It was easy to predict, going in, that the dynamics of race and politics were going to be a big factor in this year’s election — the main question was how naked the Republicans would play it.
And now we’re seeing what their plan is: Play it subtle, with a raft of images that will send off all the necessary messages to the lizard-brained wingnuts of their base, but nothing overt that can be readily flagged as racial — and when the Obama camp inevitably responds, play the wounded party. In other words, turn Obama’s race into a liability by making him respond to subtle, easily denied racial appeals so that he seems like he’s making unfair use of "the race card."
McCain’s "Celebrity" ad, and its aftermath, have so far played that strategy to perfection — Obama has been forced to retreat after initially calling it out, and his nominal defenders on the left have taken up defensive positions as well. Meanwhile, the wingnutosphere is in full roar; Peter Kirsanow’s post at NRO today, portraying Obama as making absurd overuse of "the race card," is the apotheosis of their emerging meme on race.
A little while back Jane pointed out that Republicans have done extensive polling to figure out how to play the race question, and they have concluded that they could succeed mainly by making "implicit" appeals instead of explicit ones. What we’re seeing now is that polling converted to campaign strategy.
No doubt, the end game of this strategy will be to open the floodgates so that more explicit appeals with similar dog-whistle content — like Floyd Brown’s ads linking Obama to black criminality — will gain added cover and be treated as legitimate.
It’s not, as Bob Herbert has argued, that the racial dog-whistle components of these ads are self-evident; they’re far more subtle than that. Neither, on the other hand, are they as utterly absent from them as folks like Taylor Marsh would have us think.
Last month in Austin I was on a panel about political rhetoric with Michael Shaw of BagNewsNotes, who presented the slideshow and talk you see in the video above (Michael has a post about it here.) As you can see, he makes a compelling case that a campaign has been well under way on the right — and becoming entrenched as a result within the mainstream media discourse — to marginalize Obama through these subtle appeals.
He explains it thus:
In looking at the fearful or polarized treatment of Obama, it breaks down into three categories:
- Obama as “Other.”
- Obama as racial stereotype
- And third, in descending order: Obama as shadow figure; Obama as man with a covert, anti-American agenda; Obama as Machiavellian mastermind; and Obama as closet Muslim and even Islamic Manchurian candidate.
It’s important to understand that these three categories interact and reinforce each other, often appealing as they do to the same base side of human nature. It’s the kind of appeal in which the GOP has come to specialize in since the days of Nixon.
As Shaw explains, one of the major racial personality stereotypes focuses on "lust, particularly toward white women." Several of the images, you’ll see, juxtapose Obama with a beautiful white woman in a way that is slightly startling — just as the "Celebrity" ad did. People familiar with racist-right appeals (particularly those common on the white-supremacist right) are all too familiar with the connotation of these juxtapositions: they are intended to appeal to the lingering white fear of "miscegenation" and racial mixing generally. That, and not simply our imaginings, is why so many people thought of the ugly miscegenation-mongering of the anti-Harold Ford "Fancy" ad.
Shaw also notes that the "uppity" racial stereotype is being trotted out increasingly as well, both by the right and by the media in general (see, e.g., Dana Milbank) in regards to Obama, though the favored version of it, I think, is that he’s "arrogant."
Responding to these kinds of appeals requires care. Calling them out as overtly racist, as we’ve seen, walks into the political ambush that’s being laid here. But at the same time, it’s foolish to pretend it isn’t happening. It’s still possible, in fact, to turn this to Obama’s advantage.
For now, calling out the dog-whistle components of the Republican appeal (and the resultant media coverage) isn’t a viable option, because McCain and Co. have seemingly immunized themselves for the time being. What’s called for, in fact, is some reverse jujutsu — because, let’s face it, the GOP strategy involves pushing a delicate line, and the best response is to find ways to get them to push past it.
It should be possible, while laying low, to invite the Republicans and their wingnut base to amp up the racial coding on issues where they are far less prone to being careful — issues such as immigration, where the nativist component largely holds sway. An aggressive effort by Obama to talk about immigration almost certainly would bring out the worst in the conservative movement — and make those "implicit" racial appeals in the rest of their ads look a lot more explicit in the process.
Regardless of whether the Obama campaign ever figures this out, it’s incumbent on those interested in seeing him elected to keep up the pressure and call this nonsense out for what it is. Obama doesn’t have to say it, but we can, and we will.