Easy Chair — From the February 2014 issue

Tears for Fears

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One of the many poignant glimpses of midcentury America afforded me by a fiftieth-anniversary reading of the Warren Report was the story of an ephemeral conservative organization called the American Fact-Finding Committee. It seems that the AFFC placed a full-page advertisement in the Dallas Morning News on November 22, 1963, the very day President Kennedy was murdered in that city. The ad was a preposterous declaration of hostility to the president on behalf of the citizens of Dallas. Indeed, its red-baiting tone soon made it a symbol of the city’s sweltering right-wing climate, while its morbid black border fueled a wealth of conspiracy theories. And although the man who actually shot the president had no connection to this organization — and was a would-be Marxist to boot — the advertisement was too much of a provocation for investigators to ignore. The Warren Report reproduces it in full, and the commission interviewed its principal author at great length.

At first glance, the ad seems like a relic of a fortunately lost time. It is a clumsy, hectoring thing, demanding that Kennedy explain why the “head of the U.S. Communist Party” had lavished him with praise, and why his brother, the attorney general, was persecuting “loyal Americans who criticize you.” If you can screen out the Cold War bluster, however, you will find that the sentiments are utterly familiar. The measured and rational tone of the Warren Report is like a dusty exhibit in the museum of political rhetoric, but the ad itself is strikingly contemporary. With its crackling sense of patriotic grievance, it might have been written yesterday.

1 Yes, reader: This full-throated denunciation of the communist conspiracy was the product of another conspiracy, one with similar but much smaller aims. According to testimony heard by the commission, the founders of the AFFC had managed to work their way into the John Birch Society, Young Americans for Freedom, and something called the National Indignation Convention, which I am sorry to report no longer exists.

More astonishing is the discovery the Warren Commission made about the AFFC: it didn’t exist. It was merely a name that had been whipped up to mask a different right-wing group, whose mission was to infiltrate still other right-wing groups, take them over, and bring them under a single leadership.1

The man who put his name on the advertisement, Bernard Weissman, had been in Dallas for only a few weeks before he raised his voice in vindication of the good people of the heartland. Politics was only half the goal, as the luckless Weissman testified. By earning some credibility in right-wing circles, he hoped to win the friendship of wealthy and powerful people who might subsequently launch him in business. Like every College Republican to come down the pike since then, Weissman and company sensed, if only vaguely, that this was the way the world worked.

This tale of a penny-ante plot in which actual conspirators hide behind a fake conspiracy — and are then suspected of conspiring to murder a president — put me in mind of the historian Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” whose fiftieth anniversary also falls this year.

Hofstadter’s essay has been a touchstone for journalists ever since it was published in this magazine in November 1964. It is easily his best remembered bit of writing, far outshining his more important works on conservatism such as Social Darwinism in American Thought and The American Political Tradition. The reason for this is obvious: conspiracy theories may be fun to believe in, but they are even more fun to ogle and mock, and they are tastiest of all when they are transformed into entertainment. Those who actually enrolled in the conspiracy-spotting John Birch Society are vastly outnumbered by those who have watched Dr. Strangelove, or JFK, or The X-Files, or The Matrix, or even House of Cards.

Hofstadter’s point was not merely that belief in conspiracies is epidemic. He argued that a “style of mind” inclines a sizable number of Americans to conceive of history as driven by elaborate schemes rather than by the usual, boring forces — economic, sociological, technological. History-as-conspiracy is hardly unknown in other countries, of course, but Americans seem to return to the idea with an unseemly enthusiasm.

Hofstadter reminded readers of several outstanding examples. There was the widespread eighteenth-century conviction that the French Revolution and the democratic impulse generally could be chalked up to a secret group called the Illuminati; the anti-Masonic movement, which blamed a conspiracy for impeding the democratic impulse; the anti-Catholic panic of the 1830s; and, of course, the anticommunist crusade of the author’s own era.

