A Word From Afar: Campaign Rhetoric As An Invitation To Violence
A Word From Afar is a regular column that analyses political/strategic/international interest.
Heading into the homestretch of the 2008 US presidential elections, there is an elephant in the room that few want to
speak about. It occasionally appears as a topic of political gossip, in foreign press editorials, on the web and in US
newspaper back pages, but it is not confronted as a topic of mainstream interest. The subject is ugly, unthinkable in
polite society, and impolitic to mention. That is the possibility of political assassination, specifically that of
Barack Obama. Let us discuss it here.
The issue is one of electoral context and demeanor. The contrast between the moods of both campaigns is remarkable.
Increasingly confident of a decisive victory, Barack Obama and Joe Biden focus their speeches on what they will do in
office, specifically concentrating on the immediate challenges of providing remedies for the national economic crisis
and addressing the disarrayed state of US foreign policy in the wake of the W. Bush years. In contrast, the Republican
ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin focus their energies on issuing dire warnings as to what will happen should Obama
The language used by Republicans is provocative: Obama is a socialist (because he believes in using tax policy to
redistribute wealth), he is a friend of terrorists, black separatists and criminals (because he worked with a community
activist who once was a anti-Vietnam War militant, worshipped in a church led by a strident preacher and had a
professional relationship with a convicted influence-peddling property developer), he is not a “normal” American
(because of his name, mixed race and background), he is elitist (because of his education), he will steal the election
(because of his ties to grassroots voter registration efforts), he will cut and run in Iraq and will make the US more
vulnerable to attack by Islamicists (either because he is sympathetic to them or because he is soft-spined). In short,
he is painted as the enemy within.
The reason for this is clear. Devoid of substantive policy options and facing the prospect of a massive defeat, the
Republicans hope to scare undecided American voters into rejecting the change—or better said, the uncertainty-- which an
Obama presidency represents. They pander to ignorance and fear rather than optimism and hope in order to encourage
voters to turn their backs on uncertainty and embrace something that offers the appearance of familiarity and tradition.
“Country First” is the rhetorical cover for this counter-reformist message, even if the Republicans appear to care less
about country than they do about holding onto the presidency.
Yet, in an election in which a person of colour has the possibility of becoming Commander in Chief during a time of
national crisis, it remains to be seen if the majority of the electorate will want to be on the side of those who prefer
to reject history rather than help make it. From early voting polls, most will not.
The Republicans have had some success in their project. The rage at McCain/Palin rallies is palpable. In contrast to the
giddy (delusional?) displays at the GOP convention, they have become anger fests punctuated by boos and jeers as the
specter of nuclear attacks, communism, terrorism and the loss of Christian values under an Obama-led democratic
administration are invoked as reasons to vote Republican. The prospect of national collapse is held to be imminent
In their negative campaigning, in the tone of their vitriol, in the repetition of false accusations and smears that lead
their followers to believe that Obama is un-American, treasonous (for which the penalty under US federal statutes
includes death, particularly in wartime), that he is a closet Arab, disguised Muslim, foreign born, etc., what the
Republican campaign managers and their media surrogates are doing is something much more dangerous than trying to win an
election. Elementary discursive analysis reveals the not-to-subtle cues to direct action embedded in the Republican
campaign rhetoric. Put bluntly: by demonising Barack Obama, it is a subliminal invitation to murder.
From the day Obama announced his campaign for the presidency, black Americans and white liberals have worried that he
would get killed. They have historical reason to believe so. Modern prophets of change in the US such as Martin Luther
King, Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X were all murdered. The modern record for presidential shootings is equally alarming.
John Kennedy was murdered 45 years ago, Gerald Ford shot at in 1975 and Ronald Reagan wounded in 1981 (president George
H.W. Bush claimed an assassination plot by Saddam Hussein as well). In terms of statistical probability, the US is
overdue for a presidential homicide, especially if the person targeted is an agent of change that discomfits unhinged
sectors of the conservative population. Given the historical and contemporary complexion of US politics, the target for
assassination in all probability is Barack Obama. With the Republican campaign rhetoric of the moment, that probability
This is why the Obama demonisation project is dangerous. Words have consequences beyond their original meaning, however
unintended. The venom directed at Obama is exactly the type that touches the nerve of extremist elements in the American
polity. Neo-Nazis, xenophobes, anti-communists, Christian fundamentalists, assorted right-wing militia groups,
anti-abortionists, Klansmen and racists of various stripes—the number of potentially dangerous individuals incited by
the Republican campaign discourse is large. Such people have proven records of murderous violence against those they
despise. To pour fuel on the fires of their visceral hatred is to encourage someone to take matters into their own hands
in order to prevent Obama from winning the presidency or, if he does, prevent him from either assuming office or serving
out his term.
