Jesse, I'm with you on the idea that Cain's popularity is inexplicable, mostly because the man has no name recognition. But his speech where he announces his run for President explains so much:
He ends the speech—no joke—by saying, "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, this nation is free at last again." You know, quoting the only MLK speech your average Tea Partier has passing familiarity with.
You know, even setting race aside, since I think most people can figure what's going on there without me having to spell it out, what's clear here is that Cain is a genius at refighting the 60s. And that, more than anything compels the teabaggers. It's sort of the purest version of sticking it to the liberals. The national historical consensus on the 60s is that liberals were right. We were right about civil rights, we were right about women's rights, we were right about the war. And they've never gotten over that. Three quarters of conservative energy probably goes to trying to get around this problem. Even though most conservatives would be wailing about MLK is a communist agent if this were the 60s, they love to pretend that they would have somehow supported him.
To me, the most telling thing about the teabaggers was how many Woodstock references got thrown around during the heyday of their protests. I'm embarrassed for them, because it's basically a gathering of the terminally unhip angrily pouting that they're cool, too. There is basically nothing more embarrassing than people protesting too much in this way. There's a strong streak of me-too in the American psyche, and god knows liberals aren't above it, as the flamewars that erupt here when I dare suggest, say, that Lou Reed might be cooler than Bob Seger. But wingnuts get completely out of control on it. They know the 60s was a heyday for liberals, and even though they oppose that, they want a piece of it because god forbid they don't own everything.
Cain shamelessly panders to that urge. He allows conservatives to feel the thrill of MLK's soaring rhetoric without having to do anything like support MLK's actual views. He tells them that they're right to do this, because they're the one who are actually oppressed. I'm sure he's happy to throw in hand jobs while he's at it.