to his body language. He has been baiting his audiences to view Barack Obama as dangerous, and representative of a "foreign" (read: sinister) element.
The spontaneous reactions of his audience -- from "kill him", "off with his head", to "he's a terrorist" -- show that the effect of such language is to remove the veneer of civility that keeps our country together and enables us to settle our differences through the rule of law and electoral processes. When people leave a McCain rally telling reporters that Obama is a terrorist because "it's in his blood", the potential for violence is real.
Sure, McCain has every right to question Obama's policies, his past statements and past votes, and even his past associations to the extent they are truly relevant and not a manufactroversy (i.e., a manufactured controversy).
How those questions are put determines whether they are inflammatory, whether they are the equivalent of "yelling fire in a crowded theatre." When McCain says, "Who is Barack Obama?" it is clear that he is not just questioning his policies, he is not too subtly suggesting that Obama is "not one of us."
Evolution has hardwired our brains to make instant judgments about whether a situation is safe or dangerous, part of me or "other." With the exceptions of food and sex, the default mode is defensive, and then the brain rationalizes that emotional choice. The more the McCain campaign feeds the emotional triggers, the more people will default to the defensive perspective that Obama is "other."
We are also primarily a visual species (more than auditory, touch or smell) Hence, to convey that John Kerry was really "French" (which he is not), they focused on his hair, and windsurfing (French is elite, just think of wines). For Barack, his race and his origin, as reflected in his middle name, is even more effective. For Obama to be perceived as "one of us," he had first to overcome the initial "us"/"other" response based upon his skin color.
As indicated in "Obama's Millennials -- 83 Million Strong," (June 30,2008), for voters born after 1980, who grew up in an integrated society, differences in skin color do not register as "other." By contrast, even the most progressive boomers, who may have grown up in integrated schools, but who were in the frying pan of the controversy, do not have the same easy "us" response to differences in race. Thus, McCain's attempts to trigger emotional responses to the default position of defense against Obama as other, will only work with people born prior to 1980, i.e., the boomers and the elderly.
The McCain campaign's strategy is deliberate, scientific, vicious, disgraceful and, most worryingly, dangerous.
This would be bad, and inflammatory enough on it own, but when engrafted upon a very angry electorate, people whose good works have been lost in a flash of greed and mismanagement, and who feel powerless, it is like shouting fire in a crowded theatre. A person who truly "puts country first," as McCain claims to be, would err on the side of caution. Indeed, he ought affirmatively to condemn any implication that Barack Obama is strange or has any hidden agenda. That does not stop McCain from strongly disagreeing with Obama.
In neurological terms, an honorable McCain, who puts country first, would specifically seek to "avoid the amygdala," dampening down the reptilian responses, and appeal to peoples' logic. He would do so even if there were not this underlying fuse just awaiting a signal to be lit, but especially since there clearly is a growing incendiary feeling among the electorate.
Here is what McCain said about Obama just 10 weeks ago:
"Let me begin with a few words about my opponent. Don't tell him I said this, but he is an impressive fellow in many ways. He has inspired a great many Americans, some of whom had wrongly believed that a political campaign could hold no purpose or meaning for them. His success should make Americans, all Americans, proud. Of course, I would prefer his success not continue quite as long as he hopes. But it makes me proud to know the country I've loved and served all my life is still a work in progress, and always improving. Senator Obama talks about making history, and he's made quite a bit of it already. And the way was prepared by this venerable organization and others like it. A few years before the NAACP was founded, President Theodore Roosevelt's invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage and an insult in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the nomination of an African-American to be the presidential nominee of his party. Whatever the outcome in November, Senator Obama has achieved a great thing -- for himself and for his country -- and I thank him for it." (McCain speech to NAACP, July 10, 2008).
As if McCain's campaign itself were not bad enough, the mainstream media is egging him on. I have yet to hear anyone say, "whoa!", "yes, McCain may be behind, but his only chance is to convince people of some major policy superiority, or even that he himself (McCain) is more trustworthy than Obama on matters that count for the electorate." Nor have any of the networks just refused to cover allegations no matter how bogus, and no matter how bogus they know them to be.
It seems to go without question to them that, if McCain is behind, then of course he should be manufacturing controversies, and doing everything he can to make people fear Obama at a gut level, i.e., that it is perfectly acceptable for him to engage in all-out, untruthful, character assassination, sowing fear and doubt.
There is one bright light -- Campbell Brown. She has realized that parity does not mean equal time when one side is speaking the truth and the other is lying, or when one side is appealing to their views of the issues and the other is engaging in false character assassination. Chris Matthews notes the problem, but gives "equal time" to people like Pat Buchanan, who claim it is "payback time" for the Goldwater campaign (!) -- were people suggesting Goldwater's Jewish background made him weird or unreliable, or just that he himself promoted dangerous views? -- and then laughs, as if incitement to violence is a big joke. I do not think John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luthur King, Jr., would get Pat's punchline.
If Obama is going to raise taxes on the top bracket, and McCain says that will reduce jobs, that's a great discussion to have on the basis of "equal time". [Obama can ask McCain to explain the 23M jobs created after raising taxes on the top bracket during the recession in 1993]. But, if Obama says he is going to raise taxes on the top bracket, and McCain says that Obama had a coffee at the home of a college professor who 40 years ago was a radical, then that's not a discussion that deserves any time just because that is what the McCain campaign has decided to make its message of the day.
During the Watergate hearings, the not-yet jailed Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell excused the crimes he and others committed against the political process and against the Constitution in the 1972 election with these words: "All we were trying to do is re-elect the President." Earlier he had explained: "In my mind, the reelection of Richard Nixon, compared to what was on the other side, was so important that I put it in exactly that context."
Although Mitchell became the nation's first Attorney General to go to jail, it appears as if the anything-goes to win psychology that has permeated Wall Street has also captured the media. There are no more standards, except the Wall Street standards of what will attract the most viewers, and thus the greatest profits. Whatever the campaigns, or the Drudge Report, serves up, they buy. It is "news" just because a campaign said it. One party can arrogate to itself the judgment that the other side is so unacceptable that law-breaking, or inciting-to-violence is justified to defeat them.
As this is being written, I am told that McCain has dialed it back, stating that Obama is not someone to be afraid of if he is elected President. Whether that is a poll-driven message or a pang of conscience, it may help... a bit. Let us now see if he takes down his inflammatory ads, publicly talks down those at his rallies who incite to violence, says "no" when he is being egged on by an enthusiastic supporter, and begins, finally, to run the respectful campaign he claimed he wanted.
John McCain had to choose between losing this election or dishonor.
He chose dishonor.
He shall lose.
Follow Paul Abrams on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pabrams2001