Thursday, July 21, 2011

Herman Cain and The Other

Part of the price to be paid for gaining a fuller assimilation into the American experience is the risk of assuming the same political and philosophical mindset and attitudes of the people who’ve complicated that assimilation in the past and the present.

The presidential campaign of Herman Cain is the current case in point. Cain, something of a darling to the Tea Party Republicans, has flirted with pertinence by adopting most of the Tea Party conservative agenda, and throwing in his own outlier firebrand xenophobic nonsense, just for good measure.

His latest exclusionary rhetoric came early this week, when Cain told the Washington Times that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney would lose the election because he’s a Mormon. In a video released on Monday by the Washington Times, Cain, being interviewed by the Times editors, said of Romney’s Mormonism:

“The reason he will have a difficult time winning the South this time is because when he ran the first time, he did not do a good job of communicating his religion. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t bother me, but it is an issue with a lot of Southerners.”

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First off, Cain’s assessment is apparently just flat-out wrong. The Washington Times reported on Monday that “[a] just-released American Research Group poll in South Carolina, one of the first four states on the official primary calendar, has Mr. Romney leading, with support from 25 percent of the sample of 600 likely Republican primary voters."

That poll points to the fallacy of Cain’s perceptions about the South, thinking that’s locked in the amber of old perceptions of the Southern psyche. But Cain’s statements also reflect a disturbing inversion of American political and racial history. He’s in effect cultivating his own variation of the Southern strategy once used by Republicans to galvanize white voters against black political advances in the Jim Crow South.

Cain’s statement was an audible dogwhistle to Southern conservatives to vote their faith and their party; and it was daring, almost a throwdown for a fight, not even bothering to communicate its meaning or intention in coded language.

You gotta read this again: “it doesn’t bother me, but it is an issue with a lot of Southerners.”

Oh, you mean the same southerners and descendants of Southerners who used to — and maybe still do — have a problem with African Americans like you, Mr. Cain?

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This, of course, came after a controversial extremist broadside last month, when Cain, to the ire of Hispanic Republicans, spoke to voters in Iowa and announced his desire to electrify a 20-foot wall beside the Mexican border, a barrier topped with barbed wire and rimmed with alligators in a moat on the United States side.

"We call on Herman Cain to drop his candidacy for president. His recent comments and lack of practical solutions to solving illegal immigration show he’s not a serious candidate," said the Somos Republicans organization, in a statement released Monday.

And we can’t forget what happened last week, when Cain (visiting another likely 2012 battleground state, Tennessee), announced his opposition to the construction of a long-planned mosque.

Days later, Cain went on “Fox News Sunday” and enlarged on his opposition to the Tennessee mosque venture, effectively calling for a rollback of the First Amendment to the Constitution when he said that any American municipality should have the unilateral right to decide whether mosques can be constructed there.

Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, one of two Muslim Americans in the U.S. Congress, told Salon’s Justin Elliott that Cain’s actions were “reprehensible ... If I were a Republican, I would be outraged. Anyone who cares about religious liberty and inclusion has got to be offended by Herman Cain.”

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This folksy, plain-spoken intolerance, this tough-love-and-tea approach to politics is what makes Herman Cain more than a joke, more than a sideshow. This willingness to turn the knowns of the nation’s racial and ethnic truths and history upside down in the name of a ruthless, anti-social conservative pragmatism makes him a sadly credible contender.

That’s true for one reason in particular. Right now, Herman Cain is acquiring a kind of credibility by default. Given the current woeful field of GOP candidates and likely candidates, he gains some perverse version of gravitas just by hanging around. That means his extremist positions on those of other identities, be they Muslim or Mormon or Hispanic, start to become part of the foundational oxygen of the debate — one of the things to be taken seriously, even when they shouldn’t be.

In the Republicans’ current existential vacuum, that’s problematic in a way that works to Cain’s advantage. The Tea Party has many strains and flavors; it’s an amorphous collection of right-leaning neophytes grappling for bragging rights of ideological purity and pride of place, a gaggle of amateurs and mossbacks competing to see who’s hardest, who’s toughest, who gets to say “I was a conservative before you were a conservative.”

That absence of consensus may be just perfect for a Southern gospel-singing conservative radio host with a record as a businessman and a reliably hard political line against ... The Other.

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It’s early yet, thankfully; the process of attrition for the Republican field hasn’t happened. Cain (who trails Romney and most other GOP hopefuls in both fundraising and in the polls) may fade from view.

It may be because he runs out of money; it could be that his advisors run out on him, vacating a listless ship to nowhere like others bailed on Newt Gingrich a while back.

Or Herman Cain’s campaign may finally implode when forced to confront nothing more or less than the sad and potentially dangerous irony of an African American candidate for the presidency trying to paint someone, anyone, as The Other in the national life.

Image credits: Cain: David Goldman/Associated Press.

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