Sunday, August 26, 2018

Off-Key, Strategically

The concept of "race" is controversial and elusive. For instance, Wikipedia explains "Arabs belong to the Semitic branch of the Caucasian race, mostly Mediterranean race.. The Arabid race is a term for a morphological subtype of the Caucasoid race, as used in physical anthropology."

In the context of American politics, then, "Arab" may be considered a race, even though that is arguably anthropologically inexact.

John McCain never became President because he was unable to navigate the currents of race in the USA..  That does not reflect badly on his character or personality, or even his politics (his selection of Sarah Palin in 2008 notwithstanding). Note that Donald J. Trump was far more adept in this regard, and as a consequence (albeit aided by the FBI and the Kremlin) managed to get elected president.

Charles Pierce reminded us on Sunday, the day after Senator McCain died at age 81 of brain cancer, that during the South Carolina presidential primary in 2000

There were whisper campaigns about the daughter his family had adopted from Bangladesh—the oldest and most poisonous card in the deck, especially in the home office of American sedition. There were whisper campaigns over the telephone conversations from some of America's most famous TV preachers—especially the odious Pat Robertson. There were dozens of loaded "push polls." The entire Atwater-Rove arsenal was turned on him. Rumors were spread about McCain's captivity, his mental stability, and his wife, but it kept coming back to his daughter, Bridget, who was dark enough for the bigots. Then, McCain made a critical gaffe. He remarked that the Confederate flag, which still flew near the state capitol in Columbia, was "a symbol of racism and slavery." And he lost.

That was the pivotal primary in the GOP nominating process, and McCain was defeated by someone less bold but better able to appeal to the demons existing throughout society, but especially in the Republican Party.

It was McCain's turn in 2008 and partly as a result, he secured the Republican nomination, but then lost the general election in no small measure for the same reason he had lost eight years earlier to George W. Bush in South Carolina. We may be getting sick of repeatedly seeing the following clip this weekend, but we have spent a decade giving it insufficient attention:

Stammering, the infamous woman in red maintains "I've got to ask you a question. I can't trust Obama. I, I have read about him and he's not, he's not.... he's an Arab. He is not- no?"

The mainstream media has long properly given McCain credit for having shown decency and courage in the face of apparent bigotry. However, the media refuses to acknowledge the role of the response in the candidate's defeat, largely because it contrasts with the comforting meme that the country put aside its racial division by electing its first black President.

"More than anything else, by 2006," Pierce writes, "John McCain wanted to be president more than anyone else I've ever seen." If so. two years later the GOP nominee exhibited exceptional ineptness by failing to manipulate the racial tension by which he was victimized to in 2000,

Barack Obama understood.  In 2004 he stirred emotions at the Democratic convention and the country beyond by claiming "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America—there's the United States of America."

Most of us bought it, bought it because we wanted to buy it. Four years later, Obama was elected President on a wave of disgust at the previous, Republican administration and on excitement in the Democratic electorate for historic change. Additionally, he benefited from a naive, misguided hope among many other voters that his election would put the "race" issue behind us, prove they themselves were not racist, and that America no longer was racist, or maybe never was.

He defeated Senator McCain despite the warning of the man, speaking before the woman in red, that "we're scared of an Obama presidency."  McCain did not heed the warning, and fell to the candidate who had built his reputation in an extraordinary speech with the oft-admired "there is not a black America and a white America." 

A little under eight years later, as the 2016 nominating campaign wound down, Gallup recorded its highest-ever number of Americans "very worried" about race relations in America. In retrospect, that was a tailor-made situation for Donald Trump. In the manner in which Obama caught a wave by (however artificially) calming fears, Trump did the same by exploiting fears, and especially demagogically.

John McCain was a victim in February of 2000 of similar racial bias. Eight plus years later, he refused to exploit those fears, which continued to build and landed us Donald Trump in 2016.   If he had caught that wave in either of his campaigns, the obituary of John S. McCain probably would include "elected President."  It may be to his everlasting credit that it does not.

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