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Reversing the Paranoid Style of American Politics

Looking for the enemy.


December 6, 2015

In 1964 the historian and political observer Richard Hofstadter published an essay entitled “The Paranoid Style of American Politics.” Worked into a book of the same title, it emerged in the aftermath of the McCarthy era and in the middle of the Goldwater presidential campaign. For many readers it captured the political zeitgeist of their generation. Notwithstanding the unprecedented economic opportunity and social mobility of post-World War II United States, anxiety gripped the populace. Demagogues such as McCarthy and Goldwater expressed, played upon and were ultimately felled by such popular sentiments.

Today with a short video and an analysis of Donald Trump's rhetoric it is The New York Times that has hit the nail on the head of contemporary demagoguery in the United States. Whether he wins the nomination or not, Trump now joins a long list that includes William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, Father Coughlin, George Wallace, and Patrick Buchanan among others in U.S. history for this tawdry title. Not, by the way, that the phenomenon is limited to the United States. In the modern era Maximilian Robespierre, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Mao Zedong used demagoguery to become toxic, malignant political forces. 

Books have and should be written about this phenomenon; for a blog post I will limit my observations to three points. First, neither the right or left have a monopoly on demagoguery. Political positioning relies more on the fact that demagogues emerge from orthogonal angles and then prey on the extremes of the political spectrum (some variation on the revolutionaries might be made here, but such detail is saved for a book, not a blog).Second, and very significantly, no matter what the express political issue is, i.e. immigrants, terrorists, etc., the key target of a demagogue is the “enemy from within.”  If nothing else, this factor distinguishes a demagogue from other types of political extremists. For Hitler, it was Jews. For McCarthy it was Communists.  For Wallace, it was the civil rights movement.  And for Trump it is “the weak” people in the middle of the political spectrum: current political leaders, the politically correct, the “them” verses the “we.” This perspective is the cancerous core that both makes someone like Trump so attractive at first and so deeply destructive in fact if given a mantle of power and authority to lead. 

 Why is this perspective so dangerous? Because the “us v. them” concept instinctively appeals. Categorical divide is older than history.  It is a base instinct, however, one that requires constant reversion to reptilian response at the expense of facts, reality and reason. And because as it appeals, so, too, does it infantilize its adherents.  It can never let up.  It must continue to create enemies in order to maintain itself.  Thus, Stalin moved from kulaks to show trials of his own supporters, Mao from the nationalists to the cultural revolution of his own people, McCarthy from 208 communists (or was it 57?  Or 284?) to one under every bush.  Jacque Mallet du Pan captured this point in his now famous adage “the revolution devours its own children.”  Thus, such movements, and their leaders, frequently end up in utter disgrace: guillotined (Robespierre); ignominious suicide in a bunker (Hitler); lain wasted by alcoholism and liver disease (McCarthy).  In short, demagoguery is so dangerous to the body politic because it almost inevitably leads to destruction.

Which brings me to my third observation: countering demagoguery is challenging but not impossible.  For the most part a strong political center in U.S. politics has put down past demagogues. The Progressive Party felled the Populists; Roosevelt’s Second Hundred Days, including labor reform and social security, Coughlin and Long’s movement (a bullet felled the man); Chief Counsel for the U.S. Army Joseph Welsh’s famous reproach to McCarthy (“You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”); and “the long arc of history that bends towards justice” civil rights campaign against poisonous remnants of slavery, segregation, theories of racial superiority and hatred. Let’s choose reasoned hope over the rhetoric of destruction, enduring values over hot emotional flashes in a political pan, and an inclusive sense of community over knee-jerk tribalism.  
We can do more in this moment to counteract demagoguery because we understand that its energetic source is not in reason but emotion. Can our leaders in the center recognize the anxiety that runs through U.S. society?  Address it with compassion first?  Bring those not already lost in a paranoid dynamic into the safety of authentic understanding and genuinely sound social policy that addresses real fears and concerns of the American people? This approach should be on the forefront of every leader, whether that leader is a kindergarten teacher, cog in the wheel of a corporation, or candidate for president. 

That quality of leadership is for anyone who stands up for foundational human rights that do not discriminate by race, creed, national origin, disability, sex or gender.  It belongs to every person who has the depth of experience to take its mantel and demonstrate real courage in the face of fear, one that utilizes emotional intelligence to distinguish between reptilian defensiveness and humane social policy.  It, too, should appeal to the “we” but without the “they.” That quality of leadership resounds throughout America because it was born out of our enduring political tradition: republican values that balance rights and obligations of citizens in a community of ordered liberty.



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