The infantile style in American politics

The GOP has reverted to a pre-potty-trained state. A 50-year-old essay explains why

Published December 5, 2011 11:00PM (EST)

Richard Hofstadter (left)      (Wikipedia/Winslow Townson/AP)
Richard Hofstadter (left) (Wikipedia/Winslow Townson/AP)

The farce known as the GOP presidential campaign has officially become a freak show. Newt Gingrich, the creepiest huckster in American politics, whose unique combination of hypocrisy, opportunism and sanctimoniousness led to his being unceremoniously bounced from Congress back in 1998, is now the front-runner to become the Republican presidential nominee.

Having gone through Michele “the founding Fathers ended slavery” Bachmann, Rick “I’d close down the federal government if only I could remember what it is" Perry, and Herman “all this stuff twirling around in my head” Cain, Republican voters have now embraced their latest unelectable stooge, a narcissistic, ethically challenged trough-feeder and third-rate history professor whose  brilliant ideas include a ludicrous two-track Social Security option and undermining the Supreme Court.

I pity the mainstream journalists who are required to pretend they take this grotesque process seriously. The GOP campaign has become indistinguishable from one of those episodes on “Montel” where a mouth-breathing woman in a hot pink warm-up suit accuses a big-haired sleazebag in a leopardskin muumuu of sleeping with her skanky boyfriend, who watches them pulling each other’s hair with a glazed, stoned smirk. How are you supposed to write about this rogue’s gallery with a straight face? Pretending that Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann are qualified to be president is like calling Meat Loaf “Mr. Loaf.”

Since the circus will be in town for another year, and prolonged exposure to it should carry a warning from the surgeon general, I offer the following imaginary and inaccurate summary as a public service. Newt will enjoy his moment in the sun, until it is disclosed that ACORN paid him $5 million to read its staff his Ph.D. thesis on the  virtues of Belgian colonial education. He will be replaced by Ann Coulter, who will soar to the top of the GOP polls until she is caught trying to plant a suitcase bomb in Haji’s Palace, a local kabob restaurant.

The next GOP supernova will be Joe the Plumber, who will excite the faithful for five minutes, then withdraw to write a $10 million book about his experience. Just when all seems lost, the Great Goddess Sarah Palin herself will arrive in her helicopter, machine guns blazing away at wolves, caribou, whining liberals and other species over whom God has given man dominion. But tragically, Palin will be forced to withdraw with severe eyestrain after spending the entire campaign on her roof trying to see Putin rear his head.

That will leave Mitt Romney as the last GOP candidate standing. But the Republican base, the angry white Tea Partyers whose desperate search for candidates as reactionary as themselves is what started this whole process, will refuse to vote for the despised Mitt, who actually had to govern in the real world and thus left a track record that falls short of the absolute Maoist purity in right-wing word and deed demanded by the faithful. And so Barack Hussein Obama, foreign Commie, death-panel guru and Muslim terrorist, will run unopposed.

There is something disturbingly infantile about this process. It’s like watching a wailing baby rejecting one type of food after another, angrily hurling first the apricots, then the beans, then the broccoli off his plate while shrieking, “Don’t want it!” And the presidential campaign is not the only example of such regressive behavior and thought. The reaction of the Tea Party (which for all intents and purposes has become the Republican Party) to the mild and innocuous centrist Barack Obama — a president little different in his governing style, with due allowances being made for changed circumstances, from Dwight D. Eisenhower — is so irrational that it is difficult even to grasp what president it is talking about.

The Tea Party’s sense of limitless outrage, its bizarrely overwrought rhetoric of betrayal and dispossession, is closer to the rage of a toddler than the reasoning of an adult. The anger appears to predate its putative cause. The institutional party has behaved in exactly the same way: for three years, Republicans in Congress have essentially been having a temper tantrum. “Won’t raise taxes! Don’t care if we default! Waah!”

How did one of the two major American parties regress to a pre-potty-trained state?

