Most commentary on the Tea Party focuses on its political aspects — its positions on specific programs or pieces of legislation, or its support (or lack thereof) for particular politicians. This is completely unsurprising. The Tea Party, after all, is a political movement, one that tries to shape the decisions of political actors — voters, legislators, pundits — into maximum coherence with its own agenda. Even commentators with a broader interest in the Tea Party usually pivot back to politics in the end; what they really want to know is how its other concerns, be they economic, social or religious, will affect its more narrowly political activities. (A good example is Ari Melber’s perceptive piece “The Tea Party’s Social Agenda” in Politico, April 13, 2011.)
Again, there is nothing untoward in this. But I think our concentration on the Tea Party’s overtly political aspects tends to disguise an important source of its continuing appeal. This source, for lack of a better term, I will label “aesthetic.” In doing so, I certainly don’t mean to imply that the Tea Party has artistic interests or that we’re likely to see exhibits in MOMA of its characteristic paraphernalia (“Turn here for the tricorne hats!”). I have in mind a much more general sense of “aesthetic,” in which it connotes a fusion of form and content in order to express, in a heightened way, a particular meaning or set of meanings.
In the case of the Tea Party, the content, though mostly political, is often religiously inflected. (A 2011 study ranked the predictors of Tea Party affiliation. The strongest was being a Republican. The second strongest? Believing that religion should play a larger role in politics.) There are invocations of God and His justice, historical interpretations (of the Constitution, say, or some program or proposal), evaluations of candidates for office, and policy recommendations. (“Affordable Care Act bad! Tax and spending cuts good!”) These elements are then assembled in various ways to communicate the message an advocate finds appropriate for a given audience or occasion. I want to argue that we can discern in these messages a kind of master narrative, a collection of meanings that expresses the Tea Party’s sense of American history and of its own place within that history. It is this “story line,” I think, that explains the powerful appeal of the Tea Party movement to so many of its adherents, as well as its endorsement of a uniquely intransigent approach to the conduct of political affairs.
This master narrative is so entrenched one can find traces of it in most Tea Party rhetoric, but the best examples — as so often with this movement — tend to come from the writings and speeches of Glenn Beck. (There’s a very real sense in which Beck was the Tea Party before there was a Tea Party. If it hadn’t come into existence on its own, Beck would have invented it.) On June 19, Beck spoke to the Tea Party Patriots’ “Audit the IRS” rally in Washington. (In what follows, I quote from the transcript of his remarks posted on his website. I have made no attempt to edit them for spelling or syntax.) He began this way:
To keep a man a slave you do much the same as the cruel circus masters did to the elephant… Clamp heavy chains around their legs and stake them to the ground. Then beat and terrorize them. After a while you no longer even have to stake the chain; the elephant gives up and just the mere rattle of the chain convinces the elephant there is no hope, so they give up and do what ever it is the circus requires… God did not make men masters over others. Nor did he intend any man to impose unrighteous dominion over another… It is time we remind ourselves of this truth again, and begin to rise up against the intimidation… from our new political circus masters.
Beck does not identify these “circus masters” very clearly. Joe McCarthy provided names when he hurled his accusations, whole lists of them, but Beck tends to favor acronyms: the IRS gets fingered early on, as one would expect given the occasion, but the EPA, ATF, FBI and NSA are also singled out for dishonorable mention. Still, alphabet soup isn’t the only dish on Beck’s menu. He’s fond of the pronoun “they,” and puts it to vague if ominous use: “they” did not fire the IRS officials who “rattled the chains of control,” “they” store “all data” on “every American” but allow “anyone to cross our borders … without any worry or consequence,” “they” want “a new war with Syria” that “will bring death and destruction the world over.” Beck doesn’t mention Barack Obama by name, but most of these functions belong to the executive branch he presides over. This point was probably not lost on his audience.
To be fair, Beck doesn’t think the only problem here is a rogue presidency. The situation he describes is much more dire than that. For one thing, it has a much longer pedigree:
Since our founding, a good percentage of our fellow citizens closed their eyes to the civil rights of all Americans… Nothing has changed, except the chairs at the table. Someone has always been on the losing end of the stick of power. Blacks are the most obvious, the Chinese, the Native Americans, but lets not forget the Irish, the Catholics, the Mormons, the Jews, and now it seems all those of faith that will not conform.