Today we are living in a kind of golden age of paranoia, made possible by the Internet’s complete eclipsing of standard cause and effect. Anyone with a computer can open the tap in an instant: liberal-media conspiracies, 9/11 conspiracies, FEMA conspiracies, Federal Reserve conspiracies, big-bank conspiracies, ACORN conspiracies, conspiracies against Christmas or in favor of global warming. Glenn Beck promoted a whole raft of conspiracy theories during his time on Fox News (think: George Soros, Woodrow Wilson, Barack Obama), while the radio host Alex Jones speculated that Beck was himself a pawn of other conspirators (Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes) who were plotting to draw alienated, conspiracy-wise people back into mainstream politics.

To read Hofstadter’s 1964 essay, in other words, is to experience numerous shocks of recognition. To begin with, Hofstadter noted that what distinguishes “the modern right wing” is that it “feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind.” This was a sharp contrast to the nineteenth-century social Darwinists Hofstadter had described in his earlier work, conservatives who had been confident that the ablest would always triumph. Today it is hard to imagine that the strong ever talked that way at all, so saturated is our culture with absurd victim-playing and pity for the powerful. The notion that the righteous have been dispossessed is by now so utterly ingrained that conservatives have stopped mincing words about the remedy: they must “take our country back” from the elites and socialists who have stolen it away.

That this stolen country must be the best of all possible countries is also key to Hofstadter’s argument. The paranoid style, he wrote, rests on “the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph.” If you’re the target of a grand conspiracy, after all, that more or less validates your role as a divinely chosen nation, a lighthouse of hope for suffering mankind, a land that is (to use the modish Tea Party word of a few years back) “exceptional.”

Such a uniquely blessed country can never lose in a fair contest, of course. It can falter only when it is betrayed by its rulers. “For every error and every act of incompetence,” Hofstadter observed, the paranoid mind substitutes “an act of treason.” And so just as the right wing of the past blamed communist successes in Europe, Asia, Central America, and Africa on disloyal American leaders, the present-day right imagines that (having somehow survived the Cold War despite all those knives in our back) we are still betrayed by faithless conspirators in Washington, who have thrown in their lot with the terrorists, the Chinese, the Muslim Brotherhood.

How does such a monstrous bunch stay in power? The paranoid, according to Hofstadter, believes that the conspirator “makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced.” This sounds like one more rococo artifact of the early Sixties, along with tail-finned cars and doo-wop quintets. Yet this one has survived in almost pristine form, its every curlicue intact. Take a typical 2009 Glenn Beck broadcast about Obama’s plan to “fundamentally transform America” by fiendishly fomenting one crisis after another:

Oh my gosh. We need a crisis. We need a financial [crisis] and we need a foreign-policy crisis. Why? Because it will break down the old system and the old ways of seeing the world. Mark my words, they are going to come out and say, “The financial system is completely broken and does not work and we need to completely overhaul it.” Mark my words! “This system has been overwhelmed, it doesn’t work in the new paradigm, it is outdated, outmoded, and it must be completely redone.” Mark my words, they’re designing the crisis that will come!

A final hallmark of the paranoid style is “emulating the enemy” — mimicking the supremely diabolical ways of the conspiratorial Other. This kind of mimicry is easy to find; indeed, one might categorize the entire Tea Party as nothing but an elaborate imitation of a left-wing social movement. But what amazes the student of the right is how predisposed are the conspiracy-minded to actually conspiring. They are forever inventing real cabals to combat imagined ones. I learned this myself during my research on the former super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who in the first stage of his career inhabited a political culture which held that a Soviet-directed conspiracy was pulling the strings everywhere. Later Abramoff would prove himself a master of such false-flag operations — fronting, for example, a Washington think tank that was secretly a project of South African military intelligence.

Publishing an argument with such remarkable predictive power is an achievement worth celebrating. Hofstadter also accomplished something more problematic: he popularized a pseudopsychological approach to politics. As he freely admitted, he wasn’t using such terms as “paranoid” in a clinical sense. “I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics,” he wrote. “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.” But the language of the psychiatric style always suggests a diagnosis, and always of the same humiliating kind: madness, mania, disabling malady.