Of all the analyses of the American right wing, perhaps the most penetrating, and by far the most prescient, was that offered by historian Richard Hofstadter in four brilliant essays. His 1964 piece “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” is by far the most famous of those pieces, but “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt — 1954,” and “Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited — 1965,” actually contain the heart of his analysis. A final essay, “Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics,” is a chilling reminder that right-wing thought so extreme that it once appeared marginal and almost bizarre has become mainstream. (The pieces, along with several other essays, are available in a 2008 Vintage edition with an informative foreword by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz.)

In “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Hofstadter traces the long tradition of irrational, conspiratorial and paranoid thinking in American history. While the left has not been free from this phenomenon — the absurd “9/11 truth movement” is perhaps the most salient example — the ideological eruptions of what Hofstadter drily calls “uncommonly angry minds” have overwhelmingly been found on the social, cultural and political right.

Hofstadter begins his tour of hysterical thinking with the Bavarian Illuminati, an Enlightenment, anti-clerical movement that was accused of plotting “the total destruction of all religion and civil order.” He then examines the widespread belief that Freemasonry was “an engine of Satan…dark, unfruitful, selfish, demoralizing, blasphemous, murderous, anti-republican and anti-Christian,” before moving on to nativist fears of demonic Catholic plots to take over America and Father Coughlin’s anti-Semitic populism. He concludes with Joe McCarthy’s warnings of a Communist “conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man” and the perfervid ravings of the John Birch Society, whose founder, Robert Welch Jr., believed that the Supreme Court “was one of the most important agencies of Communism.”

Hofstadter boils down the elements of contemporary right-wing thought to three elements: fear of a government conspiracy to “undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the central government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism”; the belief that government has been infiltrated by sinister, un-American traitors; and the belief that large swaths of the country, including the media and schools, are also in on the plot.

"The Paranoid Style in American Politics” devotes relatively little space to analyzing why Americans have been repeatedly drawn to such beliefs. He notes that modern right-wingers

“feel dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind … The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power.”

Hofstadter briefly touches on psychology, noting that “[the] enemy seems on many counts a projection of the self: both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him.” Most intriguingly, at the very end of the essay he writes, “[T]he fact that movements employing the paranoid style are not constant but come in successive episodic waves suggests that the paranoid disposition is mobilized into action chiefly by social conflicts that involve ultimate schemes of values and that bring fundamental fears and hatreds, rather than negotiable interests, into political action. Catastrophe or the fear of catastrophe is most likely to elicit the syndrome of paranoid rhetoric.”

The notion that paranoid movements were activated not by negotiable interests but by “fundamental fears and hatreds” was a more general and abstract version of the argument Hofstadter had made in an essay he wrote 10 years earlier, “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt – 1954.” Hofstadter opened that essay by arguing that the new far-right dissenters were not in fact conservatives at all. “[A]lthough they believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism, [they] show signs of serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions. They have little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism in the classical sense of the word ... their political reactions express rather a profound if largely unconscious hatred of our society and its ways – a hatred which one would hesitate to impute to them if one did not have suggestive evidence both from clinical techniques and from their own modes of expression.”

The “clinical techniques” Hoftstadter refers to were those employed by Theodor Adorno and his colleagues in their 1950 work "The Authoritarian Personality." Adorno was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and he was naturally interested in examining what led so many Germans to embrace fascism. In that work, he and his collaborators conducted interviews and administered tests to their research subjects, including one called the F-Test (for “fascism”), which contained statements like “Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn” and “Every person should have complete faith in some supernatural power whose decisions he obeys without question.” The subjects were asked to say how much they agreed with the statements.