Confronted with such persistent hostility to our liberties, we might seek comfort in the thought of our defenders — those agents, public and private, whom we can trust to shield us from “the stick of power.” But, alas, there is scant comfort to be taken there. The dolorous fact is that our defenders have largely laid down their shields, when they have not actively taken up sticks of their own. “Our pulpits,” Beck charges, “have gone quiet out of arrogance, fear and apathy.” The government, far from protecting our civil rights, thinks it’s OK “to hassle, threaten or intimidate others because of their skin color, religion or political belief.” Our public servants are “drunk with power” and “[t]he only difference between Las Vegas and Washington, D.C. is that at least Vegas has the decency to admit the town is full of hookers and crooks.” Our major political parties, both of them, “have played us, lied to us and stolen from us.” Even organizations ostensibly devoted to “human rights” have gone rotten. They now have little in common with the charismatic leaders, such as Dr. King, who originally inspired them. Instead “[they] have become bullies and grotesque parodies of the principles they pretend to represent … They are no more than the enforcers or the attack dogs of those who wish to keep men confined in spaces they design. Whatever moral force they once had is spent. Their time is up.” And what about those who are supposed to guard the guardians? The media “can no longer claim with a straight face the role of journalist … What they do is public relations. [They] will not print the truth about the average American who finds himself concerned with the direction of our country today.”
Where does all this leave us? Nowhere good, to be sure. “[T]he chains … are being forged for a new generation of slaves,” Beck intones. And the real horror of these chains, the unbearable irony they embody, is simply this: Our story started out as a story of freedom. “Our forbears came to these shores not for free stuff, but for freedom. The chance to make their own way, create a different life. They came here because they knew that God had made them free to make their own way in life, take the risk, do their best and take responsibility for their own lives.”
Well, at this point we should pause and take note of several things. Consider, first of all, the urgency of Beck’s language. The occasion for his speech, as previously mentioned, was a rally officially called “Audit the IRS,” but obviously more than one federal agency was on his mind and the minds of his audience. Even making allowances for the hyperbole natural at such events, we are left with some singularly violent rhetoric. The various officials responsible for the IRS, Benghazi and NSA “scandals” aren’t just government employees guilty of professional incompetence or extremely poor judgment. They are “drunk with power” and determined to “hassle, threaten, or intimidate others” even if, in the case of those with foreign ambitions, this will bring “death and destruction the world over.” Their motives are always corrupt: IRS personnel, for instance, weren’t trying to apply a complex tax code to a highly charged situation. They simply wanted to rattle “the chains of control.” Nor do civil rights groups seek a safe harbor for our liberties in a fiercely roiled, highly dynamic society. They’re “bullies” and “attack dogs” who want to “confine” us, not free us. The government as a whole, in Beck’s vision, isn’t a collection of fallible human beings struggling (and often failing) to bring some kind of benign order to an irreducibly chaotic world. It’s a circus master engaged in forging the chains that will bind “a new generation of slaves.”
This incredibly livid language serves, I think, two principal functions. The first, and most obvious, is to enforce a kind of political Manichaeism. It conjures a world that inherently resists any attempt to arrange its elements in a non-apocalyptic way: What look like policy disputes are actually episodes in the eternal contest of Good with Evil; what appear to be mistakes are really insidious triumphs, the brutal forward motion of a doomsday machine. Devoid of ambiguity, suffused instead with a starkly etched moral simplicity, this is the kind of world in which Beck and the Tea Party are most comfortable.
