Last week we saw the McCain camp take a turn towards a very ugly form of populism during campaign rallies, which basically amounted to asking who was the "real" Barack Obama; the implication being that he was some sort of alien 'other'. This type of paranoid fantasizing has been a staple of modern American conservatism; as a cursory glance at right-wing blogs can testify.
The "black helicopter" crowd in the U.S. were around all during the Clinton era, so in some ways, there should be no surprise to see them around in this election cycle (and certainly long into a Obama presidency: see this comments page).
What was surprising about last week, however, was the open (and extremely cynical) way that the McCain camp - desperate to alter the media narrative - decided to just go for it, take these memes out of the fringe, and put them directly into the campaign.
This is a unsettling strategy for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is simply not good for democratic discourse for politicians to be suggesting that their political opponents may or may not be traitors. This type of discourse should be left to the fringe. Bringing it into the mainstream gives it a a legitimacy that it does not deserve.
Secondly, there is a lot of rage out there. This is understandable as the it looks like the world is heading for the crapper, but this is not a constructive way to direct this anger, and - if it continues - is truly worrying. This type of smearing is especially destabilizing to democracy when the speaker knows full well that people will buy into it; leading audience members to shout out "kill him" or suggest Obama is a terrorist,
Think I am exaggerating about how disturbing this might be? Even the mainstream media in the U.S. - which usually tortures itself by trying to present everything in terms of moral equivalency - had commentators speaking out:
CNN contributor David Gergen, who has advised Democratic and Republican presidential administrations, said Thursday that the negative tone of these rallies is "incendiary" and could lead to violence. "There is this free floating sort of whipping around anger that could really lead to some violence. I think we're not far from that," he said. "I think it's really imperative that the candidates try to calm people down."
Thirdly, once you let the genie out of the bottle, it may not be as easy to put back in - as McCain has found out since his campaign realised that this tactic was not helping him in the polls.
When you link these points together, there is cause for genuine concern. There has always been a radical fringe in American politics. However, for it to surface so openly at the same time that there is a economic crisis - which makes a radical message that more attractive - has a distinct whiff of the 1930s about it. This is, in other words, one potential societal backlash that might be occurring as part of the global meltdown. Just as Polanyi predicted, the right rises in such economically dislocating times times.
Of course, it is a little too easy to dismiss one's political opponents and call them fascists just because they like flags, or are socially conservative, or choose slogans such as "Country First". I am not suggesting that anyone who does not share my political persuasion is further right that Joseph Goebbels. Plenty of conservatives are fully democratic, intelligent, and able to defend their intellectual positions.
However, there is a real darkness going on in these fringe movements that has a definite crypto-fascist element, and which is frightening when it is dragged out from under its rock. Take a look at this video, of a rally in Ohio to see an example of what I mean.
These people are displaying many of the key features which would make them susceptible to right-wing movements.
First, and most obviously, they are highly emotional and are reaching conclusions about the world based on how they feel rather than their basis in fact (are we really to believe that that woman had heard of Palin before she heard of Obama, for example?).
Secondly, it is not clear what people in this movement are for so much as what they are against. Fascism is a classically anti-intellectual movement partly because it has to be, as its theoretical edifice is often incoherent (it is egalitarian whilst also hierarchical; it believes in private property except when it doesn't etc). Therefore the unifying component of fascism - what brings many people together to believe in it - is its strong sense of what it doesn't like. Aside from the unifying themes of flag and country (which right-wingers get to define in ultra-nationalist terms of their own choosing), fascist movements are negative about other movements and political positions, without have a clear unifying program of their own.
Part of this process of negation is done by identifying what you don't like in your opponents, and saying you believe the opposite. So if you hate liberals and liberals believe in global warming, then you don't believe in global warming. If they believe in evolution, then you don't. This can help explain how otherwise intelligent people believe that man ran with dinosaurs just a few hundred years before the pyramids were built (this also once again highlights the anti-intellectual element of such movements).
It also leads to scapegoating of your enemies and holding them responsible for your own failures, or failures in general. I was wondering for a while who the right-wingers were going to hold responsible for the economic catastrophe of late. I would have put my money on "liberals" as they are generally held up by the Right as everything that is wrong with the U.S., or the immigrants and foreigners as they always get it. Perhaps unsurprising it seems that black America and the voter-registration group Acorn are being held involved and responsible, at least by many of the nuttier groups.
All of this wouldn't matter if it weren't for two things. As I said, the backlash against the status quo is beginning. Although (thankfully) this right-wing populism does not look like it will dominate the discourse in any way, and that calmer heads are prevailing, it is present and liable to become stronger and certainly more shrill; especially once its coalition partner (e.g. the mainstream Republican party) gets thrown out of power. The other worrying issue is that these headbangers really are dangerous. They have a documented history of violence in the U.S.. They have extremely noxious eliminationist views gowards their political opponents. And they are they are feeling threatened.
It seems like a sensible administration is about to come just in time.
NB: Orcinus is a very good site for tracking these issues
Update: This is exactly what I am talking about
Update II: And this
Update III: Sigh...and this