McCain-Palin and the Lucifer Effect: The Dangerous, Violent Rhetoric Against Barack Obama

The language of the McCain-Palin campaign now goes far beyond the divisive language that has most typically characterized U.S. political campaigns. McCain and Palin are promoting a perception of Obama as an enemy, not as an opponent.
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In recent weeks, as the McCain-Palin campaign has increasingly been called out for leveraging --- at rallies and in its notorious robocalls --- words of division, suspicion, and contempt, the emotions and tempers of McCain-Palin supporters have been heated beyond the boiling point. The language of the McCain-Palin campaign now goes far beyond the divisive language typical of modern American political campaigns. John McCain and Sarah Palin are actively promoting a perception of Barack Obama as an enemy, not as an opponent.

Civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) said that John McCain and Sarah Palin are "sowing the seeds of hatred and division" through hostile rhetoric. Indeed scientific research by psychologists has shown that the type of framing used by McCain, Palin, and their surrogates can create and foster disunity, hostility, and even violence. The resulting societal tensions may be more lasting and severe than John McCain and Sarah Palin realize.

2008-06-10-otb_outpost.jpgIn The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, famous psychologist and researcher Philip Zimbardo discusses his lifelong research into the psyche of good people who engage in evil acts. He warns first about the dangers of psychological constructions that imbue people with "otherness" and then issues even stronger warnings about the dangers of psychological constructions that transform "others" into "the enemy."

The process begins with creating stereotyped conceptions of the other, dehumanized perceptions of the other, the other as worthless, the other as all-powerful, the other as demonic, the other as an abstract monster, the other as a fundamental threat to our cherished values and beliefs. With public fear notched up and the enemy threat imminent, reasonable people act irrationally, independent people act in mindless conformity, and peaceful people act as warriors.

When Sarah Palin says, in her stump speech, "Obama does not see America the way you see America," she is separating Obama from what social psychologists call the "ingroup." Both Palin and McCain suggest that Obama does not share the goals of ordinary Americans, that he and his associates are somehow anti-American, that he is a socialist, and that he pals around with terrorists.

Through this rhetoric they aim to separate Obama from patriotic Americans --- to make Obama the other, to make him one of them, to characterize him with the property of otherness. Then, Sarah Palin escalates the rhetoric by adding, "He sees America as so imperfect that he pals around with terrorists," effectively transforming the other into the enemy.

Psychologists Kathlyn and Gay Hendricks point out that the McCain-Palin campaign is doing all they can to heighten fears about Obama. Specifically, they say,

McCain/Palin want us to be scared that Obama is "the other," not like us, not a real American. They want us to be scared that Obama might worship another god. They want us to be scared that Obama pals around with terrorists and gets his spiritual counsel from an America-hating minister.

John McCain and Sarah Palin are attempting to imbue Obama with the characteristics of a traitor by disassociating him from "real America" and associating him with those who are commonly accepted in our society as public enemies. They are using rhetoric that has traditionally been reserved for propaganda against traitors and foreign enemies.

In fact, the McCain-Palin campaign is systematically invoking the image of an accepted enemy for each currently living generation, systematically creating an "us versus them" framework:

Communist and Socialist --- for the older generation, those who were reared with fears of Stalinism and Marxism and Maoism

Terrorist and Muslim --- for the younger generation, those whose fears center around the religious extremism, guerrilla warfare, or suicide bombers

McCain, Palin, and their surrogates have chosen to use words that are associated with the accepted enemies of each generation and each targeted social group, and they have applied those words to Barack Obama.

The McCain-Palin campaign is using what social psychologists call images of the enemy to create a hostile imagination. With words like "dangerous" and "terrorist" and "socialist," the McCain-Palin campaign relegates Obama to an "outgroup"; they imbue him with the characteristics of otherness (he is not a "real American"); and they characterize him as an accepted enemy of the state (he is a "socialist" who "pals around with terrorists"). This language makes it seem acceptable to regard Obama as less than ingroup members and as the enemy.

