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Yes we Cain?

BY WILL MATTESSICH | JUNE 09, 2011 7:20 AM

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Herman Cain has a warm demeanor, and the pastoral cadence of his words comes straight out of his time as a Baptist associate minister.

His speaking style belied the adversarial undertones of his speech in the IMU second-floor ballroom on Monday evening. The speech provided a stark example of the methods he is using to try to win the Republican nomination: playing on us vs. them sentiments held by a large number of his target audience and using the theme of an America beset on all sides and from within by enemies of freedom. While it may win him paranoid votes, to show real presidential mettle, Cain needs to stop reinforcing misguided fear of the ethnic and political groups that he doesn’t agree with.

The list of enemies he identified is long. It includes Muslims, gay people, liberals, and people who don’t want to say “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

OPEC members (in Cain’s parlance, “King Abdullah and the boys”) were “playing us like a fiddle,” he said. He outlined his policy with China by listing facts about how soon the median income for Chinese families will match the median income for American families, saying, “What are they going to do with that extra money? They’re going to put it into their military and make it as good as ours.”

America’s gay population was also threatening the rest of society, according to Cain. He made it very clear that he doesn’t want gay people forcing their preferences on the rest of “us.” In other words, stalwart American defenders of freedom must confront an existential threat.

The type of attitude that paints an entire group as an enemy is harmful. Playing on worries that Muslim and Chinese families sit around the dinner table plotting against America or that gay people want to force all others to change their way of life creates societal schisms that promote unfounded enmity in society.

To Cain, the target of these threats is “us.” He subtly identified who exactly that “us” was by frequently talking about “the people” and how their feelings aren’t respected enough. He continued to extol the virtues of empowering “the people” and allowing “the will of the people” to prevail.

Who are “the people” whom Cain wants to empower? It’s clear that many citizens will be left out of that group. When he was talking about “us” in his speech, he didn’t mean all Americans, or all Iowans, or even every person in the second-floor ballroom who came to listen to him. Cain’s elect doesn’t include gays, liberals, Muslims, or anyone else who doesn’t agree with his brand of reactionary social conservatism. His campaign, narrowly targeted as primary campaigns are, is focused on the people who already fear outsiders and minorities.

Cain has shown his willingness to play on Islamophobia in the past, telling a reporter in March that there is “this creeping attempt, there is this attempt to gradually ease sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government.” He hasn’t deigned to elaborate on where and when he has seen any evidence of these attempts, but a CBS poll done in late 2010 shows he doesn’t have to. In the poll, 61 percent of Republicans surveyed had an unfavorable view of Muslims. Cain knows this, and he uses it to his advantage.

He spoke to reporters about the referendum to prohibit the use of sharia in Oklahoma courts and criticized the federal judge who filed an injunction preventing the measure from being implemented.

The Oklahoma issue was a perfect example for Cain to illustrate his narrative. It involved citizens fighting back against a perceived threat by a group outside of his “us.”

If he attains the presidency, the country he represents will necessarily include more than just the people he thinks are “true Americans.” He needs to stop campaigning in a way that reinforces attitudes of enmity based on tenuously identified threats.

Divisive demagogues, even ones with perfect radio voices, have no place in the White House.


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