Tuesday, August 5, 2008


John McCain's newest anti-Obama advertisement, "The One," is one of the wackier, more surreal examples of the genre that I have seen. At first, I read it as a strange attempt at humor, another version of the ridiculous ad suggesting that Obama is a superficial celebrity like Britney Spears or Paris Hilton. When I watched it again, it struck me as another lame McCain attempt to undermine Obama as an uppity, flashy, all-too-charismatic candidate for president. But neither version really works. A gullible television viewer could view the ad and actually come away rather impressed by Obama's ability to connect with ordinary Americans. It's too serious to be funny.

But I have now watched the ad again, this time after reading blogs by two ex-Southerners. According to Maud Newton and Scott McLemee, McCain's ad is not directed toward you and me. It's not directed toward the bitter working-class whites to whom McCain has been pandering, most recently at a motorcycle rally in South Dakota.

Rather it's pitched toward a segment of Republican voters whom McCain desperately needs in November. Both McLemee and Newton "grew up," in McLemee's words, "in the South, not just 'around fundamentalists' but within the shadow of all those 'beasts with seven horns and ten crowns,' and 'baskets of locusts with scorpion tails,' and 'golden cups filled with the abominations of the world' and whatnot described in the apocalyptic books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and St. John." McCain's ad is pitched towards adherents of pre-millenial dispensationalism, a variant of fundamentalist Christianity that is based on a literal reading of the very literary prophetic books of the Bible (especially the Book of Revelation). Pre-millenial dispensationalists predict the imminent return of Our Lord Jesus Christ, but only after a period of trial and tribulation, marked by war, natural disaster, climactic disruptions, and calamity, and the rise of a charismatic leader, a false messiah, the Anti-Christ.

Newton contends that McCain's ad:
is designed to galvinize a very specific group: Evangelical Christians of the End Times, Rapture-Ready variety. It is designed, more to the point, to scare the shit out of these people by insinuating that Barack Obama is the Antichrist. This is a particularly nefarious and crafty argument to make because it is the one context in which all the candidate's strengths -- his smarts, his articulateness, his contagious smile and way with people -- can become evidence against him. All these traits are associated in the Bible with the charismatic, popular, well-spoken man who is supposed to become the leader of the world and bring about the Tribulation.

The theology of the ad is a little confused. If Obama is the Anti-Christ or his enabler, wouldn't his election speed up the coming of the Last Days? Maybe. As McLemee puts it: "If you are waiting for the Rapture, it's not like preventing the rise of the beast with seven horns and ten crowns etc. is a huge priority. (You sort of want to get it all over with, ASAP.)" But then again, the alchemy of religious and political belief is murky and only the truest of true believers spend their time working out all of the many inconsistencies inherent in prophetic theology.

Premonitions of the End of Time might seem wacky to the Rustbelters, urban planners, Midwestern liberals, blogging history graduate students, and new neo-conservatives who make their way to this website. But to the fifty million people who purchased Hal Lindsay's best-selling accounts of the last days, they are real. They are part of a disturbing but widespread political and theological vision of current events. McCain's people know and understand this--and are playing on the hopes and fears of a group of voters whose turnout might well decide the election. It's a strange, strange world out there, but it's one that we have to understand.

Footnote 9:33am: Hal Lindsay himself has weighed in on the Obama campaign. He argues that the Democratic candidate has "prepped the world" for the Antichrist, bearing out McLemee's version of the vision of Obama as the anti-John the Baptist. H/t to Phil.


hesperia said...

My dear old grandmother used to tell us that the Book of Revelations says something about changes in weather being a sign of the "end times". "And the seasons shall be as one" she used to say portentously. (I'm not gonna check that quote) As a result, my mother thinks that global warming isn't caused by "men" but by god and is a sign that the apocalypse is night. It well might be nigh, but Mom thinks there's nothing we can do about it. I wonder if my Mom is not alone in believing that global warming is beyond our control.

Ya see here, too, how someone like Pastor Hagee can say Hitler was an ok guy. He persecuted the Jews so they had to go back to Israel, which is where they have to be to facilitate the Rapture. And Israel has to be protected from the "infidel" Muslims so that Jesus can return.

Now how on earth (!) does one fight THAT?

kathy a. said...

i just have a lot of trouble with all mccain's ads. this one is disturbing on all kinds of levels.

carrel dweller said...

I am never one to underestimate the power of religious fundamentalist wackiness. And it doesn't require that one grow up in the South, or some benighted rural area where book-larnin' is for invalids. I have college-educated relatives from the Northeast, now living in lovely parts of California, who buy into this particular brand of irrationality.

Hesperia is right -- there's no fighting it! At least, not with rational argument or scientific proof. Maybe what's called for is a response on an equally irrational, wizard-in-the-sky level ... with what biblical bad guy can we equate McCain?

Or maybe they're right, the Rapture's coming, and they'll all be out of our hair soon?

kathy said...

Hi Tom,

Can you please write something on how this election is/is not in the bag for Sen. Obama? These ads play very well where I came from - white, ethnic working class town outside of Buffalo (and in white ethnic Philly - I love South Philly, but, phew, the racism there - it is just like being back home for me!). I am trying to post everywhere I can that this election is not a lock, and I can smell a McCain victory (especially, if god forbid, something really, really bad happens before the election), although I hope I am wrong. But I would like to hear your take on this, if only to convince me that I am out of my mind, or if you agree somewhat, etc. Thanks!

kathy said...

Hi Tom

Me again. I want to clarify something I wrote. I don't mean to single out the racism of northern white ethnic working-class people. It's just what I grew up with. Some of the worst, most pernicious racism I have encountered has been in the Ivy League and the wealthy, allegedly "educated" suburbs. I appreciate (if that is the right word) the open and honest airing of prejudice where I come from. It's just that these ads are targeting the demographic from which I hail, and they work. I don't think a lot of progressives really, truly understand that, as it all seems so ridiculous and counterintuitive to a rational person. Thanks for letting me clarify.

Tom S said...

Kathy: I'll save a longer response for later, but the persistence of white resentment, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, will be a real factor in this election. Whether the resentment will ad up to a McCain victory is not clear at the moment, but it's clear that his campaign (check out Digby's analysis of this at Digby's Hullabaloo) is dogwhistling racial issues as often as it can (and then blaming Obama for playing the "race card" when he barely suggests that those resentments exist. The Republicans have spent decades (especially since Nixon) crafting racial appeals while pledging their colorblindness. I don't expect anything less from the McCain team, but I do expect that they'll continue to do it subtly, while denying the charge everytime it comes up.

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