October 23, 2008
Down the street from my office a hip tavern-owner has hung three ginormous portraits of Barack Obama gazing watchfully down Kingshighway. The Warholesque likenesses are eerily reminiscent not so much of campaign billboards, but of the giant portraits of Mao and Stalin that were once fixtures in communist nations.
If the Obama campaign reminds you too of a mass movement of true believers I suspect it is because the candidate himself has encouraged this perception. Early in the campaign the Hopemeister heralded his arrival with this verbal trumpet blast: "We are the ones we've been waiting for!" Since then the terms most frequently associated with Obama and his supporters include "cultish," "messianic," "rock star," "Kool-aid drinkers" and various combinations of the words Obama and robot. One wonders if the Democratic nominee hasn't studied the works of Eric Hoffer and Hannah Arendt to learn what it takes to lead a successful mass movement of true believers.
Our mainstream media has been justly parodied for its blatant love-affair with Obama, most famously on Saturday Night Live. But who can forget MSNBC's Chris Matthews' unintentionally humorous gushing about the "thrill" running up his leg when Obama delivered his acceptance speech after a primary election? And, again, when Tweety (as he's known in the blogosphere) told the New York Observer, "I've been following politics since I was about 5. I've never seen anything like this. This is bigger than Kennedy. [Obama] comes along, and he seems to have the answers. This is the New Testament." Even two of our most erudite and cynical political observers, Christopher Buckley and Christopher Hitchens, have been unable to resist Obama's siren call.
Hillary Clinton, who had more mature, if less exuberant followers, was early perplexed by the euphoria surrounding Obama. Last February the Clinton campaign sought to capitalize on the curious behavior of Barack's backers and the weird vibes they were sending by attempting to portray Obama as an empty suit who appealed to the emotions, while Clinton was for those who had a brain, and couldn't be swayed by empty slogans. It didn't work.
Even some Barack supporters admit to being "weirded out" by Obama's followers, particularly the way they refer to their leader in almost reverent terms, the way they rush the stage when he speaks reminiscent of the Beatles at Shea Stadium. For a while there was a rash of fans fainting at Obama rallies, whereupon comedian Larry David quipped, "Sinatra had the same effect on people." Time's Joe Klein admitted "[there is] something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism…of (Obama's) Super Tuesday speech and the recent turn of the Obama campaign." And Joel Stein suggested cause for concern in the Los Angeles Times. "Obamaphilia has gotten creepy. I couldn't figure out if the two canvassers who came to my door Sunday had taken Ecstasy or were just fantasizing about an Obama presidency, but I feared they were going to hug me."
Commenting on the "Helter-Skelter cult-ish qualities" of Obama's followers, ABC News' Senior National Correspondent Jack Tapper wrote: "Inspiration is nice. But some folks seem to be getting out of hand." Kathleen Geier worried that "this sounds more like a cult than a political campaign. The language used here is the language of evangelical Christianity -- the Obama volunteers speak of 'coming to Obama' in the same way born-again Christians talk about 'coming to Jesus.'...So I say, we should all get a grip, stop all this unseemly mooning over Barack, see him and the political landscape he is a part of in a cooler, clearer, and more realistic light…"
Even James Wolcott of Vanity Fair found himself "increasingly wary of and resistant to the salvational fervor of the Obama campaign, the idealistic zeal divorced from any particular policy or cause and chariot-driven by pure euphoria." But the award for sheer creepiness has to go to a Pyongyangesque video of a group of young children forced to sing a lame bit of doggerel called "Sing for Change." (The Pyongyang mix is available here.)
IN HIS BOOK THE TRUE BELIEVER Eric Hoffer suggested two necessary conditions must be present for a mass movement to flourish: the believer must be frustrated and have faith in some irresistible power. (Hoffer noted the Jacobins believed in the irresistible power of Reason, the communists in Marxist doctrine, and the Nazis in their Führer and his race master race theories.) However to succeed, this power must be joined with a faith in the future. "For the hopeful can draw strength from the most ridiculous sources of power -- a slogan, a word, a button." But fanning discontent can only take one so far. If the true believers are to win, Hoffer said, it will be because they know how to preach hope. Preaching hope pretty well sums up the Obama campaign.
Hoffer's ideas may seem at first blush to perfectly describe Obama's followers, but while they explain the lockstop of their thinking, they do not adequately explain their ends. I suspect these young hipsters genuinely want to change the world in some vague, utopian, environmentally friendly way, and they have deluded themselves into thinking that Obama's big government solutions will do the trick. They are in for a big letdown following if their candidate wins, but that's all part of the maturation process.