Politics, et Cetera

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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

They Said It:

Do you ever get the sense the whole world is becoming unhinged from reality? I started feeling that way awhile ago, when I was still working for The Weekly Standard and all these articles began appearing about how Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Doug Feith, Bill Kristol and a bunch of ‘‘neoconservatives’’ at the magazine had taken over U.S. foreign policy.

Theories about the tightly knit neocon cabal came in waves. One day you read that neocons were pushing plans to finish off Iraq and move into Syria. Web sites appeared detailing neocon conspiracies; my favorite described a neocon outing organized by Dick Cheney to hunt for humans. The Asian press had the most lurid stories; the European press the most thorough. Every day, it seemed, Le Monde or some deep-thinking German paper would have an exposé on the neocon cabal, complete with charts connecting all the conspirators.

The full-mooners fixated on a think tank called the Project for the New American Century, which has a staff of five and issues memos on foreign policy. To hear these people describe it, PNAC is sort of a Yiddish Trilateral Commission, the nexus of the sprawling neocon tentacles….

In truth, the people labeled neocons (con is short for ‘‘conservative’’ and neo is short for ‘‘Jewish’’) travel in widely different circles and don’t actually have much contact with one another. The ones outside government have almost no contact with President Bush. There have been hundreds of references, for example, to Richard Perle’s insidious power over administration policy, but I’ve been told by senior administration officials that he has had no significant meetings with Bush or Cheney since they assumed office. If he’s shaping their decisions, he must be microwaving his ideas into their fillings.

David Brooks, “The Era of Distortion,” The New York Times, January 6, 2004.



In November 1964, just as Senator Barry Goldwater was losing the presidential election in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson, Harper’s Magazine published one of the most revered and influential political analyses of the post-war period.  The essay, written by the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning historian Richard Hofstadter, was ostensibly about paranoia and conspiracy mongering throughout American political history.  In reality, of course, it was a broadside against the new and burgeoning American conservative movement.

Goldwater’s campaign may have been doomed from the start, but the movement he inspired was clearly worrisome to the post-war liberal elites.  They very much liked the bipartisan consensus they had constructed in the two decades since the war ended, and they didn’t want any wild-eyed, foaming-mouthed reactionaries screwing things up.  So Hofstadter took it upon himself to explain how this conservative movement fit into the sometimes strange history of American politics and why it should be considered an alarming if ultimately transitory phenomenon.

Hoftsadter’s argument, such as it was, was that conservatives were part of a long tradition of unreasonably suspicious and obsessive American political actors who saw conspiracies lurking around every corner.  And yet these “new” conservatives were worse and even more disturbed than their predecessors.  Hofstadter argued that the “radical right wing” was truly batty and that its obsessions sprang not from any actual sign of conspiracy, but from pure self-interest and personal frustration.  “The modern right wing,” Hofstadter wrote, “feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.”

Naturally, the lynchpin of the “paranoid style” among American conservatives was their undue fear of communism.  The conservatives not only saw Reds everywhere, but believed that these foreign forces were aided and abetted from the highest levels of government.  “Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies,” Hofstadter wrote, but “the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.”  He continued:

The basic elements of contemporary right-wing thought can be reduced to three: First, there has been the now-familiar sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism.  A great many right-wingers would agree with Frank Chodorov, the author of The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil, that this campaign began with the passage of the income-tax amendment to the Constitution in 1913.

The second contention is that top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy, at least since the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, has been dominated by men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.

Finally, the country is infused with a network of Communist agents, just as in the old days it was infiltrated by Jesuit agents, so that the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media is engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.

Within a year, the “The Paranoid Style” was published as the lead piece in a book-length collection of Hofstadter’s essays, and it went on to become one of the most widely-read works of pop-political science in the Cold War era.  Forty-three years after its publication, Harper’s referred to it as “one of the most important and most influential articles published in the 155 year history of the magazine.”  Indeed, Hofstadter’s depiction of the contemporary Right formed the foundation of the popular media and mainstream academic understanding of conservatism that persists still today.