McCain, Palin, and their surrogates are effectively engaging in psyops traditionally used during times of war (or cold war). It is not the mere characterization, though, of Obama as the other and as the enemy that is so potentially destructive. Rather, it is when people feel that their core values or way of life are/is threatened that passive fear and hostility transform into hostile action.

The attacks against Obama's patriotism and faith combined with claims that Obama has socialist tendencies are the trifecta. Those who believe that Obama is an America-hating Muslim socialist perceive an Obama presidency as an imminent threat to the American way of life and to the American values system. The fear is transformed.

Remember, Zimbardo found through psychological research,

With public fear notched up and the enemy threat imminent, reasonable people act irrationally, independent people act in mindless conformity, and peaceful people act as warriors.

In The Lucificer Effect, Zimbardo also illustrated through scientific research that:

It is fear of vulnerability among citizens who can imagine what it would be like to be dominated by the enemy. That fear becomes morphed into hatred and a willingness to take hostile action to reduce its threat.

John McCain said during a debate that ACORN

may be perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy

McCain has repeatedly attempted to tie Obama to ACORN. Claims have been made that Obama worked for ACORN, that ACORN worked for Obama, that ACORN was involved in Project Vote, which gave Obama his start in politics. Although and other uninterested third parties say that there is little truth to these claims, John McCain has used ACORN to create the illusion of a threat by Obama to the American way of life -- explicitly, a threat to the "fabric of democracy." ACORN and Obama have been inundated with threats, an ACORN office has been vandalized, and an Obama canvasser was beaten by a man who mistakenly assumed she worked for ACORN.

The charge that Obama does not share the values and goals of "real Americans" may be the most serious charge in the McCain-Palin arsenal of propaganda. The way humans react to outgroup members is highly dependent on whether the outgroup is seen as cooperative or competitive and whether or not the outgroup helps or hinders the goals of the ingroup. This competitive atmosphere of this race is heightened because it is not just a race for an honorary head of state, this is the race for the role of Commander in Chief, the head of the executive branch and the commander of the military. When the goals of a "scapegoat outgroup" (socialists, Muslims, communists, terrorists) conflict with those of "real America," it is serious. When a member of that outgroup could potentially take command of the country, it is dire.

In his book, Zimbardo also notes,

Archetypes of the enemy are created by ... propaganda that most nations use against those judged to be dangerous "them," "outsiders," "enemies. [This] creates a consensual societal paranoia that is focused on the enemy who would do harm to ... that nation's way of life, destroying its fundamental beliefs and values.

The creation of an "ingroup versus outgroup" situation (us versus them) along with the subsequent derogation of that outgroup is dangerous. It is the perpetuation of this type of intergroup prejudice and hostility that creates cults, conflicts, religious wars, and in the most extraordinarily extreme cases, even genocide.

Although John McCain has plausible deniability regarding some of the more outlandish and frightening smears (some smears began long before the primaries were even in full swing), the McCain-Palin campaign has done little to dispel the smears and myths even when shouted or spoken from the lectern at their rallies. Cultural Anthropologist Jeffrey Feldman says

The McCain campaign has staked its future on rhetoric that skirts the boundary between character assassination and incitements of actual violence against their opponent

At a rally last week, a McCain supporter said, with microphone in hand, that she is scared of an Obama presidency because he is an Arab. In his strongest rebuke yet, McCain provided a weak and vague reply, "No, he is a decent man," never really correcting the falsity by saying explicitly that Obama is not an Arab and never really acknowledging that an Arab can also be a decent man. Nevertheless, the crowd booed McCain for his meek rebuke.

Feldman notes the "complete repackaging of the McCain campaign" in "violent populism." He notes a Time report about McCain staff in Virginia training volunteers to tie Obama to Pentagon bombings and says that the McCain campaign has "a ground operation actually training its volunteers to elicit violent responses in voters--specifically by making false claims about Barack Obama." This raises questions, he says, of whether "John McCain is using campaign rhetoric that not only depart from recognized moral boundaries, but risk igniting actual violence."

