Let’s update political jargon. Writers still use “dog whistle” for a political message heard clearly by one audience but entirely missed by everyone else. That’s so twentieth-century. Please update to “teenage ring-tone”: Young ears hear it. Older ones don’t. Students yes, profs no. You can pick the tone that will be heard by the age group you want. But be careful: Some people have young ears.
The political equivalent is John McCain’s invidious “He’s the One” ad. Ostensibly, it merely suggests that anyone who inspires people must be a poor leader. (Well, don’t expect a Republican to remember FDR or JFK. But what about Churchill?)
But the message is really intended to ring loudly for dispensationalists, the subset of conservative evangelicals who are looking forward to the Rapture, the Tribulation, the whole timeline of approaching apocalypse. While McCain has officially rejected the endorsement of John Hagee, he’s still ringing the bell for Hagee’s followers.
For those with ears to hear, the ad’s message is simple: Obama is presenting himself as a messiah. According to dispensationalists, a critical sign of the approaching End Times is that a false messiah, a.k.a. the Antichrist, will present himself. He’ll be incredibly charismatic, and promise to bring global peace and solve the world’s problem. But he’ll actually abuse the world’s confidence, behave diabolically, and persecute true believers. If Obama is presenting himself as the messiah, then he’s the Antichrist.
To get the message across, the ad uses faux “biblical” English: “It shall be known that in 2008 the world will be blessed.” It tells us that Obama “has annointed himself.” (Messiah means “annointed one.”) It shows the candidate promising “a nation healed, a world repaired.” (See, anyone who promises good things must really be evil, because human beings can’t achieve such stuff, they have to wait for God to repair the world.) The ad claims that Obama believes “he can do no wrong.” He believes he can split the Red Sea. Any of the many millions of people who have read TimLaHaye’s apocalyptic Left Behind novels will automatically think of Nicolae Carpathia, the Antichrist figure in the series, who starts as charismatic politician and ends as Satan incarnate.
Some of McCain’s intended audience won’t quite accept that Obama is the Antichrist. Hagee himself thinks that the Antichrist must be “at least… partially Jewish,” which puts Hagee on the same page as the late Jerry Falwell. Hal Lindsey, who before LaHaye was the most successful populizer of dispensationalism, has written an article at the ultra-right WorldNetDaily arguing that Obama is merely preparing the way for the Antichrist. The African-American guy, he’s the assistant, he doesn’t qualify for the top job.
On the surface, labelling Obama as the Antichrist is a bad idea. Dispensationalists look forward to the End, and the Antichrist’s arrival is therefore a positive sign – just like the return of the Jews to their land is a positive sign. But this contradiction runs through pop-dispensationalism. Mike Evans, another preacher in this vein, once wrote a book that denounced the Oslo process as a plot masterminded by the Antichrist. Yet Evans eagerly looked forward to the End, with all its attendant horrors.
At The Stump, Michael Crowley presents this reading of McCain’s ad as “an entertaining theory.” Like a teacher who thinks it’s an entertaining theory that the kids are hearing something he can’t.