To be sure, the psychiatric style existed long before Hofstadter began his career as a historian. In 1896, an “alienist” (as the earliest shrinks were called) wrote to the New York Times to announce his conclusion, based on close study of the speeches of William Jennings Bryan, that the Democratic presidential candidate almost certainly suffered from “a delusional condition of mind.” The political scientist Harold Lasswell published Psychopathology and Politics in 1930, and Sigmund Freud himself once co-wrote a biography of Woodrow Wilson (it wasn’t published in America until 1966).

Nor was Hofstadter the only commentator to interpret the conservatism of 1964 as a cry for help. Depicting Barry Goldwater as a borderline maniac was commonplace in those days. Fact magazine went so far as to publish a collection of insulting diagnoses penned by the psychiatrists of the nation, none of whom had examined Goldwater in any professional capacity.

But the impact of Hofstadter’s essay, which he expanded into an equally influential book of the same title in 1965, gave such glib analyses a veneer of intellectual respectability. And since then, the psychiatric style has become epidemic. To declare that the aforementioned Mr. Beck suffers from schizophrenia is a staple of Internet commentary. So are similar diagnostic codes affixed to Bill O’Reilly (narcissistic personality disorder) or the Tea Party itself (mass hysteria brought on by the election of an African American to the White House). And here is super-blogger Andrew Sullivan commenting on a 2012 Democratic commercial spotlighting a few of Sarah Palin’s nuttier moments: “Reminding reasonable people that the current G.O.P. actually proposed this know-nothing, delusional maniac as a potential president is essential in an amnesiac country.”

Now, calling your political opponents crazy is a harmless if unoriginal tactic. Lord knows I’ve done it myself. But it is nevertheless worth noting that each of the examples above is a flat-out term of abuse, with no pretense to diagnostic nuance. We can safely assume that none of the commentators have actually had occasion to examine the patient in question.

We should also note that nowadays the source of the psychiatric style is nearly always the liberal camp, in which “reasonable people” regard professional expertise with appropriate awe. One of the few conservative commentators to dabble in the psychiatric style is Dinesh D’Souza, who likes to claim that President Obama is a cognitive prisoner of the Kenyan father he never really knew. The conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, just about the only actual psychiatrist among the nation’s pundit corps, tends to avoid psychopolitical pronouncements except to mock them.2

2 Dishonorable mention goes to one Dr. Keith Ablow, another psychiatrist turned pundit who has of late enlightened viewers of Fox News with his creative theories about Barack Obama and the victimization he suffered as a child.

By reducing the forces of history to individual mental maladies, the psychiatric style obscures as much as it reveals. It is also, almost by definition, a form of judgment handed down by one class of people on another. From the ivy-covered heights, our professional betters tell us precisely what is wrong with our view of the world — it’s like that scene in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town where the high-toned lawyers conduct a “sanity hearing” to lock up the idealistic Gary Cooper character. It is also, necessarily, a tool of consensus; an attempt to win the political argument by excluding certain voices from the debate.

The thing is, no quantity of psychologizing can prevent the most solid, reasonable consensus from coming to grief. Nineteen sixty-four was the high point of liberal self-assurance, with Lyndon Johnson fending off Goldwater’s challenge by an overwhelming majority. In this context, “The Paranoid Style” seems like a kind of companion piece to the Warren Report, imbued with the same cool rationalism. And just as the findings of the Warren Commission were quickly displaced in the public mind by the findings of the conspiracy crowd, so Hofstadter’s warm old liberal consensus was itself in pieces only a few years later — shattered first by its own blunders in Vietnam and then by the leaders of the “paranoid” right.

And now for the final turn of the wheel, which requires an ironic sensibility like Hofstadter’s to truly do it justice. Today, it is liberalism of the postwar variety that finds itself defined out of the Washington consensus. That ever-so-sensible vision of a balance between labor and management, government and private industry, rich and poor — nowadays this is a fantasy for cranks, an irrational mirage clung to by members of a dwindling and embittered class. The steamroller of reason has flattened that world nearly out of existence — and I mean market reason, with its iron demand that winners win and losers lose, forever and always.

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