Political Paranoia

     If ever there was a political essay written 50 years before its time, surely it was Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”
     It’s true that even a paranoiac may have real enemies, but I do not want a paranoiac running my county, or any country.
     Rick Santorum this week epitomized the Republican Party’s paranoia by “warning” America about the “dangers” of President Obama’s supporting “freedom of worship” but not “freedom of religion.”
     Look out, America! They’re comin’ to git ya! And they’re totin’ their Thesaurus.
     Part of Hofstadter’s famous essay deals with what he called the “Goldwater right,” which today occupies the main body of the Republican Party. Hofstadter called America’s peculiar paranoid political style “the pornography of the Puritan … a projection of the self.”
     That pretty much sums up the Republican primaries so far.
     Hofstadter wrote: “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 socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power.”
     Hofstadter, who delivered this lecture at Oxford University in 1963, won the Pulitzer Prize the next year for his book, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” which also bears re-reading.
     Excuse me – I mean, reading.
     I don’t want to go all intellectual on you, dude.
     Think of President Obama what you will, he is the weakest, most ineffectual president since Jimmy Carter.
     This is no reflection upon Obama or Carter as people. As human beings, they are probably the two most praiseworthy men to occupy the Oval Office in the past 50 years. They were also the weakest presidents.
     Whether there is a causal link here we shall leave for another time.
     But every manjack and womanjack in the Republican Party has tried to portray Obama as an all-powerful “socialist,” an incarnation of evil, undermining all that is True and Good about America.
     Give me a break. President Obama couldn’t ram a parking ordinance through Congress.
     What does our country have to be afraid of, except our own excesses and idiocies?
     In defining “the basic elements in the paranoid style,” Hofstadter wrote: “The central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life. … History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade. The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this 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: it is now or never in organizing resistance to conspiracy. Time is forever just running out. …
     “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, the quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Nothing but complete victory will do. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated. … This demand for unqualified victories leads to the formulation of hopelessly demanding and unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same sense 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. …
     “Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he directs the public mind through ‘managed news’; he has unlimited funds; … he is gaining a stranglehold on the educational system.”
     Pardon me. I have to lie down.

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