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The Politcal Right: American Paranoia Revisited

Posted by Jim Johnson on

Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson

Lately I have been researching the decline of the American political right, known by all its fractional familiar appellations— Republican, conservatism, the Tea Party, the adherents of Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin… those who hide within the walls of conservative "think tanks" and produce verbiage pawned off as meaningful on those not sophisticated enough to understand the difference between that which is pedagogically sound and that which is mere Pablum for soft minds.

They now compete among themselves in a race to the bottom of political discourse, attacking one another on the airwaves of Fox, The New York PostThe Washington TimesThe Wall Street Journal and locally in the pages of what is left of Detroit newspapers and local talk radio stations.

Since losing two consecutive national elections to a black intellectual (or in their world a left-wing Communist, Muslim, dog-meat eating Kenyan) they are convinced the end is near… the black helicopters of the government are spooling up for takeoff, and the need to steel ourselves for the final fight is at hand.

The diagnosis is now complete: the American political right is officially paranoid. But we have seen this story before, only in a lesser form. In 1964, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, author and Columbia professor, Richard J. Hofstadter, published an obscure article in Harper's Magazineentitled "The Paranoid Style of American Politics". He later transformed that work into a best-selling book with the same name.

The Republican Party, Hofstadter observed, had rejected the moderate wing of their party and nominated Barry Goldwater for President. I find it amusing that "In your heart you know he's right…in your guts you know he's nuts" Barry Goldwater would be incapable of winning the Republican nomination today because he would be far too moderate to appease enough iconoclastic cells which live under the tattered remnants of the conservative ideological umbrella.

As Hofstadter noted, cogent thought within the right-wing had been replaced by "conspiracy theorists" and what he referred to as "movements of suspicious discontent". Hofstadter died in 1970… if only he could come back for a day, a week or a month… long enough to view the current state of paranoia on the political right. He deserved to live long enough to see the propriety of his intellectual progeny.

Four years ago, senior writer for Salon Laura Miller observed the contemporary relevance of Hofstadter's work. She wrote: "These groups (the radical right) shared the same baroque and fantastical imagination. That is what Hofstadter meant when he referred to a persistent "style." Its elements are: "the central image" 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; an "apocalyptic" mentality, that "traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human value"… "And an insistence on seeing all political differences as a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil."

She concludes by observing that Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" "reads like a playbook for the career of Glenn Beck. "Beck, however," she concludes, "lacks an archenemy commensurate with his stratospheric ambitions, which makes him appear even more absurd to outsiders."

Both Hofstadter and Miller possess an enviable ability to capture the obvious and encapsulate it within pure syntactical economy. The civil war which rages now between factions of the political and social right would be pure entertainment were it not for the dangerous intersection between the far right, various evangelical groups, survivalists and various forms of militia organizations. They share the common bond of fear of government, fear of knowledge, love of guns and for the most part, a military in which they never served.

Spend an hour or so reading local publications such as "HIS Banner", a Thumb-based free monthly which extolls the virtues of religion, the Constitution, the horrors of Islam and the importance of guns all within the first few pages. To read it requires one suspend all accurate knowledge of American history and instead enter through the looking glass into the domain which forms their world.

Search the web pages of militia groups all located within two hours or less of where you live and your children go to school. View the posted photos of members teaching their youth groups to shoot rifles (often pink for girls)… some groups accepting members as young as 7. They brag that they will ultimately form the last line of defense against governmental tyranny.

Most photos reveal individuals who have not participated in exercise not involving food for decades and their stated physical requirements confirm the same. One site states that to move to "Rifleman Level I" you must be able to cover two miles in 48 minutes. Wounded snails and elderly rodents could easily exceed that barrier, but then again why have rigid requirements you and your compatriots cannot meet?

All too frequently in their online bios they comment on their regret that they never "wore the uniform"… now however, they buy their own, earn meaningless badges and ranks and would be little more than pathetic children playing games in the woods were it not for one thing… they believe the end is coming, that violence is the answer and that they alone will protect and defend the American Way of Life (think Paul Blart: Mall Cop here) and they are armed to the teeth.

What is most disconcerting in the latest iteration of Hofstadter's conspiracy-dominated generation is that we are now a society which has been totally seduced by the military and violence. We are far more willing to spend federal dollars on things that fly fast and explode than we are the hungry, the homeless and those without hope.

Barry Goldwater talked tough but governed reasonably. He compromised when necessary and most always saw the wisdom in the opposition point of view. His Republican party did not think they owned a monopoly on religion, morals or patriotism.

The coming legislative debate on reasonable gun regulation will serve to produce two outcomes, neither productive for the future of this country. It will further drive those to the right of the political center further away from compromise and it will unfortunately not be likely to produce legislation banning assault weapons or high capacity magazines… two things a civilized society can easily live without.

Instead of meaningful solutions however, we will only hear the plaintiff clarion cry of the radical right dying of self-inflicted wounds. Their leaders conducting symphonies which reasonable minds cannot hear.

We now find a once great political party devoid of solutions that matter and ideas with depth. In its wake unfortunately we will be left with a factionalized morass of splinter groups convinced they have been wronged by demonic forces which must be fought with one's last breath… groups which under current law can own multiple semi-automatic weapons and as many rounds of ammunition their corpulent abdomens can carry. And that is an image which should keep one up at night.

On reflection, perhaps it is best Hofstadter did not live to see our current state. John Adams, a patriot and founder the right loves to cite, said it best… "There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide."

It is not criminals with guns that make me worry about the future of our society. It is the radical right with legal guns, connected to the world of reality by a tenuous sinew of conspiratorial belief that makes me reach for the Ambien.

Opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Andy Rapp, Q-TV, Delta College, or PBS.


Currently Speaking host Andy Rapp

Veteran journalist Andy Rapp has been hosting Currently Speaking since 1999.

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