The warning signs are there. An alleged white supremacy plot against Obama’s life was disrupted the week before the
Democratic National Convention in Denver. Shouts of “kill him” and “traitor” greeted Sarah Palin’s invocation of his
name at Midwestern campaign rallies. A uniformed police officer referred to him as Hussein Obama at a Florida rally.
Although Senator McCain meekly attempts to restore some civility to his campaign, Governor Palin continues to question
Obama’s patriotism and associations (at the same time refusing to label abortion clinic bombers as “terrorists” or
repudiate the openly racist chants from her audiences). As many have said, the atmosphere in the Republican camp is
toxic. It could well be lethal.
The real threat does not come from incompetent skinheads, redneck sheriffs or the intellectual midgets who shout
epithets from the rafters at Palin rallies and on cable TV shows. It comes from those with some measure of acumen and
skill who interiorize their rage and plot silently. They could be military, ex-military, former or active duty law
enforcement personnel, with knowledge and access to the tools required to undertake a targeted assassination. They may
know how to hunt, so understand basic issues of cover and position. Given the security measures in place and need for
corresponding secrecy, they would likely undertake an assassination “mission” as a loan wolf or decentralized small
group operation. All it takes is preparation and a triggering event to precipitate the plan into action. The Republican
campaign rhetoric could be the trigger. After all, by their implicit logic it is a patriotic duty to prevent, by force
if necessary, the collapse of the American way of life.
The unwitting incitement to murder is one-sided. The Democrats engage in personal attacks on Senator McCain and Governor
Palin, but none of these reach the level of calling them “treasonous” or anti-American. No mainstream Democrat
feverishly predicts the end of the American way of life should McCain and Palin win, and most of their criticism of
McCain and Palin comes in the form of ridicule. The Democratic rallies are love fests when compared to those of the
Republicans, with less energy put into critiquing the opponents than of offering hope for a better future under Obama’s
leadership. John McCain and Sarah Palin consequently have little to fear from Obama supporters when it comes to their
personal safety, win or lose. The same is not true the other way around.
The Secret Service recognized the problem early when it assigned the largest security detail ever for a party candidate
to Senator Obama early in the primary season. That detail has been reinforced since his nomination, with the Secret
Service concerned about the vulnerabilities inherent in the mass gatherings and “press the flesh” opportunities staged
by his campaign. In recent weeks law enforcement agencies in the localities in which Obama appears have expanded their
intelligence and surveillance gathering efforts as well as security around campaign sites. The FBI has increased its
scrutiny of right wing extremists, and both the CIA and FBI are on alert for foreign-originated threats (which the
Department of Homeland Security has been obsessively focused on to the exclusion of domestic terrorism).
Senator McCain and Governor Palin have their own Secret Service details and have the protection of both federal and
local security agencies when out on the campaign trail, but none of this comes close to that accorded to Senator Obama.
The reason is simple: the danger to Obama is imminent and real.
This is a delicate moment in the US presidential campaign. Unless the Republicans explicitly call on their supporters to
reject the use of violence regardless of the election outcome, and unless they moderate their rhetoric so that an
electoral loss is not seen as the end of the world by their most zealous supporters, then the possibility of an
assassination attempt on Barack Obama cannot be discounted. More than any US political figure of the last two decades,
he is the one who has most inflamed desperate (as well as hopeful) passions, and he is consequently the most likely to
It is important to understand the seriousness of the threat posed by Republican demonisation of Barack Obama. An attempt
on his life, especially if successful, could spell the terminal rupture of the US political consensus and a descent into
open social conflict. Recognising this fact is not being alarmist. It is being coldly realistic. It just takes someone
outside the US to say so.
Paul G. Buchanan studies comparative strategic thought. He was formerly an analyst and consultant to several US