When I tell Republicans — and even some moderate Democrats — that I wrote a book about right-wing hatred, their response, often as not, is skeptical and disapproving. Politics is a rough game, they say. Romney might have his 47 percent, but just listen to all those class war tropes about the 1 percent you hear from the left. Sure, the far right has an unfortunate legacy of racism, sexism and homophobia, but Obama has a whole deck of race and gender cards that he plays. And anyway, the nuts are ultimately unimportant — national elections are decided in the middle.
All of that might be true, but the kind of hatred that I’m talking about goes way beyond ordinary politics and deep into the realm of abnormal psychology. In its full-blown manifestations, it is akin to what an ophidiophobe feels at the sight of a snake: visceral and existential; categorical and absolute. It turns on the gut certainty that your adversaries aren’t looking just to raise your taxes but to destroy your whole way of life: that they are not only wrongheaded, but preternaturally evil. Comparatively few people experience these feelings on a conscious level, but they lie latent in many more of us than we might suspect.
It is precisely because appeals to those kinds of feelings work below the level of consciousness that I am so alert for them — and they have been very much in evidence throughout this whole campaign. When Mitt Romney promised to “keep America America” and Michele Bachmann launched a witch hunt against Muslims in the State Department, when Newt Gingrich called Obama a “food stamp president” and Rick Santorum railed against the “elite, smart people” who will never be “on our side,” those were the buttons that were being pushed.
Conspiratorial shibboleths are seeded throughout the GOP platform, which, among other things, gestures toward a return to the gold standard and repudiates the John Birch Society’s favorite bugaboo, the United Nations’ Agenda 21 (which Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate, calls a George Soros-financed attempt to “abolish ‘unsustainable’ environments, including golf courses, grazing pastures and paved roads”).
None of this is new. Not surprising for a nation whose founders were in large part the descendants of religious refugees for whom the devil was both literally real and ubiquitous, an undertone of paranoid dread has been a constant if largely unacknowledged feature of American politics. All the way back in the 1790s, the Illuminati — a secret society that was founded in Bavaria in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, an ex-Jesuit whose dream was a self-ruled, secular, trans-nationalist Cosmo-political order — became the screen on which New England religious conservatives projected their anxieties about the rising tide of anarchy and atheism. “God grant,” wrote an exposé that descried the hand of the Illuminati in the French Revolution, “that the United States may not learn to their cost that Republics are equally menaced with Monarchies; and that the immensity of the Ocean is but a feeble barrier against the universal conspiracy.” A contributor to the Hartford Courant declared that President Thomas Jefferson is “the real Jacobin, the child of modern illumination, the foe of man, and the enemy of his country.”
In the 1820s and '30s, apprehensions about what the Masons were getting up to in their secret Lodge meetings fueled a national political movement. Former President John Quincy Adams (who had been defeated by the Mason Andrew Jackson) ran for governor of Massachusetts on the Anti-Masonic ticket in 1834. In his book "Letters on Freemasonry," he wrote that Masonry “is wrong — essentially wrong — a seed of evil, which can never produce any good.” If the Illuminati had been feared for their irreligion, the Masons were condemned not just as freethinkers, but as occultists, Jesuits and even Jews of a sort. The anti-Masonic panic was followed in short order by the know-nothing era of anti-Catholic Nativism.
And of course there is race. From the destruction of North America’s indigenous inhabitants to the importation of Africans as chattel slaves, from Jim Crow to racially targeted voter suppression efforts today, race has played as fraught a role in the American psyche as Freud believed sex did for bourgeois Austrians. “Affirmative action” and “reparations” are two of the most resonant buzzwords in the rhetorical arsenal of the right. Republican congressman Steve King of Iowa has accused Obama of plotting to make taxpayers pay slavery reparations to American blacks. In his bestselling book "The Roots of Obama’s Rage" and the top-grossing documentary "2016: Obama’s America," Dinesh D’Souza takes the idea even further, arguing that, as the heir to his father’s anti-Colonialism, Obama’s master plan is to “redistribute” America’s power and prosperity to the Muslim world, bankrupting the U.S. and turning it into a third-world country in the process.
Going all the way back to Jefferson and Hamilton’s bitter arguments about the national bank, Americans have been deeply suspicious of finance, for both good and terrible reasons. The rise of greenback and Silverite populism in the second half of the 19th century was partly driven by the fear that British/Jewish bankers were conspiring to destroy the Republic — the same cabal that would later be accused of foisting the Federal Reserve on the U.S., orchestrating World War I and financing the Bolshevik revolution. Oddly enough, today’s populists agitate for the return of the very gold standard that their forebears fought so hard against.
All of these different strains came together in a master template in 1920 when "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a forged document that had first been published in Russian in 1903 and that supposedly provided documentary proof of an ancient Jewish/Masonic conspiracy to rule the world, was translated into English. By the 1930s, the anti-Roosevelt far right had recast American history as the story of the endless struggle between red-blooded patriotic “producers” (farmers, craftsmen and manufacturers) and the parasitic, citified financiers who sucked them dry (aided by an unlikely alliance of dark-skinned and foreign-born moochers and collectivists). Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had delivered the federal government to the enemy.
