One week from today, one of the largest military training exercises in history -- dubbed "Operation Jade Helm 15" -- will occur across seven southwestern states. According to Bastrop County Republican Party Chairman Albert Ellison, there is good reason for Texans to worry that Obama is secretly planning to use this event as an opportunity to take over the state, a conspiracy theory popularized by right-wing radio host Alex Jones earlier this year. “In the minds of some, he was raised by communists and mentored by terrorists,” reported Ellison to The Washington Post on Saturday, later adding “Obama has really painted a portrait in the minds of many conservatives that he is capable of this sort of thing.”
Make no mistake about it: Though it’s tempting to dismiss this type of hysteria as self-evidently absurd, it is dangerous -- and needs to be called out as such.
To truly understand what’s going on here -- what, indeed, has been occurring since Obama first took office -- one can start by looking at Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1964 article, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”:
“I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression ‘paranoid style’ I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”
Although Hofstadter’s essay studied this phenomenon from colonial conspiracy theories about the Illuminati to McCarthysim and Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, the so-called “paranoid style” that has permeated the conservative movement during the Obama era is noteworthy in three ways:
1. It is fueled by racism.
Back in 2010, former Republican political advisor John Avlon coined the term “white minority politics” to refer to the anxiety "that President Obama represents the rise of a multicultural elite and the rise of a non-white majority in America.” The following year, a study led by Eric Hehman of the University of Delaware in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that respondents who specifically ranked Obama lower in “Americanism” were also more likely to possess racial prejudices.
“Due to prevailing norms of equality, most Whites attempt to avoid appearing biased in their evaluations of Blacks, in part because of a genuine desire to live up to their egalitarian standards, but also because of concern regarding social censure," the report observed, making it necessary for latent racist attitudes to be expressed through rhetoric that doesn’t result in stigma -- such as, say, claiming that Obama is ineligible to be president because he wasn’t born in this country, or is secretly a Muslim. Because these positions implicitly assert that Obama isn’t a “real American” like the 42 presidents who preceded him, this particular use of the paranoid style is uniquely designed to validate racially biased opinions.
2. It is consistent with a long tradition of right-wing paranoia in response to liberal presidencies… but this time, the purveyors of paranoia have more power than ever before.
There is nothing new about a liberal president being accused of covert Communism: Franklin D. Roosevelt was charged on a regular basis with attempting to destroy the free enterprise system through his New Deal programs, John F. Kennedy’s policies on everything from desegregation to American-Cuban relations were used to mobilize right-wingers against his perceived “treason,” and Bill Clinton spent most of his presidency fending off trumped up investigations thanks to the efforts of well-financed right-wing activists. As a scientific paper last year by John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska explained, extreme conservatives are more likely to be driven by a “negativity bias” that makes them hypersensitive to perceived threats in their environment. This in turn means that they are more likely to react to programs and proposals with which they might have reasonable disagreements as if they were existential threats instead of simply bad policies.
Yet while this tendency has existed for decades (long enough that, if nothing else, it’s remarkable how so many conservatives haven’t noticed the pattern), Republicans during the Obama era have been unusually beholden to their party’s own extremist elements. As a result, this round of right-wing paranoia against a liberal president has managed to significantly corrode our political institutions, from Congress’s unprecedented obstructionism to our various debt ceiling crises. Even worse…
3. There have been violent repercussions.
Back in 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report (which was subsequently leaked) warning that “the threat posed by lone wolves and small [domestic] terrorist cells is more pronounced than in past years” thanks to the election of the first black president, the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse, and the fact that any liberal initiatives proposed by President Obama on hot button issues (e.g., gun control, abortion, immigration) would naturally provoke significant backlash. Although the report was initially met with such outrage that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ultimately apologized for it, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported “explosive growth” in right-wing extremism after Obama’s election, from the number of Patriot organizations (which rose from 149 in 2008 to an all-time high of 1,360 by the end of Obama’s first term) to the white supremacist web forum Stormfront (which saw its membership increase from under 100,000 to more than 300,000 within a similar period). There have also been numerous acts of domestic terrorism over the last five-and-a-half years perpetrated by individuals who specifically cited the fact of Obama’s presidency as at least part of their motivation, including:
• The shooting of three black immigrants (two fatally) in Brockton, MA on the day after Obama’s inauguration, which was intended as part of a larger series of attacks against African Americans, Hispanics, and Jews;
• The shooting of four police officers (three fatally) by an openly anti-Semitic pro-gun activist;
• The shooting of two police officers (both fatally) by a man who was “severely disturbed” by Obama’s election;
• The fatal shooting of a security guard at the National Holocaust Museum by a white supremacist who claimed “Obama was created by Jews”;
• The fatal shooting of a man at a gun range by an anti-government extremist who wanted to steal the victim’s AR-15 to foment a coup against the Obama administration;
• The murder of a former GI and his teenage girlfriend by a right-wing militia that had been planning a killing spree which would culminate in a plot to assassinate Obama;
• The murder of four people in a multi-state killing spree by a pair of white supremacists who aimed to “reclaim our country”;
• Shooting at a Jewish Community Center that killed three people by a white supremacist who openly advocated assassinating Obama;
• The ambush and killing of two police officers in Las Vegas by anti-government radicals who wrote that Obama was “baiting the next civil war” with his gun control proposals.
Just to be clear: That’s a total of 20 people who were murdered by right-wing radicals who specifically mentioned Obama’s presidency as at least part of their motivation for killing -- many of whom also hoped to kill the president himself.
None of this is intended to impugn the majority of conservatives, who criticize Obama based on his actual words and policies rather than the claims of the politically paranoid. In fact, the best possible outcome for American democracy would be one in which virtually all conservatives and liberals debate the important issues facing our country in a civil manner that focuses on real issues instead of hysterical fairy tales. Until that happens, however, the paranoid rhetoric coming from political leaders like Chairman Albert Ellison is incredibly alarming. Since the start of the Obama era, the paranoid style has been used to reinforce racial biases, undermine our government’s ability to perform its most basic functions, and even justify acts of violence. It’s time for us to identify that type of thinking for what it is -- irrational, hateful, and dangerous to our republic.