Anyone seeking to understand the pathologies of the contemporary American right could do far worse than to read historian Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 classic “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”
The nation’s political scene, Hofstadter notes, has long served as “an arena for uncommonly angry minds.” To the mid–20th century observer, this fact could hardly be more obvious. With the John Birch Society warning of a communist lurking at every turn and right-wing leaders like Barry Goldwater capitalizing on mounting anti-government sentiment, the context in which Hofstadter wrote “The Paranoid Style” naturally lent itself to contemplation of the paranoid, the conspiracy-minded, and the manichean.
Practitioners of the paranoid style do not see their political adversaries as people with whom they simply do not share the same outlook. For the political paranoiac, it is necessary to cast one’s counterparts as nefarious, subversive, anti-American enemies. This attitude extended to the governing elite, whom right-wing conspiracy theorists accused of signing the nation over to communism.
The same mindset is evident in Representative Louie Gohmert’s (R-TX) ominous warnings about Muslim Brotherhood infiltration of the Obama administration. It’s behind the right’s insistence that the government is concealing vital information about last September’s attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. It’s why extremist gun groups denounce even watered-down gun safety legislation as part of a plot to seize all law-abiding Americans’ firearms. It’s why Republicans in the Senate recently rejected a United Nations arms control treaty aimed primarily at countries like North Korea and Syria, convinced that it would be used as a pretext to confiscate Americans’ guns. It’s why Alex Jones, a radio host with a devoted far-right fan base, claims that the Boston Marathon bombings last month were a federal “false flag” operation. It’s why former Representative Ron Paul said last week that the government’s response to the Boston attack was worse than the attack itself.
Most disturbingly, a recent poll suggests that such crackpot theories are percolating down to the mass public. Farleigh Dickinson University released a survey last week indicating that nearly one-third of Americans believe an armed rebellion against the federal government may be necessary. Among Republicans, 44 percent believe it may soon come time to take up arms against the tyrannical Obama regime. They’ve apparently taken to heart the word of Sharron Angle, the party’s disastrous 2010 U.S. Senate candidate in Nevada, who derailed her campaign with such musings as these: “What is a little bit disconcerting and concerning is the inability for sporting goods stores to keep ammunition in stock.... That tells me the nation is arming. What are they arming for if it isn’t that they are so distrustful of their government? They’re afraid they’ll have to fight for their liberty in more Second Amendment kinds of ways?” Speaking of her effort to defeat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Angle went on, “That’s why I look at this as almost an imperative. If we don’t win at the ballot box, what will be the next step?”
No less unsettling than the response to the armed rebellion question is the sizable minority voicing its suspicion that “some people are hiding the truth about” the December shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School “in order to advance a political agenda.” Overall, one in four respondents expressed this sickening view. Another 11 percent were “unsure.” Among Republicans, 45 percent either believed there was a cover-up or said they were unsure.
With such a large portion of the GOP base affirming decidedly indefensible views, is it any wonder that right-wing cult heroes like Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) are boasting about their record of not compromising with Democrats or GOP “squishes”? When one cannot view one’s opponents as simply misguided and instead must associate them with wicked and secret conspiracies, compromise represents acquiescence to a moral evil. This gets at another feature of the paranoid style: their manichean splitting of the world into pure good and pure evil. Has anyone else noticed that far right-wingers tend not to do well with nuance?
The difference between 2013 and 1965 is that, when Hofstadter wrote, the two parties were broad-based coalitions that each contained a fair number of liberals, moderates, and conservatives. As political scientists like Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann have noted, the Democratic Party is now virtually the exclusive home of liberals and moderates. The GOP in the Age of Obama drifts ever rightward; our notion of “conservatism” has shifted away from the pragmatic variety affirmed by leaders like Senator Everett Dirksen (R-IL) and Bob Dole (R-KS) and toward the cranky, reactionary brand perfected by the likes of Senator Cruz and Rand Paul (R-KY). Whereas far-right Goldwater’s 1964 nomination was once seen as an aberration, it’s increasingly difficult to deny that paranoia and reaction have now captured one of the nation’s two political parties.
Luke Brinker is a graduate student in the MAPSS program.