Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Passion of Saint McCain

(Pic by the ever-creative Darkblack.)

The fake cornpone patter of rich lobbyist Fred Thompson at the Republican National Convention Tuesday night made the bullshit and lies he was flinging all the more insufferable. His rallying cry for Sarah Palin was one echoed by other Republicans – the press and those liberals look down on you reg'lar folks (no mention of the leading critique, Palin's lack of qualifications for the job). It's a gambit that plays into the familiar victimization claimed by so many conservatives, but particularly those of the authoritarian religious right. Despite conservative wealth and power, and holding the White House, the rank and file still feel persecuted by those George Bush referred to as "the angry Left" - never mind that Bush was really describing roughly 70% of the country. (More on the conservative shell game on economics elsewhere.)

But Thompson ramped things up with a lengthy account of John McCain's POW experience, complete with numerous pauses to allow the full emotional weight to sink in. He took some liberties of course, but he was delivering more than a Hollywood prison movie tale. Did you see the rapt, near tearful crowd, re-living this ordeal and suffering along with Thompson - and McCain? The GOP knew their audience, and this wasn't Top Gun, Stalag 17 or heaven forbid, Grand Illusion they were selling – Thompson was selling The Passion of the Christ.

Watch the speech again, listen to the story Thompson constructs, and pay special attention to the faces in the audience (the "rapt" MSNBC version linked above has some great reaction shots). All political parties have their beloved narratives, of course, but the GOP is tapping heavily into the "culture wars" that they've exploited so successfully for decades, and also (I believe) appealing to religious tropes. Mel Gibson's Passion… features lengthy depictions of Jesus being tortured and mistreated, most notably with the scourging and the crucifixion itself (although lead actor Jim Caviezel as Jesus carrying the cross also falls down in slo-mo what feels like at least five times). Although some viewers found Gibson's approach gratuitous, it was a powerful, cathartic experience for some religious viewers, and the movie was quite a financial success. I'm not sure how conscious this appeal in Thompson's speech was, but especially given his abortion-Rick Warren reference ("pay grade"), I wouldn't be surprised if it was very calculated. John McCain's story was presented as one of suffering and deliverance, rebellion and redemption, of stubbornness and faith rewarded. And the subtext was, John McCain is one of us, whereas Barack Obama is not, in more ways than one. A quasi-religious suffering stood in for economic suffering, perhaps, especially since the GOP hasn't discussed the economy much compared to "character" and personality.

There was a stark irony to the telling of the tale, though, since as John Cole noted, both Bush and Thompson went to great lengths to avoid using the word "torture," since by Bush administration standards, McCain was not tortured (and despite his stated opposition to torture, McCain voted to allow it). Plus, authoritarian movement conservatives, many of them self-described Christians, sadly support torture when it's of infidels, or at least anyone the Bush administration says is guilty - although many Guantanamo prisoners are actually innocent. (Interestingly, tonight Huckabee did say "brutally tortured" and Palin used "torturous interrogations." I haven't heard all the speeches yet, so I'll be interested to hear the language.)

The McCain campaign is pushing the Palin mistreatment angle very loudly and angrily, most likely to try to distract from their lack of real vetting of an extremely questionable candidate, but also to sell the culture war that's such a key motivator to the conservative base. Given how unqualified Palin is, trying to stoke backlash is one of their best options. Josh Marshall dissects the game of McCain senior staffer Steve Schmidt's recent outburst:

It's also notable that while virtually all the aggressive questioning of Palin has been on her troopergate scandal, her manifest lack of qualifications, ties to a political party that embraces secession, etc. Schmidt focused on stories that if you look closely were actually never written. Yes, there was a storm of speculation on blogs. And maybe reporters followed up with inquiries. But who published any of it? Think about that for a second.

The McCain camp is using the rumors about Palin's family as a cudgel to beat back entirely legitimate questions -- which may amount to a feeding frenzy -- about Palin's political record, alleged pattern of abuse of the power of her office and political associations. When you see Steve Schmidt getting weepy, believe me, you're getting played.

Joe Klein's also sussed out the McCain ploy here. But expect to see much more of this. Really, how dare anyone suggest that someone be qualified for the job, when George W. Bush obviously shows it's just not necessary? Beyond the biographical parts, Palin's speech tonight mainly consisted of culture war bait overlapping with personal attacks on Democrats, albeit delivered with a chipper demeanor. Needless to say, we didn't see the numerous serious questions about Palin addressed, but for that matter, we've yet see any Republican address the meat of Obama's acceptance speech. (I could take the GOP a bit more seriously if they didn't lie about virtually every single Democratic position and still try out lines like "more executive experience" and "proud of my country (unlike that traitor Michelle Obama!)" Just about every piece of bullshit refuted over the past year was back tonight. When a party can't win a debate honestly, and practically every statement about the opposition contains a straw man argument, it tells ya something.)

For more on the culture war themes, see Digby in "Orthogonian Joan of Arc" and "Phase Two." She also passes on "The Palin Convention and the Culture War Option" by Jay Rosen. The Republicans' anti-revolution will be proselytized.

The Gospel of Saint McCain as written by Rick Davis, Steve Schmidt and the gang - and as delivered by Fred Thompson and others - is mostly image and persona, smoke and mirrors. Somehow, a man who votes the Bush line over 90% of the time and doesn't even pick the vice president he really wants is a "maverick." Somehow, we're told that McCain is honest, honorable and will never change, despite a staggering number of policy reversals. But then, McCain's campaign has finally admitted that "issues" aren't terribly important to their run, and close scrutiny of McCain's policies and statements bears that out. It's surely safer to manipulate and pander to the base, and try to pick a fight with the Democrats and the press so no one notices how weak and poor a choice McCain-Palin really offers.

Overt and covert appeals to religious feeling aren't that surprising, but some are awfully dismaying. Both parties should welcome people of faith, but also non-believers. I have respect for many people of faith, but none for religious blowhards, phonies and tartuffes, and certainly have no respect for the cynical exploitation of faith. In that spirit, I'm suggesting the McCain-Palin campaign do away with pretense and sell the product they really want to shill, complete with trademark POW star:

Update: A few thoughts I forgot to add. The GOP may be mocking Obama as "The One," but they're offering John McCain as our true savior. Of course, even the misleading bullshit about "the surge working" and "we're winning" in Iraq is a narrative about unquestioning faith rewarded. (And maybe Thompson should have followed Bush's lead, and compared the American people to North Vietnamese communists. Froomkin has more on that one.)

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

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