There is only one problem with this otherwise “brilliant” analysis:  It is absolute garbage.  The most important thing that Hofstadter’s essay did was that it flattered the American liberal cognoscenti, it played upon their prejudices and their presumptions.  It told them that they were right and good, while their opponents were merely crazy – and a special kind of crazy at that.

More to the point, Hofstadter was just plain wrong – or dishonest – on several fronts.

For starters, many of the fears, concerns, worries, and anxieties of American conservatives were, as it turns out, more than justified.  The simple fact of the matter is that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were indeed havens for Communists, some with long and significant ties to the Soviet Union.  Moreover, the Soviets supported and funded many academic and student organizations of the “New Left.”  The SDS (Students for Democratic Society), the Weather Underground Organization (the “Weathermen”), and others accepted money and training either directly from the Soviet Union or from its satellites (Castro’s Cuba, for example).  All of this we know today, thanks to the Venona Project, the release of the Soviet archives after the fall of the Soviet Union, the cultural “defection” of many erstwhile communist intellectuals and organizers (most notably David Horowitz), and the information provided by actual Soviet intelligence defectors.  As it turns out, the phony conspiracies that Hofstadter mocked were NOT phony conspiracies after all.  Today, the Soviet and Communist influence in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations is established fact.  Hofstadter may not have believed it and may, indeed, have found it incredibly far-fetched, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.

The second serious flaw with Hofstadter’s essay – and its most interesting and telling portion – is the specific example he chose to use to represent the conservative movement.  “The mantle of McCarthy,” Hofstadter writes, “has fallen on a retired candy manufacturer, Robert H. Welch, Jr., who is less strategically placed and has a much smaller but better organized following than the Senator.”

Welch, of course, was the founder of the John Birch Society and, as such, was one of the few conservatives whose beliefs about Communist infiltration actually exceeded reality.  Among other things, Hofstadter expressly condemned Welch for his belief – and public pronouncements – that President Dwight Eisenhower was himself either a Communist or a Communist agent:  “As for Eisenhower himself, Welch characterized him, in words that have made the candy manufacturer famous, as ‘a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy’ – a conclusion, he added, ‘based on an accumulation of detailed evidence so extensive and so palpable that it seems to put this conviction beyond any reasonable doubt.’”

On the surface, of course, this seems pretty damning stuff.  After all, Eisenhower was anything but a Communist.  And the Birchers did, indeed, say and believe some pretty nutty things.  But make no mistake about it:  this is pure misdirection on Hofstadter’s part.  Yes, the Birchers were paranoid.  And yes, Welch had a great deal of money that he used to promote his paranoia.  That said, the Birchers were a relatively short-lived phenomenon.  Welch formed the John Birch in late 1958, and by the time Hofstadter wrote his famous essay, the Birchers had already been exposed as kooks.  More relevantly, by the time Hofstadter wrote, the process of defenestrating Welch and the Birchers from the broader conservative movement was well under way.

Earlier this year, Alvin Felzenberg, the former spokesman for the 9/11 Commission and a presidential historian, published a book on William F. Buckley, the man who took on and beat Robert Welch.  The book, A Man and His Presidents:  The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley, Jr., provides an excellent recap of the Welch-Buckley feud which was, more or less, the struggles for the soul of conservatism.  What follows is important, largely because of the timeline it provides:

In November 1958, Welch sent Buckley and several others a typed copy of “The Politician,” a manuscript he had written.  He had numbered each copy and asked that recipients return it to him after they had read it.  The work’s most startling conclusion was that Soviet penetration of the United States extended deep into the White House and that one of the USSR’s principal agents was none other than the president of the United States.  Dwight Eisenhower, he concluded, was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” . . .

In time, Buckley would say that Welch inferred “subjective intention from objective consequences” — because things went badly for the United States, policy makers must have intended those results and worked to achieve them; because China fell to the Communists, by Welch’s lights, those heading the U.S. government must have planned that outcome.  Buckley’s comments about the manuscript upset Welch.  The JBS founder protested he had sent the manuscript to many people and that only Buckley “completely disagreed” with its hypotheses.  However, Goldwater voiced identical objections.  “If you were smart,” he wrote Welch, “you would burn every copy you have.” . . .