They have been telling pretty much that same story ever since, though the Masons would take a back seat to the Communists, the specter of Shariah law would eventually understudy for the Vatican and the Elders of Zion, and George Soros would stand in for the Rothschilds. Florida’s Rep. Allen West proved that McCarthyism is alive and well last spring when he told a town hall meeting that “about 78 or 81” of the Democrats in the U.S. Congress “are members of the Communist Party.”
But as much as the extreme right might have hated FDR, JFK, Bill Clinton and even Eisenhower, Nixon and George H.W. Bush, President Obama is the visible embodiment of everything that they fear the most. He is an elite Harvard lawyer and the bearer of a foreign name. He is an urbanite and a community organizer in the Luciferian mold of Saul Alinsky. Last week Jerome Corsi — the bestselling co-author of "Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry" — took to right-wing talk shows to share his theory that Obama is not only secretly Muslim but also gay.
Most of all, Obama has dark skin. Let’s face it: Racism is infinitely more resonant than recondite monetary theories and tall tales about black helicopters. The thought that Obama really is an affirmative action president — earnest and full of good intentions but hopelessly over his head (“When you’re not that bright, you can’t get better prepared,” as John Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor and Romney campaign co-chair put it after Obama’s poor showing at the Denver debate) — might have even resonated, albeit guiltily and uneasily, with some of his disappointed supporters. Donald Trump’s latest publicity stunt — offering to donate $5 million to charity if the president releases “his college records and applications and if he gives his passport applications and records” — plays off the presumption that Obama is hiding something (the bad grades that would prove that he is a beneficiary of affirmative action, an application as a foreign student or something “funny” about his passport that vindicates the birthers’ suspicions).
Speaking of that dreadful debate, one can’t help wondering whether Obama wasn’t overborne by his efforts to not look like an angry black man. If true, it would be ironic if his own racial self-consciousness damaged his reelection prospects no less than his opponents’ overt and covert appeals to racism. Romney’s avidity to press the Benghazi non-issue in the second debate might be an example of just such a coded appeal — a cynical attempt to tap the suspicion that Obama is a crypto-Muslim who secretly sympathizes with al-Qaida’s aims.
Obama’s much stronger showing in the second and third debates did little to silence the murmuring. Writing on her Facebook page, Sarah Palin accused Obama of “shucking and jiving” on the Benghazi question. During a CNN interview, John Sununu dismissed Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama as based on a “slightly different reason” than policy. When pressed, he insinuated that Powell was just being loyal to his race. “When you have somebody of your own race that you’re proud of being president of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him,” is the tortuous exact quote. Sununu tried to walk back his comment a few hours later, releasing a statement in which he said he did “not doubt” that Powell’s endorsement “was based on anything but his support of the president’s policies” — but which elided the many specific critiques of Romney’s policies that Powell had offered. Sununu, of course, is also the person who said, “I wish this president would learn how to be an American,” back in July.
But as noisome as all this fear and loathing may be, I suspect it will prove less influential than one might expect in the long term — even though Fox News, conspiratorial websites like WorldNetDaily and pundits like Glenn Beck have been giving it wider circulation than it’s ever had. The great arc of American history bends toward greater, not lesser, tolerance and open-mindedness. Both candidates, remember, are members of minorities. For all that Romney’s Mormon faith informs his view of American exceptionalism, many Evangelicals consider his religion to be no less sinister than Islam, or for that matter, the Illuminati. Billy Graham’s organization didn’t get around to removing the LDS from its list of dangerous cults until last week. But, however belatedly, it did.
The glass is half full and it’s half empty. Things are a little like they were in 1928, when the KKK was strong enough to hurt Al Smith’s electoral chances (as president, it was said, he would extend the Holland Tunnel 3,000 miles to Vatican City), but not strong enough to keep a Catholic off the ticket in the first place.
The writing is already on the wall. According to the U.S. Census, 50.4 percent of the babies born in the U.S. between July 2010 and July 2011 were minorities — up from 37 percent in 1990. In "Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025?" Pat Buchanan envisions an America in which whites “may discover what it is like to ride in the back of the bus.” Go to a meeting of white nationalists, and you’ll quickly learn that their deepest fears are demographic. “White Christians are threatened with extinction as a separate and identifiable people,” writes Dr. Michael Hill, the president of the neo-Confederate League of the South. “Demographers predict that whites will be a minority in this country by 2040 … we are sowing the wind because of our inaction regarding immigration and multiculturalism. We will likely reap the whirlwind.”
No matter how this election turns out, the endgame has already begun: America is becoming more multicultural, more gay-friendly and more feminist every day. But as every hunter knows, a wounded or cornered quarry is the most dangerous. Even as the white, patriarchal, Christian hegemony declines, its backlash politics become more vicious. They may succeed in turning back the clock for some time.