Some pundits have been reluctant to believe that John McCain would want to launch these baseless and wrongheaded attacks. They lament, where has the real John McCain gone? Many in the media alternate between mourning the myth they believed and resenting that they'd been had.

According to Hendricks, McCain's body language belies contempt and hatred and an anger boiling just below the surface. McCain seems to see himself as a warrior attacking his enemy rather than an opponent engaged in competition. My own observation is that when McCain uses vile words to attack Obama (terrorist, socialist, and so on), he grins widely, smugly, teeth glittering, shoulders held high, head tilted upward in satisfaction and pride. He is not rueful, he is haughty.

The McCain-Palin campaign continues to make the assertion that the American people need to know the full extent of the Ayers and Rezko associations for one reason only: It is impossible to prove a negative. This is the very reason that our founding fathers included "innocent until proven guilty" in our Constitution, putting the burden of proof on the accuser. Obama can provide every last detail of his relationships, but he can never prove that he has no further information to give. Nevermind that thousands of people have investigated these relationships and found nothing. Obama cannot prove that there was not some other detail. This allows the McCain campaign to ask, "Who is the real Barack Obama?" and to use suggestion, innuendo, and insinuation to answer that question.

During the last week, the McCain-Palin campaign has engaged in an onslaught of pro-America versus anti-America rhetoric. They doubled down on the "us versus them" sentiment. At a rally in North Carolina, Palin told the crowd how happy she was to be in a pro-America part of the country.

In a well coordinated attack on the Obama movement, Sarah Palin escalated the rhetoric by dividing the electorate into pro-America and anti-America geographical swaths. Rep. McCain advisor Nancy Pfotenhauer told Hardball host Chris Matthews that only conservative Southern Virginia is "real Virginia" - those who live in Northern Virginia don't count. Michele Bachman upped the ante again by calling for investigations into the patriotism of every member of Congress. Rep. Robin Hayes (R-NC) told a crowd of rally goers,

liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God

"Anti-American" became a GOP mantra over the last week, leading Feldman to call it the "smear du jour" and to ask,

Has the entire political wing of Republicanism officially collapsed into cries 'anti-Americanism' like some endless robocall recording of O'Reilly-Coulter-Hannity-Gingrich greatest hits?

As a result, some McCain-Palin supporters are now unleashing raw emotion during political rallies. Neither McCain nor Palin deign to stop and confront those who shout "terrorist" or "kill him" at the mere mention of Obama's name during the McCain and Palin rallies. Palin indulges rally goers at her events, even egging on out of control rally goers as they directed their ire at the media area.

After several reports, most notably a report from Al-Jazeera in Ohio, showed video footage of ordinary citizens across the country voicing real belief that Obama is a terrorist, along with other outlandish myths, New York University professor Jeffrey Feldman, an expert in violent rhetoric in American politics, said,

Suddenly, thousands of people in St. Clairsville, Ohio will be convinced that the country has been taken over by a person with ties to terrorism and who seeks revenge against white people. Can you imagine the fear that is going to rip through towns like St. Clairsville?


These small towns in the Midwest who are most persuaded by the McCain-Palin violent rhetoric about Obama--these towns will devolve into a political arena rooted in fear of their own country. These are not a few disparate folks living in the woods with bottled water, cans of milk, and boxes of shotgun shells. These are the populations of entire towns, dotted across the country, in dozens of states. And they are set to become--lost.

There has been an onslaught of incidents escalating over the last week, from verbal attacks to vandalism, from spitting to full blown violence.

Sunday, October 12

In one case, an Obama supporter was shopping with his infant son when an angry McCain-Palin supporter rammed his shopping cart. Luckily, the police were able to identify the man from video of his license plate, and he was charged with assault.

Wednesday, October 15

In Greensboro, North Carolina, a reporter Joe Killian was kicked to the ground at a Palin rally just for doing his job. He was interviewing Obama supporters who were protesting the Palin rally after a group of angry McCain-Palin supporters warned him that Palin was the story - not the protesters. One McCain-Palin supporter was so angry at Killian for interviewing the Obama supporters that he kicked him to the ground - from behind.

