Obama, The Fallen Messiah

Obamas messianization invited his demonization and created false expectations among his most zealous supporters on the left

Obama's messianization invited his demonization and created false expectations among his most zealous supporters on the left

The following is excerpted from my TPM book club discussion, which features more insight on Obama as Savior by Adele Stan and Sarah Posner:

During a time of economic decline, persistent cultural strife, deepening American involvement in far-off military conflicts, and rapid environmental deterioration, is there any wonder that some have turned to apocalyptic salvation narratives promising both a transcendent, everlasting future and violent retribution against perceived evildoers? A 2002 CNN poll found that 59% of Americans believe that the prophecies in the Book of Revelations will come true. The startling number reflected the still-fresh trauma of the 9/11 attacks, but I suspect that it has held steady, if not risen. Indeed, mainstream American culture is permeated by apocalypticism; the blockbuster movie hit 2012 is but one recent example.

I spend several chapters in my book following the Christian right’s ascent to the mountain top with George W. Bush’s re-election, detailing how the movement shrouded science and reason in the shadow of the cross, then observing as it swiftly imploded during the Terri Schiavo charade. Because I completed my book days after Barack Obama’s inauguration, I was only able to foreshadow the right’s plan to undermine the new president. Having watched the right attempt to delegitimize and literally overthrow Bill Clinton for eight years, I did not harbor any illusions about Obama transcending partisan division by becoming the “liberal Reagan who can reunite America,” as many argued.

What I did not include in my book was any sense of where the Democratic left was going, or how this movement had developed its own salvation narrative during the Bush era. Only a presidency as destructive and radical as Bush’s could have produced such deep levels of anxiety and desperation among progressives. When the Democratic primary began, some progressives seemed to ache for a secular messiah to descend from the political heavens, reverse Bush’s disastrous legacy and save the country from itself.

In their quest for a savior, progressives discovered Barack Obama. “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views,” Obama proclaimed in his book, The Audacity of Hope. As Obama’s primary battle against Hillary Clinton intensified, his rhetoric and the language of his supporters grew increasingly messianic. At a rally in South Carolina, Oprah Winfrey referred to Obama as “The One,” a fusion of Jesus and Neo from The Matrix. When Obama defeated Clinton in Iowa, he quoted from a Hopi Indian End Times prophecy that had become popular among New Agers: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Moved to the point of ecstasy by Obama’s victory speech, Ezra Klein declared the candidate, “not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of the word over flesh… Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our higher selves.”

Though he is not a progressive by even the wildest stretch of the imagination, it is worth noting that Louis Farrakhan, who had consistently ordered his followers to boycott elections and who attacked black politicians from Harold Washington to Jesse Jackson as tools of the white power structure, declared in no uncertain terms that Obama was the Messiah.

Now that some of Obama’s most zealous supporters are beginning to express grave doubts about his ability to deliver the transcendent change he promised, I think it is time for them to consider their role in contributing to the problems Obama faces with both his Democratic base and his opponents on the right. They embraced a secular salvation narrative that Obama cleverly channeled to excite them and distract from his lack of progressive accomplishments. In the end, Obama’s messianization created false expectations while establishing political space for the right to undermine and delegitimize him.

To be sure, Obama’s salvation narrative was dramatically different than the dualistic, malignant version that prevails on the Christian right. Obama never, to my knowledge, played to his supporters’ dark sides by promising them holy retribution against their perceived enemies. In fact, part of his appeal stemmed from his repudiation of partisan rancor — there were no red states where people reject science, demonize gays and attack minority rights. Until he was inaugurated, Obama behaved like a secular Messiah in a world without a Devil.

In my book, I detail a series of experiments by a group of political psychologists seeking to provide evidence that the fear of death inspires extreme conservative beliefs — including apocalypticism. Their study was inspired by a theory of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker: “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity – designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.” The professors discovered that time and again, their study subjects would register more conservative responses to questions if they were first reminded of their own deaths. (See John Judis’ excellent articleon the studies for more).

The use of mortality reminders came in to play as soon as Obama was inaugurated. Almost immediately, the right attempted to delegitimize him by reversing the phenomenon he relied on to win: While he attempted to serve as a blank screen for Americans to project their aspirations upon, they projected their most fearsome inner demons onto him. During the October McCain-Palin rallies, Sarah Palin and far-right surrogates like Joe the Plumber attacked Obama as an Other, a strange outsider who did not share mainstream American values. Their intention was to make him as unfamiliar and frightening as possible, and in doing so, to scare off wavering independent voters. By this time, it was too late in the campaign for the tactic to take effect, so it extended into this year and peaked during the Fall Teabagger rallies and town hall disruptions.

Teabagger activists transposed images of Stalin and Hitler onto Obama’s face. (Their propaganda bore a disturbing resemblance to the signs waved by right-wing Jewish settlers during rallies against Yitzhak Rabin that depicted the soon to be assassinated Israeli PM in Nazi SS garb and as the collaborator Marshall Petain, two seemingly incongruous images). Obama was a Muslim; Obama was a commie; Obama was a cosmopolitan globalist; Obama was a black nationalist. It did not matter who Obama really was. The right simply wanted to convince America he was The Other. As cynical as their tactic is, it has damaged Obama in large part because he offered himself up as “a blank screen,” defining himself as he thought different audiences wished to see him, and ultimately not establishing a very clear identity at all.

