The Messiah-Complex Complex

by Jonathan Chait | September 10, 2008

Of all the complaints made against Barack Obama, the one I least understand is that he's some kind of millennial cult leader. An ad for John McCain and endless conservative commentary have harped on the theme of what National Review editor Rich Lowry called Obama's "secular messianism." Conservatives have sternly lectured Obama's fans that he will not, in fact, deliver paradise if elected. I agree! But why is this a reason to vote against him? McCain isn't going to create heaven on earth, either. Obama, however, might deliver health care reform and a more moderate federal judiciary.

The image of Obama as a messianic figure rests upon an endlessly repeated litany of bogus particulars. The first is that Obama's fans faint at his speeches. Again, I fail to appreciate the horrors of having a president whose rhetoric is so inspiring that it causes listeners to faint. In any case, Obama isn't actually that good a speaker. People faint at public gatherings all the time, especially when they're in a warm building for a long time without enough to drink. People faint at rallies for other candidates, too--Obama's fainters just started to get reported on after the cult idea arose.

The second factoid is that Oprah Winfrey called Obama "The One." What Winfrey actually said was, "I am here to tell you, Iowa, he is the one!" Inevitably, conservative critics capitalize the phrase ("The One") to create an impression of creepy messianism. In any case, when you are trying to persuade your audience that a particular candidate is the one they should vote for, there's nothing inherently cultlike about calling him "the one." Unless, of course, you consider campaign slogans like "Nixon's the One" evidence of a personality cult.

Next, there is Obama's declaration that "we are the ones we've been waiting for." The point, which he has made many times, is that voters should take responsibility themselves for enacting change, and thus that his supporters should not treat him as a savior. Obama-as-cult-leader screeds insist upon reading the meaning as the exact reverse. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote, "in the words of his own slogan, 'we are the ones we've been waiting for,' which, translating the royal 'we,' means: 'I am the one we've been waiting for.'" As a pundit, I'm intrigued by this technique of taking a word out of your subject's statement and substituting its opposite. Did you know that McCain's slogan, "Country first," could be translated via the Krauthammer method into "Country last"? Why does John McCain hate America?

Finally, there's Obama's line, "This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." McCain's campaign, and conservative pundits like Mark Steyn and Krauthammer (again), have mocked this as a claim to divine powers. "Moses made the waters recede, but he had help," sneered right-wing columnist Irwin Stelzer. Call me a literalist, but I think Obama was referring to his plan to curtail global warming, which is causing sea levels to rise at a rate of approximately three millimeters a year, rather than boasting supernatural dominion over the elements.

Now, it's certainly true that some enthusiastic Obama fans have displayed unusual zeal for their candidate. Yet it was only a few years ago--before President Bush's approval ratings tanked and conservatives decided that he wasn't actually a conservative at all--that the right had its own personality cult. There was DC 9/11, the Stalinist-style propaganda film reimagining Bush as an action hero boldly defying the terrorists on September 11. National Review, which has published innumerable articles in recent weeks decrying Obama's personality cult, was running advertisements for bronze busts depicting Bush in his "Mission Accomplished" fighter-pilot getup.

After September 11, James Merritt, then-president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told Bush that he had been chosen by God. Bush nodded. (Fred Barnes reported this encounter in The Weekly Standard, concluding, "The stage was set for Bush to be God's agent of wrath.") As Time reported, "Privately, Bush even talked of being chosen by the grace of God to lead at that moment." Claiming you've been chosen by God to lead the world in a titanic clash of good versus evil is pretty much the definition of messianic.

The short-lived cult of Bush, in fact, merely reprised the cult of Reagan that lives on to this day. Reagan kitsch has never gone out of style among Republicans. Numerous conservative pundits have suggested that any public policy question can be solved simply by asking "What would Reagan do?" The Heritage Foundation has a dedicated wwrd website. If, say, Brookings had inserted Obama's name into a phrase usually reserved for Jesus, you can only imagine what conservatives would make of it.

The hysteria about Obama's alleged messianism is, in part, a calculated response to his wild popularity with the Democratic base. McCain does not inspire strong loyalty among Republican partisans. (Indeed, a year ago, conservatives were still savaging him as a self-righteous poseur, and, while they've now discovered virtues in McCain that previously eluded them, it's too early to whip up full-blown Bush-style worship.) The cult accusation is a way of turning Obama's strengths--his rhetorical skills and intense support--into a weakness.

But it's not only a tactic. Conservatives appear genuinely freaked out about the intense loyalty Obama inspires. They're used to their side deeply believing in a presidential candidate. Seeing it happen to the other party is a novel and disconcerting experience. How long has it been since Democrats had genuine enthusiasm for their nominee? Nobody loved John Kerry. I found Al Gore inspiring, but not many others did. Democrats in 1992 were enthusiastic about their party recapturing the White House, but most realized that Clinton was kind of slick and untrustworthy. Jimmy Carter and George McGovern inspired a bit of enthusiasm in some quarters. But Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey, and Lyndon Johnson were all acceptable, and often respected, but not loved.

The spectacle of millions of genuinely enthusiastic Democrats therefore rattles conservatives. And liberals, too--we don't like personality cults, which is why you never see any bronze busts of Clinton in anybody's den. The faith Obama inspires, though, isn't irrational. While unnervingly inexperienced, he's a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament. No, he's not the messiah. But why wait for the messiah to feel optimistic?

 

 Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.

 

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