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11/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

America's Paranoid Crisis: The Joe Wilson Case

I hate to name drop, but Joe Wilson is my Congressman.

As a psychologist it is not the disrespect for our first African American president shown by my congressman that has me concerned. Instead, it is the potential breakdown of paranoid defenses behind his behavior that worries me.

Mr. Wilson's roots in Southern culture run deep. He has held leadership positions in such southern patriotic organizations as the Sons of Confederate Veterans. As a state legislator he was one of the last seven GOP legislators who remained loyal to the confederacy until the end. He voted to keep the confederate flag flying proudly over the SC state capital in Columbia, even though for the thirty percent of South Carolinians who are African American it was a reminder that their forbearers had lived in slavery. Attitudes and behaviors associated with racism are not what are newsworthy about Mr. Wilson's outburst last week.

Many who know Mr. Wilson report that his more typical behavior is classic southern courtliness. What is significant about the recent episode is that this genteel veneer cracked, and briefly revealed an inner ugliness. It is silly to chastise Mr. Wilson for this. It was hardly a pre-meditated gesture on his part, and, in the historical context of racism in this country, it was not an extreme behavior. Just a generation ago, the more primitive version of that ugliness was routinely directed at African American "boys" who were decidedly less empowered than Barack Obama.

What concerns me is that if Mr. Wilson, as empowered as he is, is breaking down and uncharacteristically losing impulse control under current psychological pressures, what is happening inside the less stable minds of other members of the right wing? Mr. Wilson has become a folk hero to tens of thousands of other people who themselves felt a psychological catharsis from what he did. The fact that a loss of impulse control and a surrender of psychological stability is what made them feel better is not a good sign.

From a mental health perspective, the problem is not just that America is becoming "more paranoid." The problem is that within the American Right even the limited and primitive stabilizing effect paranoia provides the mind is crumbling and the ugliness it is designed to control is now surfacing in increasingly dangerous ways. While Mr. Wilson shouts "You lie" during a presidential address to Congress, other more primitive members of the right wing carry guns into meetings.

Paranoia

Paranoia has a long and hallowed history in American politics. The outer manifestations of political paranoia in American history were well documented by historian Richard Hofstadter in the early 1950s in his famous article "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."

What Hofstadter did not do, however, was give us any explanation of why we have these bizarre paranoid episodes? To shed light on that question we have to understand in more depth what paranoia actually is.

The suspiciousness that we all associate with paranoia does not really explain what it is. It does not tell us why the person becomes so frightened, why he behaves so strangely, and why some people are so much more vulnerable to it than others.

As a psychologist I have had a unique opportunity to watch the mind under the microscope of psychotherapy. The mind works according to its own rules, not to the logical principles we like to think it does. It is in this context we can best see paranoia at work and understand the role it plays in the human mind.

In paranoia, the critical thing on which I focus is not the person's fear. Instead, it is the person's discomfort at the boundary between themselves and the outer world. This metaphoric boundary is the point at which the world impacts us, and it impacts each of us in very different ways. This is where the critical issues of paranoia are determined.

What for one person feels like a beautiful, enriching new experience (a racially diverse environment, for example) for another feels like a sharp stick in the eye. For people who feel stressed at their point of contact with the world, some feel so overwhelmed they struggle to make sense of their world ... they start to feel like their mind is fragmenting. This is absolutely terrifying and something the mind works to avoid at all costs.

As strange as it may sound, when people feel such menacing forces threatening them, the paranoid mechanisms in the mind can be critically helpful in forestalling this fragmentation. It is as if these paranoid structures round up, encapsulate, and organize the frightening chaotic feelings and convert them into fixed, definable, and organized cells of venom. They are then projected out onto a scapegoat who becomes the "cause" of all these uncomfortable feelings. This is how Obama comes to look like Hitler, Stalin, and the anti-Christ. It is also why the paranoid individual honestly feels like he is in a life or death struggle with a very powerful and malevolent force.

The paranoid mind can maintain this primitive defense against fragmentation only with a rigid and narrow stance held forcefully in place by a deep rage directed toward the scapegoat. It must become an obsession if it is to do its job, and the rage that drives it needs to be constantly refueled. Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and Sean Hannity provide an endless source of rage to make this possible.

Of course this is not the only service Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and Hannity provide. The fact-filled pseudo-logic they spew forth helps the listener overlook the fact that there is neither logic nor rationality connected to the positions they are holding onto like a crucifix. If something stands in the way of their paranoid stance, like, for example, the independent press, they attack it quickly and viciously.

