The False Messiah Argument

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The McCain campaign is out with a second negative ad against Obama in four days, or two days if you don’t count the weekend. It is ostensibly about gas prices, and it hits Obama for refusing to back new offshore drilling, which would not have an impact on gas prices for another decade or so.

Leave aside the claim that Obama is somehow responsible for high gas prices. (Earlier this month, McCain blamed the high prices on Washington politicians.) The important thematic part of the ad is not the gas prices, but the explicit, if still subtle, use of the False Messiah argument, which McCain’s senior staff has been talking privately about for months.

At first it sounds like the rush of a river, then the chants become clear. They are Obama’s minions, chanting his name in a kind of creepy, almost Orwellian repetition. Watch this theme develop over the coming months. As it stands, the McCain campaign already likes citing Oprah Winfrey’s claim that Obama is “The One,” like Keanu Reeves in a trench coat. The McCain campaign is trying to turn Obama’s enormous enthusiasm and crowds against him, to find a kryptonite for his superpowers. This is an arrogance argument, like the one made last week by Charles Krauthammer, but it is also a cultural argument. Subcultures are inherently insular. They have rules, customs and assumptions of their own. They tend to embrace lofty, abstract rhetoric. They also exclude. And in a political campaign, you do not want to exclude. In this spot, McCain is not just campaigning against Obama the man, but Obama the movement and Obama the subculture. He is trying to convince regular voters that Obama supporters are not regular. They are true believers, even worshipers. And it could be an effective attack, for at least two reasons. 1. America has a tradition of seeking out regular people as presidents, not demigods. 2. The conventional wisdom in politics today is you win by tearing down your opponent’s strengths.