Dispatch October 2008

More Racism, Please

Race-baiting and anti-Muslim bigotry on the campaign trail are vile and loathsome. Let's hope they never go away.
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Normally, I condone racism only in its more adorable forms. I’ve always found the beef between the Danes and the Swedes delightful in its own fighting-for-the-top-rung way. (And what slurs! “Who you calling a butter cookie you rutabaga!”) But like all good progressives I don’t countenance anti-black and anti-Muslim bigotry. The recent McCain-Palin jeering has got me thinking twice, though. It's led me to the conclusion that racism is fine so long as it’s blowing up in McCain’s face.

The racist incidents are by now familiar: the Bill Ayers ads; Sarah Palin’s accusations that Obama pals around with terrorists; the cries of "terrorist," "treason," and "kill him" that Obama’s name elicits at McCain-Palin events; the racial epithet deployed against a black cameraman; the pointed inclusion of Obama’s middle name in introductions; and the old lady in Wisconsin who asked McCain to protect her from Obama the Arab.

There are legitimate fears that the Republicans are playing with fire. Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have pointed out, citing the worst nightmares of the civil rights era, that what begins with toxic politics can sometimes end with an assassin's bullet. But when McCain started asking crowds this weekend to dial back the hate, I was let down. I was hoping he’d click the heels of his loafers together and go right along, because when the McCain campaign stirred up bigots, it also tanked.

The standard GOP character attacks, launched in the face of a once-in-a-half-century economic crisis, have failed. Obama’s favorable ratings went up. McCain’s went down. Obama now has a commanding lead.

What went wrong with McCain’s attacks? The audience’s shouted slurs ruined the classical Republican approach of plausibly deniable racism. Imagine if at the old boy's country club someone said, “Well, I’m not sure the Cohens would fit in here.” Wink wink. And his buddy responded, “Oh yeah. You mean because they’re Jews, right?” It ruins the ruse, like the sitcom stooge who asks “Hey, why are you kicking me under the table?”

The McCain campaign has used plausible deniability before. Why, for instance, did it deploy Bill Ayers (who is only tenuously connected to Obama) but not mention Reverend Wright (who is, in Obama’s words “like family to me,” and officiated at Obama’s wedding and baptized his children)? Deniable racism. The real payoff of the Ayers ads is putting the words 'radical' and 'terrorist' next to Barack Obama’s name. If accused of racism or anti-Muslim sentiments, however, the campaign and its surrogates can just feign innocence and say “We’re only talking about an aging white hippie and Obama’s judgment. Why are you playing the race card?” Clearly, however, the attacks revived the “secret Muslim” rumors that have been spread since 2004.

But the GOP base didn’t get the memo on how to bash Obama as a secret Muslim—i.e. implicitly. So the attacks backfired, turning the GOP’s carefully hedged strategy into out and out racism that the press and independent voters couldn’t ignore, with disastrous consequences for McCain. And now McCain has wisely ordered his campaign not to go after the Wright-Obama association, to avoid another racial dust-up.

I wish he would bring on Reverend Wright. The damage was done during the primary. Bring on the whole parade of black bogeymen. The racial stuff only hurts the Republicans. It appears that McCain, for the moment, has backed off. But Obama and Biden’s shrewd “say it to my face or you’re a coward” strategy seems to have succeeded in baiting McCain (an old schoolyard scrapper) into renewing the attacks during tonight's debate. One hopes that will ignite another round of infighting and distraction in the McCain camp.

Failing that, not to worry. The rot has taken root on the right, and it’ll take years to debride. Crackpots are blaming the recession on greedy minorities who tried to buy houses and the Democrats who forced lenders to help them. Obama’s massive get-out-the-vote operation is already transforming, in the Republican echo-chamber, into a carefully orchestrated plot by ACORN and its black ex-con foot soldiers to steal the election. Democrats can look forward to four to eight years of resentment, bitterness, and conspiracy-theorizing among the GOP base. The “not my President” frothing and floundering will be back on the right, after spending eight years on the left. Just as the Republicans lost their 1994 momentum because of a weird hang-up with Clinton's busy wang, the right will only suffer from ugly personal politics. The more time Republicans waste by scapegoating, instead of rethinking what they stand for and sweeping up the pieces of their party, the longer Democrats will hang on to power.

Matthew Quirk is an Atlantic staff editor.
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