In the fall of 1960, Buckley wrote Welch to inform him of a telephone conversation Buckley had had with Cap Breezley, a donor to National Review and a member of the JBS.  Breezley had complained that Buckley was speaking ill of the JBS. . . .  When Breezley made mention of the financial support he had given National Review, Buckley replied that National Review was “not for sale.” . . .

Sensing a liberal campaign to present all conservatives as indistinguishable from Birchers, Buckley swung into action.  He wrote Goldwater in March 1961 that “Bob Welch” was “nuts on the Eisenhower-Dulles business” and said that Welch would do their common cause “much damage.” . . .

A month later, Buckley ran the first of what would be several editorials on this subject. . . .

Early in 1962, Goldwater convened a “summit” of key conservatives at the Breakers Hotel in Miami Beach to discuss how his campaign might handle the John Birch Society.  In attendance were Buckley, Goldwater friend and General Motors publicist Jay Gordon Hall, Shadegg, William Baroody Sr. of the American Enterprise Institute, and author Russell Kirk.  Buckley and Kirk suggested that conservatives simply “excommunicate” Welch from their movement.  Buckley never tired of quoting Kirk’s response when the subject turned to Welch’s attack upon Eisenhower: “Eisenhower is not a communist; he is a golfer.”  Buckley offered to write an even tougher editorial about Welch, advising conservatives to shun the JBS until Welch came to his senses.  After Kirk joked that Welch might be “put away,” Buckley suggested that Alaska was an appropriate venue, given that Welch had offered to send there anyone who doubted that the Communists were behind ongoing efforts to add fluoride to drinking water. . . .

In a February 13, 1962, editorial headlined “The Question of Robert Welch,” Buckley noted that many prominent conservatives had begun to doubt Welch’s utility in the struggle against Communist domination.  He questioned how the JBS could be effective when its leader held views so disparate from those of its members and “so far removed from common sense.”  Buckley reported that Goldwater thought Welch should resign as leader of the JBS and that if he refused, the organization should dissolve and regroup under different leadership.

Again, note the dates here.  Buckley definitively and aggressively disavowed Welch in February, 1962.  More importantly, he was he joined in this effort – more tepidly, for obvious reasons – by Goldwater himself.  And all of this took place almost THREE FULL YEARS before Goldwater would lose to Johnson and Hofstadter would publish his essay portraying Welch as the face of the conservative movement.  Indeed, Goldwater’s movement away from Welch actually took place before Goldwater was fully committed to the campaign, since he still believed that Jack Kennedy – WHO WOULD STILL BE ALIVE FOR ANOTHER 21 MONTHS – would handily defeat any Republican challenger.

As we said earlier, as political analysis, Hofstadter’s essay is garbage.  At its peak, the John Birch Society has maybe as many as 100,000 members, but likely far closer to a mere 20,000.  Moreover, the conservative movement – including the author of The Conscience of a Conservative, Goldwater himself – had begun the process of removing the Birchers from polite society long before the election (and the publication of the essay, natch).  The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad John Birch Society existed as a major player in American politics for about four or five years, give or take.

Of course, Hofstadter’s “Paranoid Style” was never meant to be especially astute or accurate political analysis.  Rather, it was intended to be a partisan political attack, an effort to smear and destroy conservatism before it could gain much of a foothold among the mainstream GOP.  And as such, it both failed miserably and worked beautifully, depending on whom you ask.

Republicans shrugged off Hofstadter’s attack.  Buckley solicited Ronald Reagan’s condemnation of Welch and the Birchers, which Reagan happily provided in the form of a letter-to-the-editor.  A scant sixteen years later, the conservative movement triumphed, fully subsuming both the GOP and the nation as Reagan won the White House by a comfortable margin.

At the same time, however, the Left and the mainstream media gobbled up Hofstadter’s message hungrily.  Not only are conservatives crazy and potentially dangerous, but they also regressive extremists, men and women who have been left behind by history, who have seen their way of life justly destroyed, and who are angry and embittered by the whole process of change.