After scoring the responses, Adorno et al. listed nine characteristics associated with the “authoritarian personality” (a concept first posited by the psychologist and sociologist Erich Fromm). The nine traits were: rigid adherence to convention; submission to the authorities of the in-group; aggression against those who deviated from convention; opposition to imaginative, subjective or soft-hearted experience; superstition and rigid belief categories; obsession with strength and powerful father figures; generalized hostility and anger at humanity; the tendency to believe that wild and dangerous things are going on in the world, a projection of repressed emotions; and an obsession with sex.

Hofstadter offers a succinct summary of Adorno’s findings about the psychology of the authoritarian personality.

“An enormous hostility to authority, which cannot be admitted to consciousness, calls forth a massive overcompensation which is manifest in the form of extravagant submissiveness to strong power. Among those found by Adorno and his colleagues to have strong ethnic prejudices and pseudo-conservative tendencies there is a high proportion of persons who have been unable to develop the capacity to criticize justly and in moderation the failings of parents and who are profoundly intolerant of the ambiguities of thought and feeling that one is so likely to find in real-life situations. For pseudo-conservatism is among other things a disorder in relation to authority, characterized by an inability to   find other modes for human relationship than those of more or less complete domination or submission. The pseudo-conservative always imagines himself to be dominated and imposed upon because he feels that he is not dominant, and knows of no other way of interpreting his position. He imagines that his own government and his own leaders are engaged in a more or less continuous conspiracy against him because he has come to think of authority only as something that aims to manipulate and deprive him.”

Beyond this summation, Hofstadter does not linger over the psychological origins of the pseudo-conservative. In fact, in the revisionist essay he wrote ten years later, he wrote that he had  “overstressed clinical findings.” As a historian, he is more interested in the external, and specifically American, origins of right-wing hatred. Hofstadter argues that “pseudo-conservatism is in good part a product of the rootlessness and heterogeneity of American life and, above all, of its peculiar scramble for status and its peculiar search for secure identity.” Drawing a distinction between rational, ends-oriented “interest politics” and the murkier “status politics” which he asserts drives pseudo-conservatives, he argues that the right-wing revolt is an anguished reaction to the uncertainties of modernity itself.

In “Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited – 1965,” Hofstadter deepened his analysis of status politics, arguing that it reflects “the effort of Americans of diverse cultural and moral persuasions to win reassurance that their values are respected by the community at large…Such persons believe that their prestige in the community, even their self-esteem, depends on having these values honored in public. …Status politics seeks not to advance perceived material interests but to express grievances and resentments about such matters…As a rule, status politics does more to express emotions than to formulate policies.”

Hofstadter also notes the crucial importance of fundamentalist religious beliefs in pseudo-conservative thought.

In his fourth essay, “Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics,” Hofstadter explored the extreme ideology embraced by the ur-contemporary right-winger, the man who opened the door for Ronald Reagan (whose 1964 broadcast speech on Goldwater’s behalf launched his own political career, and permanently changed the course of American politics).

As Sean Wilentz points out in his introduction, it is useful to be reminded just how reckless Goldwater really was: He praised the lunatic John Birch Society, insisted that the U.S. must utterly defeat the Soviet Union even if it meant risking nuclear war (“a craven fear of death is entering the American consciousness”) and stated that the decisions of the Supreme Court are “not necessarily” the law of the land.

Which takes us back to Newt Gingrich, who has also proposed eviscerating the court, and to the modern Republican Party. Hofstadter and Adorno were writing 50 and 60 years ago, but their work still provides an uncannily accurate portrait of the American right wing.

Take the Tea Party, the flagship of modern right-wing “thought.” In his withering portrait of the Tea Party, Matt Taibbi reveals it to be utterly self-contradictory and self-serving, driven by resentment and anger against undeserving welfare loafers and illegal immigrants. An elderly couple who rage against the federal government turn out to be a government employee and a Medicare recipient whose motorized scooter was paid for by Uncle Sam.

