For some while now, I have been gaping in awe and befuddlement at the campaign of Herman Cain. I feel some obligation as a blogger to comment on what is surely the most bizarre presidential candidacy in my lifetime, but for the life of me I have been unable to find the appropriate standpoint from which to launch my commentary. Last night, Rachel Maddow devoted a segment of her nightly show to the subject, and with what I am compelled to believe was a brilliant satirical thrust, skewered Cain and his campaign, and along with him the entire commentariat -- mainstream, Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and Underground.
Her shtick can be found here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315908/ns/msnbc_tv-rachel_maddow_show/
Maddow chose to portray Cain's campaign as a piece of satirical performance art that has grown broader and more daring, more or less out of desperation, as the entire Republican Party has persisted in taking him seriously, despite his truly heroic efforts to tip them off, to let them -- and the rest of us -- in on the joke.
Her literary critical analysis begins with the very first Debate, at the end of which, when it came time for the two minute concluding statements, Cain quote several lines from what he identified as "a great poet," but which were actually taken from a song in the Pokemon movie.
Well, no one got that joke, so next he unveiled his now famous 9-9-9 tax plan, which, it seems comes straight out of the interactive computer game Sim City. When this was pointed out, both to him and to the world, the Republican voters did not applaud the comedy routine and usher Cain from the political arena. Instead, they drove his poll numbers up, eclipsing Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and the egregious Rick Santorum.
Getting desperate now for his audience to catch on [there is nothing worse than being a stand-up comic in a cold house], Cain uttered his notorious line about one of America's Central Asian allies: "If someone asks me who the President is of Uzbeki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I will say, I don't know, do you?" That is not a flubbed answer, or a poorly handled foreign policy question. It bears no relation to Sarah Palin's inability to respond to Katie Couric's softball question, "Which newspapers do you read?" Cain's line is patently a comic throwaway, a rib-tickler, a gut-buster, a bit of tomfoolery. The pundits just stroked their chins and allowed as how Herman did not seem to be up on his foreign policy.
When Cain got to the top of the polls, how did he respond? He released a "campaign" ad in which his Campaign Manager blew smoke into the camera, after which the "candidate" himself slowly and deliberately exhibited a Cheshire Cat smile that as much as said, "Get it?"
Whereupon, Cain took off on a month long book tour!
The only thing Cain has done that looks remotely like the action of a serious candidate is to screw up his response to the revelations of his past history of sexual harassment charges. Now that really does look like the behavior of a political candidate --like a Newt Gingrich, a Bill Clinton, a Mark Sanford, a Gary Hart, a John Edwards.
Cain's latest bit of comic foolishness? His enthusiastic embrace of the Koch billionaires with a line right out of the 'hood: "I am their brother by another mother."
There are two questions that force themselves on us, the second even more interesting than the first: Is Maddow right that Cain is engaged in a deliberate bit of "performance art"?, And Why are the Republican voters buying it?
The first goes to motive, as they say in the law courts, and since I have never so much as seen Herman Cain in person, I cannot form a sound judgment about what he thinks he is doing. But I do have some opinions.
Herman Cain, I suggest, is only the most recent in a long, long line of Black comedians who placate, flatter, and reassure White racists by presenting themselves as caricatures of African-American men and women. Quite often these performances are deliberately and deeply ironic, a way of laughing at Whitey without getting lynched. Sometimes they are compromises made by gifted Black actors who can only get work by conforming their self-presentations to the prejudices of their audiences ["I don' know nothing about birthin' babies, Mis Scarlet."] And in some instances, alas, they are uncomplicatedly complicit in those prejudices.
I simply cannot tell which sort of minstrel Cain is playing. But I suspect he is not stupid, and it is just not possible to be Black in America, especially for one of his generation, without understanding these things viscerally.
The appeal to White Republicans? For years, they have been berated as racists. Although the charge is true, they hate it. their reaction is a of a piece with their deeply resentful sense that the educated, the successful, the Liberal, are looking down on them. By embracing Cain, they are giving the collective finger to the powerful, the successful, the ascendant, in their own Republican Party as well as in the Democratic Party. Ann Coulter, who can always be relied upon to say out loud what more cautious bigots will only mutter sotto voce, gave the game away when she said "Our Blacks are so much better than their Blacks." [I suspect Coulter is unaware of the famous 1859 Harriet Wilson novel Our Nig.]
How will this all play out? I simply cannot tell. Will Cain actually go through with the charade and allow people to choose convention delegates committed to him? Will he, God help us, win enough delegates to be competitive at the convention? The mean spirited gutter fighter in me hopes the answer is "yes," but the serious political philosopher shrinks from the prospect.