McCain, Palin, Incitement to Riot, and the Occasional Necessity of Violating Godwin’s Law
The grotesque sight of major party candidates standing mute and in apparent agreement as their supportors call for the murder of their opponent is not supposed to be part of the American political process.
It’s obvious what’s going on, and it’s obvious why. John McCain and Sarah Palin have already lost this election on the arguments: for just one of many examples, by an overwhelming margin economists (chasing the rest of us) favor Obama/Biden over McCain/Palin on an economy in crisis.
But if the actual business of the election is over — we’ve pretty much sorted out which candidate is better for the job at the moment — what is there left for the losing side to do?
Desperate measures of course, which gets me to the Godwin side of the post. (I.e. if you don’t like going where Godwin’s law takes you, stop reading now.)
Here’s the background: Two notable political triumphs were won in the early 1930s as responses to the economic crisis marked by the stock market crash of October, 1929.
One was that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose temperament was praised by Oliver Wendell Holmes as well suited to calm the frenzy of the moment. There is, as the conservative humorist Christopher Buckley notes in his endorsement of Barack Obama, one candidate now who is living that role.
And then there was the rise of a German politician with a mesmerizing speaking style and perhaps the most exquisitely honed sense of shared resentment any public figure has ever had.
On the Republican ticket, it is Sarah Palin who has taken the lead as the exponent of a strategy more like this figure’s, one that seeks to focus broad feelings of betrayal and anger onto a single stock figure of treachery and deceit that she labels with the name of her opponent.
In this, she plays on the same chords struck by that other young, little-known politician making his first foray onto the national stage in 1923. Here’s an account of one of those early rallies:
The writer Carl Zuckmayer attended several of his speeches that year, once getting so close to the platform that he could “see the spittle spraying from under his mustache.” To Zuckmayer, he was “a howling dervish,” but he wrote that for those who believed, the speaker dominated “not by arguments but by the fanaticism of his manner, the roaring and the screeching..and especially by the hypnotic power of his repetitions delivered in a certain infectious rhythm.” It was a style, Zuckmayer wrote, that “had a frightening, primitive force.”
(This is taken, lightly edited, from my book Einstein in Berlin, which was, in part an attempt to understand how things went so very wrong between 1914 and 1932, the years Einstein lived in the German capital.)
That line on rhythm is right on; just listen to Palin as she hits her spots, and see how skillfully she allows her listeners to finish the thought just as she delivers her punchline. She’s good, just not Good.
I’m not the first to go here — consider Jon Stewart’s only slightly elliptical reference to Palin’s speeches as the kind of thing heard in the late days of the Weimar Republic. And I am not saying that Sarah Palin wishes to do as Adolf HItler did — far from it. I loathe just about everything I can find out about her politics, but she is a small-time American style faux-populist demagogue, not, in my humble opinion, a likely architect of global conflagration and mass murder. Just to be clear.
But what people forget when viewing Hitler only as the monstrous force he was in power is that he was a masterful manipulator of genuinely democratic processes on his path to the German Chancellorship. The speeches Zuckmayer witnessed were shockingly effective, coming as they did during the devastating economic crisis of the German hyperinflation, at time when the German middle class was largely wiped out. Their themes and the framing of crisis as the focus of shared bitterness and resentment now serve as a model for what Palin and to a lesser extent McCain are now trying out.
Thus the reason that the current tack by the McCain and Palin team is leaving so many observers disgusted, frightened and angry: it is because it does not take much historical memory to see the danger, the inherent dishonesty, and the moral bankruptcy of such an approach.
It was once possible to view this election as one that either side could lose without assaulting what Bruce Springsteen so beautifully described as “the repository of people’s hopes and dreams and desires” that is America.
Now, with the echoes of some of the worst moments in the long, sad twentieth century sounding in our ears, it has become clear that one side has now shown itself as the ticket that should lose. John McCain, the engineer of his own dishonor, should be ashamed of himself.
Let Springsteen have the last word:
Update: Credit where credit is due. John McCain today began pushing back against the worst impulses of his crowds. As reported on Time‘s Swampland blog, McCain on several occasions corrected questioners who sought to demonize Barack Obama. Key quote:
he … snatched the microphone out the hands of a woman who began her question with, “I’m scared of Barack Obama… he’s an Arab terrorist…”
“No, no ma’am,” he interrupted. “He’s a decent family man with whom I happen to have some disagreements.”
The post above still stands, however, (a) as an indictment of Sarah Palin, and (b) as a reminder that John McCain has let this cancer eat away at his candidacy to this point. But if he sustains this effort to remind his supporters of the need to distinguish between hating the (political) sin and loving — or at least respecting — the (from one vantage) political sinner, then he will have reclaimed some part of the honor that his campaign to date has cost him. The next step is to make sure that Governor Palin gets the message — but this is a welcome first gesture.
Update 2: Of course, if we keep getting reeking nonsense like this from the McCain campaign, then shame doesn’t begin to cover that first full measure of moral degredation with which the Senator from Arizona will have achieved by the end of this election season.Explore posts in the same categories: Biden, History, McCain, Obama, Palin, Politics, Uncategorized, words mattter comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.