Even if you never met him, you know this guy.  He’s the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by. ~Karl Rove

Sullivan seems to see this as a case of resentment stemming from an inferiority complex, which is possible but not really the point, while Chris Orr remarks:

On the plus side, this presumable means Rove is giving up on the whole radical-Muslim-foreigner-outsider frame.

Doubtful.  That’s part of the reason why framing Obama that way can be crudely effective, because it can be combined fairly easily with the portrayal of him as the aloof, arrogant elitist.  This is why I have long marveled at his admirers’ willingness to brag about Obama as globalisation personified in an era when most Americans are not very keen on globalisation.  (Incidentally, this is also what makes his pandering on NAFTA potentially much more damaging to him than it might usually be, since it seems to confirm Obama as a champion of economic globalisation and a personification of cultural globalisation, and the anxieties and discontent about both then combine and bleed into each other to create an even more powerful backlash.) 

Indeed, that is how the portrayal of elites tends to work: it is not disparity of wealth, power and status in itself that is used to criticise them, but all the ways that this disparity creates social or cultural distance from a majority of people in the country.  This is why it was more politically harmful for Kerry to be seen as a Francophile and someone who had gone to school in Europe than it was that he had married into great wealth.  This is why the phony populism of Fred Thompson in his pickup truck or George Bush aw-shucksing his way around the country while talking about his “favourite philosopher” works even for those politicians who are obviously wealthy and well-connected.  Everyone knows that the phony populism is an act, but it is the sort of condescension that flatters rather than dismisses, and most voters are as susceptible to flattery as anyone.  If identity is central to mass democratic politics, things that create barriers to identification between the candidate and voters can work in complementary fashion even when they may seem to be contradicting one another.  

That it is strictly speaking illogical does not matter, because this tactic is not supposed to make sense.  I think this is one reason why fearmongers and warmongers succeed as often as they do–their critics attack their arguments logically and show them to be absurd and reveal their facts to be inaccurate, but this does nothing to allay the fears that such arguments generate.  To some extent, the sheer absurdity of the idea that Iraq posed a threat to the United States, for example, is what made is such a compelling idea in the wake of 9/11, when paranoid hallucinations of danger were considered the sober, responsible reaction to terrorism.  When McCain’s campaign talks about someone exhibiting a “September 10th mindset,” they are really saying, “This person is not showing enough hysterical fear and no longer imagines enemies hiding behind every tree.”  And we are supposed to think that this is a very bad thing!   

Think of this another way: outsiders can be demonised or caricatured, but for the most part they are seen as less threatening because they come from the margins or from some other “outside,” while portraying someone as an outsider who is also the consummate insider can generate a number of different kinds of anxiety and fear.  To the extent that Obama claims to be the political outsider, claiming that he is a foreign or marginal outsider of a different kind turns his call for change into a threat of takeover, while dwelling on his arrogance or insiderish qualities also isolates him from voters, weakens his credibility as a reformer and undermines his fav ratings, which are one of his greatest sources of political strength.  As long as enough people like Obama, McCain will keep struggling and probably won’t win.  If that can be damaged (and it has already been damaged to some extent), it improves McCain’s chances.   Insiders, such as Rove, use the insider attack to distance Obama from voters, just as it was mostly elites who hammered Obama for his elitism.  Even though this acknowledges that Obama is really a paid-up member of the political class and the Washington “club” to which so many of his critics belong, it ties him to the system he proposes to change, while the elitist charge can be deployed in another way to make Obama seem alien and unfamiliar.  The arrogance meme has been gaining strength lately thanks to such idiotic mistakes as that travesty of a seal, and it would not hard to imagine how the seal episode could be spun to impugn Obama’s Americanism in a way that would mesh with the chain e-mail attacks.  The attack would go something like, “He wants to be President, but he doesn’t even have respect for the presidential seal,” and then the bogus charges about his lack of respect for the flag, or the Pledge of Allegiance or the national anthem or what-have-you would be tacked on to “prove” the point.  This latest shot from Rove is just the first punch in a combination, so we can expect to see a number of different lines of attack being used in combination over the next few months.

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