Hofstadter, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his work, entitled his essay “The Paranoid Style of American Politics,” and in that essay he traced the long arc of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that he contended is a reoccurring theme in the country’s history.
The essay, easily found online, is worth reading in the context of, oh, the state legislature in Idaho coming within one vote of defunding the most popular public television system in the country because one legislator had been listening and recorded “a full page of concerning language.”
Or in light of a legislative decision to forgo a $6 million federal grant to facilitate early childhood education because the money – this grant was authorized during the Trump Administration – would facilitate “indoctrinating our children at a younger level.” One lawmaker said it was really bad news that the whole sordid mess was full of the obviously questionable concept of “social justice.”
Many people are saying that certain notable figures – think Jesus, Gandhi, Dr. King, Pope Francis – would be shocked to learn that discussing “social justice” is now controversial.
Or consider the bright lights of the Iowa legislature – what is it with the “I” states – who are considering placing new restrictions on public schools and universities “related to staff or student training dealing with racism, sexism and discrimination.” Similar moves have traction in Idaho and other conservative states.
Elsewhere under the golden dome of the Iowa statehouse, conservative legislators grilled a local school superintendent recently over her district’s Black Lives Matter curriculum, developed in part, the school official said, to “address incidents of bullying, lower graduation rates and higher disciplinary rates of students of color.” Imagine a local educator being concerned about her students in such a way?
Another Iowa legislator admitted his bright idea, he wants to have the Iowa attorney general review presidential executive orders before they became effective in his state, was clearly unconstitutional, but he still felt compelled to make his point. He did, but the point made was just a little different than he intended.
At the same time back in Idaho a gang of some of the most fevered right-wingers want to strip the Republican attorney general of much of his authority to legally represent state agencies. They don’t like the way the AG reads the law. Idaho’s chief lawyer was one of the few Republicans chief legal officers unwilling to countenance the frivolous post-election lawsuit out of Texas seeking to overturn the presidential election. You will remember that lawsuit died faster than a mayfly, but apparently embracing crazy legal theories and spending tax dollars to advance them is a new conservative value. And calling BS on such things is apparently a defunding offense.
All of this conservative paranoia from Boise to Des Moines and points in between has one unifying theme: grievance. The angry minds on the right of American politics are perpetually pissed off. A constant state of aggravated outrage is the essence of modern conservative thought.
Young kids are encouraged to burn face masks on the steps of a state capitol to protest an effective public health measure. Fox News and its followers fume over a decision by the Dr. Seuss Foundation – a private entity, by the way – to cease publication of a half dozen children’s books with clear racist portrayals of people of color. All a piece of the outrageous affront directed at conservatives by a liberal society.
Richard Hofstadter wrote his essay when Joseph McCarthy’s grievance against liberals, Hollywood elites and homosexuals was still fresh in the American mind and in the wake of Barry Goldwater’s angry claim that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” but he could well have been writing last week.
The modern rightwing, Hofstadter wrote 57 years ago, always 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. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.”
Hofstadter’s old essay reads like last night’s Tucker Carlson script or a last year Tweet from the Prince of Mar a Lago. Conservative politics has been reduced to curated performances of assorted grievances. The agenda on the right from banning transsexual students from sports, politicizing the response to a pandemic or censuring the rare conservative who bucks the party line is not about policy or even principle, but rather anger and grievance and making someone else pay.
Something is happening. Something is changing. Somebody not like me is causing this outrage, damn it. And I’m not happy about it. In fact, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.
Hofstadter didn’t know about the Tea Party or Trump or Hannity, but he would not have found any of the anger they possess surprising. “The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms,” he wrote, “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.”
As you consider the paranoid nature of so many conservatives today – the outlandish conspiracy theories, the big lies about election fraud, the absurd notion that a nuanced examination of American history is a socialist plot – you see the paranoid line stretching back to McCarthy, the John Birch Society, on and on.
As Hofstadter noted, some of us look at history and see a confusing, contradictory mishmash of good, bad and indifferent, somethings to condemn, others to celebrate. The paranoid on the right suffers that history, as well, but also deals with constant fresh fantasies, and there is always grievance. And that must be frightening, so frightening that thousands acted on their fantasies and grievance and violently attacked Congress two months ago.
Paranoia on the far right is an enduring reality of American politics. At key moments in the past when the phenomenon went from merely crazy to seriously dangerous the conservative party rejected the worst of it. We’re waiting to see what the conservative party will do this time.