Important as this is — and it is very important; its combination of righteousness and victimization is essential to the Tea Party’s image of itself as Innocence Aggrieved — it should not blind us to the second function of Beck’s rhetoric. For not only does his language summon a morally polarized universe (with all the benefits, tactical and personal, of such a scheme), but in doing so it underwrites a basic purpose of any narrative: It creates drama. The first duty of any storyteller is to hold the interest of his audience, and every prospective writer learns that the easiest way to do so is through conflict. But not all conflicts are created equal. Call your book “Deliver Us From a Less Than Fully Optimal Balancing of the Various Interests Involved in the Management of Global Conflict” and relatively few will beat a digital path to Amazon in search of it. But call it “Deliver Us From Evil,” as Tea Party favorite Sean Hannity did in 2004, and the dramatic appeal of your tome increases exponentially. If Beck had told his audience that the IRS’s mistake was just that — an error in judgment by well-intentioned, overworked bureaucrats — he would have been a) vastly more consistent with the available evidence and b) vastly more boring. In Tea Party politics, reasonable is what closes on Saturday night.
But the drama of Beck’s story doesn’t derive solely from his inflamed diction. It has a second, even more important, source. If we set aside the way in which he describes his dramatis personae and focus, instead, on what they do — on plot rather than character — we immediately notice something peculiar. Beck’s cast is crowded: There are federal agencies, journalists, civil rights groups, ministers, political parties, pilgrims. And Dr. King. And hookers. This suggests, superficially anyway, a plot with the potential to be somewhat complex. But the structure of Beck’s narrative mirrors the simplicity of its characters. There are many actors, but only two roles: oppressors and oppressed. The latter are represented by those increasingly rare descendants of our libertarian forbears who will “not abide convenient lies,” the former by everyone else. For Beck, a Virtuous Remnant confronts a landscape that is uniformly hostile. How many divisions do the “circus masters” have? Plenty. The IRS, EPA, ATF and FBI. The Republicans and the Democrats. Journalists. Civil rights and religious leaders. Feminists. Everywhere the Virtuous look, they are surrounded by those who want to corrupt and subvert them, to enslave them. And if this isn’t dispiriting enough, they must reflect, now and then, on a singular irony: many of those who pursue them — the government agencies, the public-minded professionals, the service organizations — were supposed to be devoted to helping them. The Virtuous are under attack by those who pledged to protect and to serve. The bitter knowledge of betrayal makes their situation even more desperate.
And, let’s face it, even more interesting. The Virtuous are the ultimate underdogs. Their insurmountable odds are the most insurmountable of all: Everything is arrayed against them. Imagine Luke Skywalker discovering that the Rebel Alliance is in Darth Vader’s pocket. Imagine Leonidas realizing that the 300 Spartans behind him in the pass at Thermopylae intend their knives for his back rather than Xerxes’. In Beck’s vision, a small band of noble warriors faces a vast force, widely dispersed but highly integrated, that schemes constantly for their complete oppression. They face, in other words, a great conspiracy. But here we must make a crucial distinction. For the conspiracy Beck limns isn’t just local and recent; as we’ve already seen, he traces it back to the very origins of the country. (“Since our founding [italics mine], a good percentage of our fellow citizens closed their eyes to the civil rights of all Americans … Nothing has changed.”) The IRS and NSA aren’t the conspiracy, not really, even after we add in the other suspects from the alphabet. For Beck, American history itself is the conspiracy. His narrative is, in a very literal sense, a paranoid one, and the paranoia is integral to the narrative’s power and appeal. It represents an aesthetic effect in the service of a political vision.
But we are wrong, I think, if we take this effect to consist solely in a heightened sense of drama. After all, there are other ways to make a story dramatic. And many people would find this degree of paranoia unhelpful, because implausible, in a story that presents itself as an account of our political history. They might accept it in a work of fiction — who doesn’t love “Three Days of the Condor”? — but reject it as analysis. For them, the paranoia would actually exert an anti-dramatic effect: It would make the story ridiculous, and nothing deflates an attempt at drama quite so quickly (or effectively) as an obvious absurdity. To understand its function in Beck’s narrative, we need to ask why it works so well for him and his audience: why they find the paranoia not just compatible with, but essential to, their sense of the drama of American history.
The classic treatment of paranoia in American politics is, of course, the Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”* Hofstadter originally delivered the piece as a lecture in 1963 (one day before the assassination of JFK), then revised it for publication in Harper’s about a year later. Writing in Harper’s in 2007, the human rights attorney Scott Horton called it “one of the most important and … influential articles published in the 155 year history of the magazine.”
