Triumph of the What?
August 1, 2008 - 12:30pm ET
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The Fairbanks/Perlstein argument that certain shots in John McCain's latest campaign commercial ape Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" has touched a huge nerve on the right. They all think, or claim to think, the notion is:
"crackhead-crazy" (Rod Dreher)
And Ross Douthat professes a tender concern for my sanity.
These conservative posts (there are many more) strike me as quite interesting, full of intellectual contortions (like: Obama IS playing to fascist proclivities, and McCain IS right to point that out, and that my post is STILL crackhead crazy). For instance Douthat, after declaring me insane, promptly certifies me as correct: "Here's a tip for liberals: If your candidate is going to stage enormous rallies in front of tens of thousands of chanting Germans (with monuments to Prussian military might in the background) in the middle of his Presidential campaign, it isn't the GOP's fault if the footage comes out looking a little like Hitler at Nuremberg." His only objection is my theory that Republicans actively searched for Riefenstahl-like angles, or even shot some themselves. Another blogger proffers a different neck-twister: "I can actually see kind of a subtle Godwin in the ad, but you aren’t going to see me accusing McCain’s campaign of trying to paint Obama as a Nazi."
I wrote previously about this dilemma in at blackhole.com (excuse me, I meant TNR.com, so my full essay "Unconscious of a Conservative" is as available for ready perusal as the Library at Alexandria): one of the brilliant things about such Rovian "TV with the sound off" excursions into the national lizard brain is that anyone who would point them out is in danger of sounding like a paranoid loon. That's a feature, not a bug. And it starts with Nixon, in fact the classic Nixon jujitsu move dating back to his first congressional campaign in 1946, as I explain in NIXONLAND:
You didn't have to attack to attack. Better, much better, to give something to the mark: make him feel like he has one up on you. Let him pounce on your "mistake." That makes him look unduly aggressive. Then you sprung the trap, garnering the pity by making the enemy look like a self-righteous and hyper-intellectual enemy of common sense. You attacked jujitsu-style, positioning yourself as the attacked, inspiring a strange sort of protective love among voters whose wounded resentments grow alongside your performance of being wounded. Your enemies appear only to have died of their own hand. Which makes you stronger.
Make the libs all hysterical about something, in other words, and you get to point out that libs are, well, hysterics. And uptight pedants. And hypersensitive victimologists. Which is precisely how the McCain campaign plays it. Obama said, "What they're going to try to do is make you scared of me You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills." Outlandish! McCain spokesman Rick Davis:
Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck. It's divisive, negative, shameful and wrong.
[UPDATE: lest their be no mistake, here's Rick Davis's latest on the subject of the Obama campaign's vicious attacks on McCain:
Appearing on NBC's "Today Show" Friday, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said the campaign is merely reacting to what he deems an attack on the Arizona senator.
"I think we were perfectly within our rights to protect our candidate and to point out that we're not going to lay down for these kinds of tactics," he said. "And I think that was fair....
"We'll let the chips fall where they may when it comes to how people perceive this, but we are not going to let anybody paint John McCain, who's fought his entire life for equal rights for everyone, to be able to be painted as racist."
We didn't draw first blood. I mean, this campaign has been rough and tumble since the day Barack Obama got his nomination, and we've withered under the attacks of the Obama campaign on a daily basis."]
Another common coin of the responses to our deconstructions of the commercial, as Josh Marshall notes, is the leaden, Newtonian argument that for a liberal to claim that McCain's ad contains BOTH "Obama's gonna rape yo' daughta" overtones and "Obama is Hitler" overtones simply shows how desperate they are to smear McCain. So we find Little Green Footballs mocking us semioticians for casting "Paris Hilton as Eva Braun." It's logically inconsistent! As if logic had anything to do with quick-cutting thirty-second TV spots.
But it's not just conservatives who appear unsettled by our analysis. Andrew Romero of Newsweek avers in the classic rhetorical trope of the pundit-on-high ("of course this idiosyncratic personal conclusion of mine is self-evident to any thinking human being") that, "Obama rightly recognized that while the spot may have been a lot of things--an insinuation about his foreignness; a potential homage to Leni Riefenstahl; a bald-faced bid (look! starlets!) for free media attention--it wasn't a subliminal message about miscegenation."
And the gossip site Gawker weighs in that, well, Perlstein is "understandably hypersensitive to the varied uses of bigotry in politics given his latest historical subject." Then they walk back the disparagement by noting that I'm correct that the visual resonances in the ad and the propaganda film are uncanny. Then they argue—and this is a common coin of the response of many of the more cosmopolitan commentators—the ad is so incompetent it doesn't matter. Who does anything because a commercial tells them too, anyway?
Noam Scheiber usefully points out who—locating but one electoral motive among many, many cross-cutting motives for this strange thirty-second bundle of signifiers: older Jews in Florida, he points out, have "a habit of noting that any semi-charismatic speaker who drew a crowd of more than a few dozen reminded him of Hitler." That neatly dispenses of my many critics who wonder why fiendish, fiendish Republicans would want to exploit images of so "obscure" a film as Leni Riefenstahl's. (Anyone ever watch the
Hitler History Channel?)
Anyone have thoughts about what's going on here, how to sort it all out?
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