March 26, 2010

Republican Demonology: Return of the Paranoid Style in American Politics

After the American Century

The Republicans are a party possessed, a party that has rediscovered the paranoid style that periodically rears its illogical head in American politics. Such paranoia is not new but tends to emerge at moments of historical transition such as the 1830s/1840s, when the US confronted the sectional crisis and industrialization.

A paranoid fear of change also was a strong undercurrent in the politics of the 1920s, when millions joined the KKK, not just in the South but all sections of the US. Nor was the Klan the only expression of paranoia during those years, which also saw immigration restriction, Prohibition, and the anti-evolutionary "Monkey Trial" in Tennessee.

The paranoid style reappeared again in anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s and 1950s. Sometimes labeled McCarthyism, this movement briefly was dominant in the halls of Congress. McCarthy was convinced that communists had infiltrated everywhere and were about to destroy the nation. He warned of "a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man."

Today, the paranoid style is alive and well, personified in the often incoherent rhetoric of Sarah Palin and the "Tea Party" groups who are convinced that the US is about to succumb to totalitarianism (the Democrats) and/or socialism. The danger is emerging that the Republican Party as a whole may fall into the pit of paranoid delusions. This did not happen in the 1950s, in good part because President Eisenhower did not make common cause with Senator McCarthy. Ike was fundamentally a sane person and a centrist in politics.

But there are signs that the Republicans of today lack Eisenhower's sensibilities. Leaders of the Republican Party have made statements in recent days suggesting that they have achieved a hallucinatory consensus among themselves.

Consider the image used by the Repubican Natinonal Committee to raise money for the November 2010 elections. It shows Nancy Pelosi against a background of red flames with the caption "Fire Pelosi." It looks very much like they want to burn her at the stake as a witch. (This image was removed sometime after I wrote this words, to be replaced by an image of Pelosi looking rather manic with a raised fist.)  Sadly, Arthur Miller is not around to comment on the original image, but perhaps we will see a revival of his still very pertinent play about the Salem Witchcraft trials, The Crucible.

In the image Pelosi looks threatening, both arms raised, fists clenched. Republicans are encouraged to see her as a demon from hell. But it seems to me that the Republicans are projecting their own fears, that they themselves are possessed, and that they face the danger of political damnation.

It seems that the United States cannot entirely escape its origins in the seventeenth century.