“The Paranoid Style” is, among other things, a brilliant exemplar of the qualities that made Hofstadter (who died in 1970 at the tragically early age of 54) one of the great Americanists of his generation. In lucid, energetic prose, it marshals a wide variety of historical sources in support of its main contention:
American political life… has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds. Today this fact is most evident on the extreme right wing… Behind such movements there is a style of mind… that has a long and varied history. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.
There is no way to improve on Hofstadter’s delineation of this “style of mind”:
The central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life. One may object that there are conspiratorial acts in history, and there is nothing paranoid about taking note of them. This is true… The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a ‘vast’ or ‘gigantic’ conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is… an all-out crusade. The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms— he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values.
Hofstadter tracks the long career of political paranoia in our history, following it through 18th-century warnings of “systematic means” at work “to overthrow” Christianity, to 19th-century indictments of Catholics, immigrants and Mormons, to those who saw a cabal of munitions makers behind the carnage of World War I. His principal concern, however, was its reemergence in the right-wing movements of the early Cold War years, first in the form of McCarthyism and the John Birch Society, later in the strain of Republican politics that would evolve into the Goldwater campaign of 1964.
Hofstadter attributed these periodic outbreaks of paranoid thought to social causes, specifically to “conflicts that involve ultimate schemes of values and that bring fundamental fears and hatreds, rather than negotiable interests, into political action.”
Such conflicts often derive from “ethnic and religious” differences, or from class tensions. Unlike the clinical paranoid, who interprets his conspiracies “as directed specifically against him,” the political paranoid “finds [them] directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others.”
It would be foolish to deny that social fissures of this sort are involved in the “paranoid style.” They quite obviously are. We’ve already observed the deeply religious cast of Tea Party politics, and its racial and ethnic anxieties, as reflected in its virulent response to the election of Barack Obama and to the prospect of immigration reform, are perhaps too obvious to require mention. But as an explanation of political paranoia, this reliance on social conflict raises an obvious question: Why do some people experience such conflicts as a clash of “ultimate values” while many, even most, others do not? We could reply that only the paranoid respond in this way, but this would involve us in an obvious circle. What we need is an account of why these kinds of conflicts trigger a paranoid response in some people but not in others.
I think Hofstadter’s work itself provides the basic materials for such an account, though to construct it we have to move beyond his text in ways he might have found uncongenial. In later essays, Hofstadter famously distinguished between “interest politics,” the clash of material desires in the give-and-take of everyday political life, and “status politics.” His usage of the latter phrase was notoriously slippery — a fact he readily admitted — but one critical element of it consisted in “the problem of American identity, as it is complicated by our immigrant origins and the problem of ethnic minorities.” The intuitive idea is familiar enough: America, unlike most other nations, has no “natural” citizens — no racial or religious or ethnic group that uniquely defines what it means to be “American.” We might gloss this as the claim that no particular class of Americans is normative with respect to “Americanness” as a whole. Our identity, what it means to be us, is always and essentially contested.
Now consider this lament from Beck:
“We don’t recognize our country anymore… Who are we?… What is it we even believe as a people anymore? Where did we get these ideas that now seem so popular?”
That plaintive question — “Who are we?” — is precisely the one Hofstadter places at the root of the paranoid style. There is no denying that it is a real question. But as it does not elicit a paranoid answer from most Americans, we need to know why it forces exactly that from a certain segment of our fellow citizens. The answer, I think, lies in realizing that Hofstadter’s distinction between the clinical and the political paranoid is unduly restrictive. In saying this, I don’t meant to suggest that political paranoids are mentally ill; I mean, instead, that we don’t have to choose between taking ourselves or, alternatively, our “nation … culture [or] way of life” as the object of conspiracy. There is a third option: We can so identify our nation with ourselves that any doubt about the former’s identity calls into question our own.
