Somewhere out there, for some reason (I think I can blame Thomas Frank for this one) I wound up googling up a copy of The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Originally published in Harper’s Magazine circa 1964, it holds up pretty damn well. It’s like Richard Hofstadter was the Nostradamus of Wingnuts, except literally right. More right than he could have imagined, actually–he describes the proto-wingnuts of American history as decidedly fringe elements even within the right wing. Still, passages like this show a lot of insight:
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 fort the apocalypse. (“Time is running out,” said Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.”)
As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. 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.
It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.
Sound familiar? (I have a post brewing somewhere still from when I read What’s the Matter with Kansas? about the mileage the US right has gotten out of choosing impossible goals, and the damage that same tactic has done to the left.)
Really, though, it’s not exactly prescience. Hofstadter was describing the ideological ancestors of today’s paranoid conservatives–constantly, intensely afraid that some enormous but invisible conspiracy of foreigners and the US elite was deliberately…doing something UnAmerican. Sometimes it’s ill-defined, sometimes it’s defined in ridiculous, implausible detail. A lot of the ideas that were floating around in ’64–that the President is a secret capital-C Communist, that the income tax is some sort of socialist plot, that the US is being intentionally invaded by non-anglo Catholic immigrants who want to destroy Our Way of Life*–still have a solid, sometimes growing (or regrowing) following.
It’s a long article by intertube standards, but worth the read. Just replace 2 of every 3 references to ‘communists’ with ‘terrorists,’ and you could write your own AM radio show.
*if you’re feeling strong-stomached, google ‘Aztlán conspiracy’ and look at some of the wingnutty top hits.