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.