Hofstadter sees that the paranoid style involves “a projection of the self,” but he thinks it proceeds from the self to the conspiratorial Other. (The political paranoid ascribes to the Other qualities, good and bad, that he detects in himself.) This seems plausible enough, but an even more vital instance of projection, I think, extends from the self to the nation. Tormented by difference, unable or unwilling to abide the fluidity of American identity, some persons anchor it in the racial, ideological, or ethnic features of their own community. This community then becomes “normative” for the nation as a whole; any threat to the former, any challenge to its prestige or authority, is automatically a threat to the latter.
This series of equations — self with community, community with nation — underlies, I believe, the characteristic elements of the Tea Party’s vision of politics. In the quotation above, Beck makes explicit the identification of “our country” with what we “believe,” such that a change in our “ideas” must prompt the question, “Who are we?” It never occurs to him that America might be seen as a prolonged argument about which ideas we should adopt, or that even when we agree on what these ideas are (liberty, say, or equality or fairness), we tend to disagree about exactly what they mean. In Beck’s mind, those whose definition of freedom differs from his own — who don’t take it to mean that we “make … our own way in life” for instance — aren’t advocates of an alternative notion of freedom; they’re simply people who don’t understand what “freedom” is. Because Beck’s community — the Tea Party community — is normative for America as a whole, its vocabulary is the standard reference for all political actors. Their lexicon is our dictionary. Anyone whose usage differs from theirs literally speaks a foreign tongue.
To Beck’s credit, his conception of America’s normative community is usually couched in these ideological terms; he generally (though not always) avoids the racial and ethnic spite that mars so much Tea Party rhetoric. (His July 28, 2009, remark that President Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people” is rightly notorious.) But the critical step is the act of identification itself; its precise content is of only secondary importance. In the summer of 2009, during the raucous town hall meetings that followed the early debates over “Obamacare,” I saw an elderly white woman cry out, “I feel like I’ve lost my country!” At the time, my impulse was to answer, “No, you didn’t lose your country. You lost an election.” But this reply now strikes me as overly facile. From her point of view, it pointed to a difference where there was no difference. The country had recently elected a President whose political values differed fundamentally from her own; and as her values were those of the normative community — the community uniquely definitive of what America means — it followed that America had a president who was, quite literally, unAmerican. For her, and those like her, the country really had been lost.
On my view, this inability — or refusal — to untangle national from personal identity is the ultimate source of the paranoid style. For it means that political conflicts will almost always engage the anxieties and energies associated with self-preservation. The space most of us enjoy between the personal and the political does not exist for Hofstadter’s paranoid; anything that disturbs the latter also disturbs the former. But this means that Hofstadter’s distinction, the distinction between taking oneself or one’s country as the object of conspiracy, has already collapsed. The political paranoid knows that the “circus masters” and their familiars aren’t simply after the “sticks of power”: they’re after him. He (or she) is the ultimate quarry of the long, intricate conspiracy that is American history.
How should we describe a political vision that refuses to distinguish self from nation and sees history as an elaborate plot against both? How can we capture its unique amalgam of grandiosity, rage and vulnerability? The only word that comes to mind here is another refugee from clinical psychology: “narcissistic.” Hofstadter knew, of course, that paranoia — clinical and political — is often associated with a grandiose view of the self, but he downplayed this aspect of it and emphasized instead its sense of persecution. I think that narcissism explains both the apocalyptic tone of Tea Party politics and the powerful appeal of its master narrative. Both derive from the same source: an almost solipsistic conviction that the self is the focal point of a malign and insidious history.
The Tea Party’s paranoid aesthetic conveys this narcissistic view of itself and its role in our politics and history. If its fusion of form and content is compelling to its audience — and it obviously is — this is because it offers one of the most intense pleasures any narrative strategy can: the pleasure of luxuriating in our own importance and significance, qualities only confirmed by the fact that history itself has resolved on our total defeat. This is the message paranoid narcissism ceaselessly delivers to its devotees. “The Others are irreligious, unproductive, licentious, treacherous. You are the rock on which this nation was built and you are the foundation on which it will rise again. You. It’s all about you.”
