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The Paranoid Style in American Politics: Its Past, Present and Future

01/12/2011 11:38 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Miles Mogulescu Entertainment attorney, producer, writer and political activist

In the wake of the Tucson shootings, there's been plenty of instant political punditry -- about the need to tone down inflammatory political rhetoric, about whether anyone should be able to walk into a store and buy a semiautomatic Glock with 31 rounds, about whether toxic right-wing rhetoric pumps polluted water into the ocean in which apparently unhinged people like the accused Tucson shooter Jared Loughner swim. Most of it has a modicum of truth, yet most of it is oddly predictable and superficial.

Now that a few days have passed since the Arizona shootings, perhaps it's time to place the analysis of political violence in America in a broader historical perspective. A good place to start is with historian Richard Hofstadter's classic 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" which is standard reading in many college courses.

Here's how Hofstadter describes the Paranoid Style:

"The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms--he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse...He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated--if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid's sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes."

Although Hofstadter was writing partly in response to 1950s McCarthyism, to JFK's assassination, and to the 1960s version of conservative wingnuts like the John Birch Society, Hofstadter notes that "the paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life". He traces the Paranoid Style in American politics back to the late 1700's, including movements which saw a treasonous conspiracy against America by secret Illuminati in the late 18th century and by secret Masons in the early 19th century, by Catholic immigrants taking orders from a foreign Pope in the mid 19th century, and by McCarthyite fears of an UnAmerican communist conspiracy at the highest levels of government in the 20th century.

While, historically, Hofstadter did not view the Paranoid Style as the sole province of the right, he saw a unique manifestation of it in contemporary right-wing movements:

"The modern right wing...feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. "

Flash forward nearly 50 years -- Doesn't this description have an ominous resonance with the beliefs of the Republican right, the Tea Party, and their political and media spokespeople like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sharron Angle, Michele Bachmann, and Sarah Palin?

Michele Bachmann: ''We will talk a little bit about what has transpired in the last 18 months (since Obama's election) and would we count what has transpired into turning our country into a nation of slaves.''

Mark Williams, national spokesman for the Tea Party Express: ''[Obama is an] Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug.''

Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), member of the House Tea Party Caucus: ''He ("Obama") has no place in any station of government and we need to realize that he is an enemy of humanity.''

These paranoid denunciations of the absolute evil of their political opponents often merges with calls -- either implicit or explicit -- for violence to eliminate them:

Sharron Angle: ''I hope that's not where we're going, but you know if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I'll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.''

Glenn Beck: "I'm thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I'm wondering if I should kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. No, I think I could."

Ann Coulter: "My only regret with Tim McVeigh is that he did not go to the New York Times building."

G. Gordon Liddy (on how to kill law enforcement officers): "...head shots, they are wearing body armor, head shots... or shoot for the groin".

Dick Heller, the plaintiff in District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the US Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution protects the right of individuals to own guns: "We the people,' armed, are TRULY what the Writers of the Constitution intended for us to be in Art. 1, Sec. 8, para. 15, and that is the CITIZEN MILITIA. If suicide terrorists DO attact our city, ARMED CITIZENS could be the First to counter these hostilities in our individual neighborhoods."

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence lists 21 armed attacks on innocent people by right-wing vigilantes since 2008, including:

July 27, 2008 -- Jim Adkisson shoots and kills two people at a progressive church in Knoxville, Tennessee, wounding two. Adkisson calls it "a symbolic killing" because he really 'wanted to kill...every Democrat in the Senate & House' but was unable to gain access to them.

April 4, 2009 -- Neo-Nazi Richard Poplawski shoots and kills three police officers in Pittsburgh. His friend Edward Perkovic tells reporters that Poplawski feared "the Obama gun ban that's on its way" and "didn't like our rights being infringed upon." Perkovic also commented that Poplawski carried out the shooting because "if anyone tried to take his firearms, he was gonna' stand by what his forefathers told him to do."

May 31, 2009 -- Scott P. Roeder shoots and kills Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider, in the foyer of Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas. The FBI lists Roeder as a member of the Montana Freemen, a radical anti-government group.

June 10, 2009 -- James W. von Brunn walks into the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and shoots and kills a security guard. Von Brunn believed that Western civilization was going to be replaced with a "ONE WORLD ILLUMINATI GOVERNMENT" that would "confiscate private weapons" in order to accomplish its goals.

February 18, 2010 -- Joseph Stack of Austin, Texas, flies a single-engine plane into an office building containing nearly 200 IRS employees, killing one and wounding 13. In a suicide note, Stack lays out his grievances with the federal tax agency, stating, "The law 'requires' a signature on the bottom of a tax filing; yet no one can say truthfully that they understand what they are signing; if that's not 'duress' than what is. If this is not the measure of a totalitarian regime, nothing is ... Violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer."

Of course most right-wing Republicans and Tea Party supporters don't engage in acts of violence. But their political views often reflect the Paranoid Style described by Hofstadter in which they see their very way of life as under attack by liberal elites and in which their political opponents are not only wrong but illegitimate and must be destroyed. As Ed Kilgore writes,

"To put it bluntly, it has become common on the Right to treat conservative policy prescriptions as exempt from the normal procedures of democracy because they reflect the preferences of God, the Founding Fathers, or Real Americans. Indeed, the essence of the Tea Party Movement, which dominates the GOP from top to bottom, is the belief that by advancing such quotidian centrist policies as a managed-competition health care system or a market-based cap-and-trade device, Democrats are not simply wrong, but are violating permanent and never-to-be-amended guarantees of low taxes, small government, and laissez-faire capitalism. That point of view helps explain the spluttering rage of people like Glenn Beck and his most devoted fans, who really do seem to believe their 'fundamental liberties' include the right to enrich themselves limitlessly and to be exempt from any collective responsibilities, and that mildly redistributive and exceptionally traditional practices like progressive taxation or unemployment insurance represent a totalitarianism that must resisted by any means necessary."

The Paranoid Style in American politics tends to become most virulent during periods of rapid social change and economic crisis when significant portions of the population feel their way of life threatened and do not see any way in which conventional politics will protect them. That's certainly true of the present post-Wall Street bust era. In coming years, we're likely to see a new normal of low economic growth, high unemployment, lower incomes for much of the middle and working class, greater economic inequality, more political gridlock, and even greater control of the political system by corporations.

Under these circumstances, in the absence of a significant progressive populist movement to channel legitimate popular anger towards meaningful solutions to our nation's problems as a viable alternative to the timid corporatism of the Obama administration and many Democratic office-holders, right-wing movements which reflect the Paranoid style in American politics are likely to grow and flourish in coming years.