Naturally, this paranoid stance has serious drawbacks in terms of one's ability to function effectively in the world. It makes people rigid, unreceptive to information that is inconsistent with the paranoid mindset, and unable to locate the real source of problems that need to be addressed. And, it goes without saying, that horrific things have been done to people by other people trying to maintain their paranoid defenses.

For people who are heavily dependent on paranoia as a defense, however, when that defense is overtaxed and begins to crumble, they are on the edge of a chaotic abyss of psychological fragmentation that is truly terrifying and can make their behavior even more erratic.
At that point people will grab onto any passing piece of driftwood to keep them afloat. Here, too, O'Reilly, Limbaugh, and Hannity are a very alluring port in a storm. If one wants someone to authoritatively tell them what is real and who to hate, this trio is very talented at propping up paranoid defenses and helping frightened people stave off mental disintegration. Of course, the listeners pay a tremendous price for this by surrendering their independent mind to the control of people who are exploiting them.

This is why we see what Hofstadter called "the curious leap of imagination" in the paranoid behavior. The mind works logically for a while, but at some point when fearful of fragmentation it grabs for whatever wild idea is floating by and makes it do as a necessary piece of "reality" to complete the world view the paranoia requires. Death panels and Hitler's national health plan are but two examples. O'Reilly, Limbaugh, and Hannity have a seemingly never-ending supply.

The American Right

Of course, Congressman Wilson's behavior last week was nothing like the psychological meltdown we are seeing in the behavior of other right wing adherents. It is, however, suggestive of what the new pressures are that are operating on the American Right.

Racism has been in this country for over four centuries. It would be hard to dispute that we have made some progress. Talented African Americans are now permitted to succeed in sports, entertainment, and to a lesser extent in the professions. But it is one thing for the paranoid mind to adjust to that Black "boy" being the Prince of Bel-Air and quite another to adjust to him being "The Man."

For people with Mr. Wilson's background this all came to a head last week in a setting where the rules of decorum demand that a proud Son of Confederate War Veterans sit in reverent silence as the "boy" speaks from the world's most powerful bully pulpit? If the Confederate son thinks the "boy" is lying, he is no longer even able to cry out "You lie" much less "Hold your tongue, boy"

But it was not only race that was at issue that night. The topic of the forum -- health care -- for many involves the Federal government's right to control their body. For people dealing with paranoid issues, for reasons you can probably infer from what I have said above, this is a very sensitive issue. The notion of a death squad was a fantasy, but it is a fantasy that found fertile soil in the paranoid minds of millions. Within the mindset of a right wing person who is struggling to maintain paranoid defenses that he needs to feel his world makes sense, he now sees an evil Black man moving in real "close and personal" by controlling his health care.

The final element, the tipping point if you like, to Mr. Wilson's eruption was illegal aliens. President Obama said illegal aliens would not have access to health care benefits under this health plan. It was here Mr. Wilson said, "You lie."

But presumably there were other points in the speech where Mr. Wilson felt President Obama lied. Why did the illegal alien issue put him over the top and inadvertently push him into national prominence?

If you look inside the paranoid mind of millions of Americans you will find the notion of yet another "foreign" group of low income workers able to sneak inside our national boundaries and then multiply rapidly by sending for their family and loved ones. Here you have a perfect metaphor for the paranoid mind as it battles off the intrusive and threatening emotional demands of a world they do not understand and of which they cannot make sense. Blaming illegal aliens helps explain and contain those fears. Illegal aliens as the most recent out-group will, like termites, penetrate our insulated society and ultimately capture us from within.

For Mr. Wilson to have hollered out as he did in no way means he is an evil man. While I obviously have political differences with him, I have no indication that he is in any way evil. Instead, Mr. Wilson is a man who prior to this episode has been so reticent to do anything to call attention to himself, for example, with new initiatives, the joke about him at election time was that his campaign slogan was "Back to the status quo." And yet he impulsively stumbled into the national arena.

So if we go back to the question of was this racism, that question is meaningless in today's America, and it misses the larger and even more ominous question. The new paranoia in America is really a paranoia that comes from many sources and has metastasized to the right wing character structure.

What is critical is that it has now left our country with a very unstable right wing constituency and some very talented demagogues working that instability ruthlessly pursuing the objectives of an ultra right elite. While they are talented at demagoguery, I don't think they have a clue what they are spawning, nor do I think they care. They are simply drunk on their own feelings of narcissistic splendor.

The fact that someone like Joe Wilson lost control in all of this is what should concern us. And it is of concern precisely because it is uncharacteristic. So how do we explain it?

I think Mr. Wilson was probably himself a victim of the new American paranoia.

Bryant L. Welch J.D., Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and an attorney. He is the author of State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind (St. Martins Press, 2008.)

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