For my money, the supreme expression of paranoid narcissism in recent popular culture is “The X-Files,” the science-fiction series that ran on FOX television from 1993 until 2002. For those of you who spent the ‘90s in suspended animation, the series follows two FBI agents, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), as they slowly unravel a multilayered conspiracy in which elements of the intelligence community work with rapacious industrialists to turn over the planet to even more rapacious aliens. (At least, I think that’s the conspiracy; it had grown so incredibly baroque by the series’ end that I can’t be entirely sure.) In the final episode of the first season (“The Erlenmeyer Flask”), there is a scene that perfectly embodies the combination of nearly infantile self-obsession with barely suppressed panic that constitutes paranoid narcissism. Agent Mulder has devoted himself to exposing the conspiracy, largely because he blames it for certain tragedies in his personal life (the disappearance of his sister, the collapse of his parents’ marriage). He receives information that leads him to a decrepit warehouse on a bleak industrial boulevard. (Wonderfully, the warehouse is “Zeus Storage,” the boulevard is “Pandora.”) He makes his way inside, wanders down a dark corridor, then enters what appears to be an equally dark chamber. But as he moves forward, the gloom and silence give way to the green glow of instrument panels and the soft gurgling of water. He stops and stares at the scene before him: neatly organized rows of glass tanks, each of which contains a fully submerged, apparently human body, sound asleep and breathing effortlessly in its liquid bed.
It is hard to describe the subtle series of expressions that plays across Mulder’s face. (David Duchovny is a greatly underrated actor.) He has, he thinks, penetrated to the heart of the conspiracy, so there is a moment of triumph. What he sees there is shocking and horrific, so alarm and confusion register as well. But there is something else: a fleeting but definite glimpse of self-satisfaction, a recognition of something long sought and finally achieved: a consummation. The conspiracy, which has robbed him of so much, has now put before him exactly what he needs. The chamber of horrors is also a kind of demonic treasure chest, a ludic inferno that confirms and justifies the obsessions which have animated him for so long. On the other side of this haunted looking-glass, Mulder finds more than evidence of a conspiracy; he finds a justification for his life.
Any number of mythic references will do: he has stared long and hard into the rippling waters; he has tracked the minotaur through the labyrinth; he has forced the door to Blackbeard’s Castle; and what he ultimately finds in each of these dark places, as in the desolate and deserted warehouse, is always — himself.
The Tea Party’s paranoid narcissism helps us explain another important feature of its politics: an intransigent dismissal of the necessity, even the morality, of compromise. In 2011, Democrats and many Republicans looked on in horror as the Tea Party caucus in the House of Representatives pushed the country to the brink of its first ever default; only when it had exacted punishing concessions from President Obama did it agree, sullenly, to accede to an increase in the debt limit. A similar debacle may play itself out in connection with immigration reform.
Establishment figures in both parties tend to interpret this kind of conduct as an expression of immaturity. The Tea Party, they sigh, simply doesn’t understand that compromise is the life’s blood of transactional politics: only a naïf thinks no bread at all is better than half a loaf. What this view of things misses is that the Tea Party doesn’t think of politics as transactional; its narcissism is the right’s version of identity politics. When purely material concerns are at issue — when we’re in the realm of Hofstadter’s “interest politics” — it might make sense to give some to get some. But when our identity is at risk — as it always is for the paranoid narcissist — there can be no room for compromise. The very suggestion is absurd: it amounts to the claim that we should accept being only partly ourselves. For the Tea Party, intransigence is another name for self-preservation.
The question the rest of us confront, then, is not how to tutor the Tea Party in the realities of democratic governance. It is what we should think when one of our two major political parties is captured by a faction that rejects the possibility of normal politics. In his essay, “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt — 1954,” Richard Hofstadter left us these strikingly prescient words:
[I]n a populistic 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.
What our own time is in the process of proving, however glumly, is that such a political climate is much more than merely “conceivable.”
* ”The Paranoid Style” lent its name to a collection of essays originally published in 1965 and reissued by Vintage Books, with a characteristically perceptive introduction by Sean Wilentz, in 2008. All quotations from Hofstadter are taken from this edition.