The Conservative Base is Scared Witless. And Has Been for Years.

by Pitt Griffin on November 3, 2018 · 0 comments

in Immigration, Politics

Conservatives love to be scared. And Trump loves to scare them. Rational Americans look at a caravan of desperate, hungry, thirsty, dirty vagabonds and see a people yearning to be free. But Trump paints them as terrorists, gang-bangers and drug dealers — rapists in their spare time — and his acolytes eat it up. 

This fear is nothing new. In a November 1964 essay, ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ for Atlantic Magazine, Richard Hofstadter illuminated why leaders like Trump target the ‘base’ with messages of fear and hate. His fear-mongering politico was the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

“Although American political life has rarely been touched by the most acute varieties of class conflict, it has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds.Today this fact is most evident on the extreme rightwing, which has shown, particularly in the Goldwater movement, how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.” 

Hofstadter calls this style ‘paranoid’. But he makes it clear he is not using paranoid in its narrow clinical sense, but rather as a general description of a dark political force:

But​​​​​​​ there is a vital difference between the paranoid spokesman in politics and the clinical paranoiac: although they both tend to be overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression, the clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him; whereas the spokesman of the paranoid style finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others.

His sense that his political passions are unselish and patriotic, in fact, goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation.

In Trump’s case, you could plausibly argue that he is both clinically paranoid and a paranoid spokesman. But he does not represent an anomaly.  

Each generation of conservatives has had an abiding suspicion that they are under attack. The enemies change, but the psychology of terror remains the same. The opponent is a shapeless mass. Its leaders can be foreigners figures or found at the heart of the American government.   

Hofstader chose four quotes at intervals of 50 years to illustrate the pervasiveness of paranoia throughout American political history. (Let’s note it is fifty odd years since he published this essay)

First, Senator Joe McCarthy 1951:

“How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.”

Note the hyperbole. The plot is not just the biggest in the history of man, it dwarfs all previous conspiracies. But was McCarthy right? Hardly. His “great conspiracy’ remains a chimera some 67 years later.

Unlike Cassandra who was given the gift of foresight but was cursed never to be believed, America’s political prophets of doom have no idea what’s going on and yet are deemed truthful by many. It leads one to the conclusion that conservatives will believe anything but the truth.

Now Hofstadter directs us to the 1895 manifesto of the ‘Populist Party’.

“As early as 1865-66  a conspiracy was entered into between the gold gamblers of Europe and America  … For nearly thirty years these conspirators have kept the people quarraling over less important matters, while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one central purpose … Every device of treachery, every device of statecraft, and every artifice known to the secret cabals of the international gold ring are being made use of to deal a blow to the prosperity of the people and the financial and commercial independence of the country.”

Either the ‘gold gamblers’ have utterly failed in their ‘one central purpose’ of economic ruin and commercial bondage — or the Populist Party was indulging in baseless fear-mongering. The answer, of course, is obvious. But it hasn’t stopped the modern conservative from babbling about New World Orders, the UN, or international banking cartels. 

Now Hofstadter quotes a Texas newspaper article from 1855.

It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber and our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism. 

The Pope has recently sent his ambassador of State to this country on a secret commission, the effect of which is an extraordinary boldness of the Catholic Church throughout the United States.

These minions of the Pope are boldly insuting our Senators; reprimanding our Statesmen; propagating the adulterous union of Church and State; abusing with foul calumny all govemmems but Catholic and spewing out the bitterest execrations on all Protestantism. Catholics in the United States receive from abroad more than $100,000 annually for the propagation of their creed. Add to this the vast revenue collected here.  

Before there were Muslims, there were the Pope’s shock troops. To this day there are some Americans who believe that Catholics are still plotting to subvert the US. And the old strains of anti-Semitism are new again. Those once characterized as ‘gold gamblers’ are now portrayed as faithless Jewish money men with discord on their mind — think George Soros.

Evangelicals are conflicted. They love Israel but view American Jews with deep suspicion.  

And finally, we get to a sermon from 1795

Secret and systematic means have been adopted and punned, with zeal and activity. by wicked and artful men, in foreign countries to undermine the foundations of theis Religion [Christianity] and to overthrow its altars, and thus to deprive the world of its benign influence on society. These impious conspirators and philosophists have completely effected their purposes in a large portion of Europe, and boast of their means of accomplishing their plans in all parts of Christendom, glory in the certainty of their success, and set opposition at defiance.

Judging by the date I can only imagine the speaker was reacting to the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution. The abiding terror of the time was that God-denying enemies of established order were sharpening knives and threatening mayhem.

But once again the dreads of the weak-minded were premature, overblown and unfounded.

And so it is again today. Trump hit the ground running with dire warnings of Mexican rapists, rigged elections, radical Islamic terrorists, fake news, illegal voters, warlike inner cities, Chinese currency manipulation and the like. And the zealots shivered in an ecstatic frisson of fear. And now they have a caravan to fret over.

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