Friday, October 17

Even Barack Obama's home state is not immune. Two separate homeowners in Villa Park, Illinois found death threats in their mailboxes that read,

Get the Obama signs off your property - now. Failure to obey this order will result in the immediate death of all family members.

Although both families vow to keep the signs in their yards, one of the families is now afraid to let their 7 year old son play outside in the yard.

Saturday, October 18

In Wisconsin, McCain-Palin supporter Ronald Goetsch physically attacked 58 year old Nancy Takehara, grabbing her by the hair and striking her in the face, while she was canvassing for Obama. According to Takehara, "[Goetsch] was telling us we're not his people, we're probably with ACORN, and he started screaming and raving. He grabbed me by the back of the neck. I thought he was going to rip my hair out of my head. He was pounding on my head and screaming. The man terrified me."

By the time Takehara returned to her home in Chicago, she had a message from Barack Obama on her answering machine. She called the number that had been left on her machine and talked directly to Obama. He reassured her and said that this is an isolated and extremely rare occurrence, but many Obama canvassers have begun to voice fear or nervousness about canvassing both because of a rash of incidents reported in the news and because of a notable change in atmosphere on the streets. Some who were previously comfortable canvassing along are now opting to canvass in pairs.

Saturday, October 18

Incidents have even occurred at Obama events. In Fayetteville, North Carolina, someone slashed the tires on more than 30 cars during an Obama rally, leaving women and children stranded. Lynne Steenstra, whose tires were slashed, believes it was meant to intimidate Obama supporters, to prevent them from casting their votes.

Sunday, October 19

The car of an Obama volunteer was trashed (rear windshield smashed, spray painted, stolen Obama signs shoved into the backseat) while he was out to dinner with friends.

Sunday, October 19

In Princeton, West Virginia, a crowd of McCain-Palin supporters gathered to heckle and intimidate mostly black voters as they arrive to vote at an early voting location. When journalist Christina Bellantoni asked the sheriff if the protesters were allowed at the early voting location, the sheriff showed no concern of voter intimidation and merely answered, "They're fine."

October 19, 2008

In Fairfield, Ohio, Mike Lunsford hung an Obama effigy from a noose in a tree in his front yard. He attached a campaign sign to a ghost figure, wrote "Hussain" (yes, it was misspelled), put a noose around its neck, and strung it up in a tree.

I have found no reports of Obama supporters retaliating or otherwise engaging in violence in this campaign.

Tuesday, October 20

A bear carcass was dumped with Obama signs strung around its neck at the base of the statue at the entrance to the Western Carolina University campus in Cullowhee, North Carolina, where tensions have recently been heating up between conservative locals and liberal college students.

October 21, 2008

Someone took an Obama yard sign and replaced it with a large Confederate flag in the yard of an elderly African American minister. That night, after the flag had been replaced with a new Obama sign, a car drove by several times, honking and yelling at the family. The next day, the car returned again, honking and yelling in broad daylight, "No Change!" while a reporter interviewed the family in the yard. The minister told a local reporter that he had a simple message to pass on to the culprit, "I love you, and God does too." The Baptist minister also told the reporter, "I feel like this is somebody with a lot of hatred in their heart. It's our job to help the guy try to do better in life."

What can the Obama campaign and Obama supporters do to stave off the psyops of the McCain-Palin campaign?

Barack Obama and his campaign staff and volunteers are already doing it. Social influence research shows that having shared goals (task interdependence) is the best way to integrate ingroup and outgroup ("us versus them") members. Obama, his staff, and his volunteers should simply continue to emphasize the goals, dreams, and values that Barack Obama shares with ordinary Americans. Barack Obama and his supporters should continue to emphasis his shared "American experience".

Feldman wisely notes, though, that this work will not end after the election even if Barack Obama wins,

Anyone blaming the McCain-Palin campaign for stoking the prejudices of people in small towns should also be talking about how the McCain-Palin campaign is going to leave these same people drowning in a sea of propaganda-inspired fear on Nov. 5 if Barack Obama wins.

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