The right has complemented its anti-Obama propaganda with false rumors designed to inject the language of death into the healthcare debate. The single most damaging rumor, adopted from the cult of Lyndon LaRouche, refined by healthcare industry lobbyist Betsy McCaughey, and popularized by Sarah Palin, was that Obama’s healthcare reform proposal included a plan to implement “death panels.” While the president pleaded for compromise and reason, the right repeated the baseless charge over and over that he planned to pull the plug on grandma, euthanize the severely handicapped, and kill the sick. Obama has not yet recovered from the damage the right’s mortality reminders did to his political standing.

Since Obama announced his plan to escalate the war in Afghanistan, and with the White House apparently poised to scrap the public option and Medicare buy-in proposals to mollify Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the progressive left is going into contortions. Turn on MSNBC or read any major progressive blog and you will see former Obama zealots proclaim, “Kill the bill!” while assailing the president as an empty suit.

The liberal left has become so disgruntled that a leading conservative talk radio host asked me recently if progressives were considering a primary challenge to Obama. I laughed and stated my belief that despite his troubles, Obama would win a second term. Whether or not that happens, those former Obama fanatics experiencing a crisis in faith should look in the mirror. They demanded a secular salvation narrative and participated in the near-deification of the politician who so eloquently delivered it to them. They now know that Obama is just a politician. What they have refused to acknowledge is that he would not have fallen so hard had they not lifted him so high.

10 thoughts on “Obama, The Fallen Messiah

  1. fermata

    I like this piece but take exception to the notion that the inducement to scrap the public option was to mollify Joe Lieberman. See Glenn Greenwald [ http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2009/12/16/white_house ] in his essay where he refutes the notion that the WH was merely a hapless victim in the health care controversy. Indeed, Greenwald posits, the Obama WH got just about exactly the deal it wanted all along.

    Otherwise, it is true, many of us aggrandized Obama way out of proportion, not only neglecting who he is and what he really believes but neglecting as well what it means to be a politician in America. And for that we should hold ourselves accountable.

    But that does not give the POTUS a pass. I have contempt for a man whose rhetoric would so consistently misrepresent his intent. Instead of the progressive values we had hoped for and which he vowed to hold, he is a man possessed merely of uncommon ambition, intelligence and drive. He is living proof that those human attributes aren’t always used for the best purpose.

  2. Lando Griffin

    Agreed on the excessive deification of Obama while the media should have earned a huge assist here. The drooling commentary by Olberman and Matthews at the inauguration was quite telling in that department.
    You do have two big rumor that has been proven false already here: First, Betsy McCaughey is not a health insurance industry lobbyist. You need to perform such an action before being labeled one. Secondly, the “Death Panel” term was something the media ran with to make claims calling attention to Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel’s “Life Years” Health Care Rationing plan sound hysterical. In fact, it was Dr. Emanuel’s paper on the rationing of health care and attention brought to it that brought to light the potential of the government favoring younger patients over those in the current middle-aged, boomer and senior age brackets when a nation needs to ration its health care resources via the government-run plan.

  3. SeattleJew

    There is a lot wrong with Max’s sermon.

    First he seems to confuse Jesus of History and the messiahs promised by many religions.

    The historic Jesus was a failure in his own time. Aside from the Pauline use of Jesus to create a new message and a new promise, for his contemporaries the outcome of this messiah was the crucifixion, continued Roman repression. and the destruction of Jerusalem as a Jewish city.

    Perhaps this is the radical Christina AND the radical liberal common hope for Obama.

  4. SeattleJew

    There is a lot wrong with Max’s sermon.

    First he seems to confuse Jesus of History and the messiahs promised by many religions.

    The historic Jesus was a failure in his own time. Aside from the Pauline use of Jesus to create a new message and a new promise, for his contemporaries the outcome of this messiah was the crucifixion, continued Roman repression. and the destruction of Jerusalem as a Jewish city.

    Perhaps this is the radical Christian AND the radical liberal common hope for Obama.

  5. SeattleJew

    Second, there appears to be a myth that Obamism of 08 was a messianic campaign. The only messianism I heard was in the derision of the Fauxies … something eerily like the Gospels story of Romans mocking Jesus as “the King of the Jews.”

    There is a Jewish issue here too. Perhaps Max is not aware that the Pharisees, the party of passive resistance that gave rise to Jesus, were VERY practical people. Unlike the later zealots and messianics, the Pharisees taught being true to one own morals while living with the reality od a Roman world. … this is exactly how most of us saw Obama in 08.

    So maybe Obama is mortal ? I hope he is less like the historic or mythical Jesus and more what he appears tol be just a wise and good man in a hard job.

  6. stevelaudig

    A helpful preventative is to read O’s speechs, not listen to them. But the fact that he seriously considered Evan Bayh for vice president should have gotten the message to any progressive that wasn’t asleep. O = J – the butter.

  7. rob levine

    Hey Max – I like your theory. One thing I might point out about the fear of death: We fight like crazy every day to banish the thoughts of death and nothingness. The Republican strategy is to draw those thoughts back to consciousness. The result is that we need “extra” death denial in those instances, which involves all our primal parts, flight or fight, etc.

  8. globleinfosoll

    hanks, dredd. I’ve been at your site a few times lately. I had just been googling about this subject for my husband this morning:
    (from your blog)
    The U.S. is spending more than all the rest of the world combined on weapons of mass destruction and tactical weapons, as well as having built military bases in 120 or more countries, evidently intent on maintaining them indefinitely.
    I had been collecting info a blog about the bases; there is widely divergent info, since some are classified.
    When Congress easily appropriates hundreds of billions at a time for the wars, then gets all deficit-reduction-y over health care, it is just jaw-dropping. My stars. see more details – Massage School Chicago

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