Taibbi concludes:

“After lengthy study of the phenomenon, I've concluded that the whole miserable narrative boils down to one stark fact: They're full of shit. All of them. At the voter level, the Tea Party is a movement that purports to be furious about government spending — only the reality is that the vast majority of its members are former Bush supporters who yawned through two terms of record deficits and spent the past two electoral cycles frothing not about spending but about John Kerry's medals and Barack Obama's Sixties associations. The average Tea Partier is sincerely against government spending — with the exception of the money spent on them.”

Taibbi points out that the movement utterly lacks a coherent ideology. “Beneath the surface," he notes, "the Tea Party is little more than a weird and disorderly mob, a federation of distinct and often competing strains of conservatism that have been unable to coalesce around a leader of their own choosing.”

The only thing holding it together is free-floating anger, a sense of dispossession and an outraged feeling of betrayal — the same memes that Hofstadter traced throughout American history.

Adorno’s portrait of the repressed, father-fixated, emotionally rigid authoritarian personality also offers an uncannily accurate take on the contemporary American right wing. Although his study was flawed by an overly schematic Freudian framework and methodological issues, its findings have been confirmed by some subsequent studies. And even if Adorno’s psychological portrait does not apply to all right-wingers -- the mainstreaming of extreme right-wing thought means that for some of its adherents, hating the government has simply become a day job – it captures the right’s belief system with remarkable precision.

Seen in light of Hofstadter and Adorno’s work, the infantile behavior of the Republican Party makes perfect sense. Ironically, that behavior has everything to do with those “family values” the right purports to celebrate.

It’s all about impulse control. Like a wailing baby, the GOP base has none, and it has elevated its inability to deal with reality — with compromise and government and taxes and mediation and moral ambiguity and the need for reasonable authority — into a bizarre travesty it characterizes as “freedom.” As Hofstadter demonstrates, this “paranoid strain” runs throughout American history, but it was only with the rise of Ronald Reagan, who was in fact not the right-wing ideologue the GOP claims he was, that its disciples began taking over the party.

Far-right American politics has become a theater of projection. To win the nomination, the candidates must exactly mimic the impulses, idée fixes and biases of the faithful. Sarah Palin’s bizarre rise only makes sense in this light. The same logic drove Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell’s infamous “I’m you” ad.  O’Donnell became a laughingstock, but if she hadn’t prefaced “I’m you” with possibly the worst opening line in political history, “I’m not a witch,” she might have had the last laugh.

The GOP has given its hardcore supporters exactly the presidential candidates they asked for: empty vessels into which the party faithful can pour their anger and resentment. And such candidates, by definition, will not possess any real knowledge of the world, of the political process, of the messy, fallen world we live in. If they do possess such knowledge, they must conceal that fact. Anyone who has actually had to work with opponents and make compromises to get things done — in short, a practical politician — will inevitably fail to live up to the rigid fundamentalism, religious, economic and moral, of the Tea Party.  This is why Romney, who is a practical politician and is deeply mistrusted by the GOP faithful for that very reason, must  pretend to be stupider and more intolerant than he is.

One can take a certain grim satisfaction in the fact that the infantile rage of the American right may lead it to devour itself. That rage has led Republican voters to support one unelectable loon after the next, simply because they satisfy their urges. But after the election/judicial appointment and reelection of George W. Bush, no one on the left or center of the American political spectrum should be under any illusions that a Democratic victory is assured. And even if Obama is reelected, he faces the prospect of four more years of dealing with a party of angry infants that would rather take the whole country down than have to abandon its righteous rage and cooperate with him for the public good.

In 1954, during the Army-McCarthy hearings, Army lawyer Joseph Welch asked McCarthy, “Have you no decency, sir, at long last? Have you no sense of decency?” McCarthy was crushed; his reign of terror was over. It appeared that the American right was a spent force. Hofstadter, however, had the wisdom to see deeper. At the end of “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt — 1954,” he wrote, “[I]n a populist culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and moral autonomy, and in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.”

Richard Hofstadter died in 1970, at the age of 54. If he had lived to 2011, he would have taken no satisfaction in learning that his words had come true.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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