Now, if this last bit sounds familiar, that’s because it is.  The Left and the media internalized Hofstadter’s argument so completely that they don’t even realize that they trot out the same unverifiable and hackneyed bit of political opinionizing every time they have a bone to pick with the Right.

Why did union voters cross party lines and pull the lever for Reagan?  Because their way of life was disappearing and they were trying to hold on to it by rationalizing right-wing lunacy.  Why did white Boomers re-elect George W. Bush?  Because they thought their country had been stolen by radical Islam and those sympathetic to it and they wanted to win it back, at home and abroad.  Why did the Tea Partiers oppose Barack Obama so insistently and so doggedly?  Because they were scared of the black man in the Oval Office and they knew that his presence there meant that that their half-millennium of domination of North America was over.  Why did the white working class turn out so overwhelmingly for Donald Trump?  Because he was their last desperate gasp at saving the power they once had but that had been taken from them by the “coalition of the ascendant.”  And of course, why did the White Supremacists and neo-Nazis show up in force and kill a young woman in Charlottesville?  Because, as Hofstadter put it some fifty-three years ago, they feel “dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.”

Forget for just a moment what Donald Trump did or did not say last week about the protests, brawls, and murder in Charlottesville.  Forget how he may have offered support – wittingly or unwittingly – to white supremacists.  Forget that his unwillingness to condemn the neo-Nazis vehemently enough may or may not have been perceived as tacit agreement with the white identity movement.  Forget all of that.  And think, rather, about the media narrative that has solidified into conventional wisdom in the last several days.  It is Hofstadter, unadulterated.  It is “the paranoid style,” merely regurgitated for the umpteenth time; trite, tiresome, and thoroughly self-righteous.

Once you’ve done that, stop and think about what that tells us about the Left and the mainstream media in this country.  They are lazy, amateurish, and ill-educated.  They know Hofstadter.  They know his premise.  And they spew it back up, time and again, uncritically, never realizing that what they are doing is referencing a piece of ideological hackery, not a real and serious piece of scholarship.

But because this hackery is the only narrative they know, they continue to deceive themselves and their constituents, albeit unwittingly, by shoehorning into it every incident that causes them to think hopefully about white, religious conservatives trying desperately to “take back their country.”

Ever since the Charlottesville incident – actually, ever since Trump announced his candidacy, but especially since Charlottesville – the mainstream press has been trying, ever so desperately, to convince themselves and their readers that Donald Trump isn’t just a jerk, but that he’s a racist jerk as well.  During the campaign, for example, the Left and the mainstream media insisted that Trump’s father, Fred, had been a secret Klansman.  The evidence for the claim was a 1927 New York Times story that may or may not have included Trump’s father’s name and which showed that a “Fred Trump” was arrested after a Klan riot but was discharged.  That’s it.  More recently, The New York Times has tried repeatedly to dig up dirt proving that Donald Trump himself has a racist past, and has thus far turned up nothing of the sort.  Indeed, last week, the Times tried again, only to fall flat.  Again.  The blogger and law professor (and erstwhile Obama voter) Ann Althouse has the details:

It seems apparent that the NYT set out to find out if there’s any evidence that Trump is a racist.  Read the article.  They found strong evidence that he is absolutely not any sort of a racist.  The headline ought to come out and celebrate his excellent record.

The article begins with Kara Young, a “biracial” model who went out with Trump for 2 years and says “I never heard him say a disparaging comment towards any race of people.” (Young, like Barack Obama, had one black parent and one white parent.)  The only seemingly negative thing the NYT got out of her was that he noticed the high number of black people in the crowd at the U.S. Open when Venus and Serena Williams were playing.

But this is what really struck me:

Beyond dating a biracial woman, [Trump] made outsize efforts to hang out publicly with African-American celebrities: the boxing promoter Don King, the hip-hop impresarios Kanye West, Russell Simmons and Sean Combs, and celebrities as big as Muhammad Ali, James Brown and Michael Jackson.

As Althouse notes, the Times apparently didn’t think it necessary to call or otherwise contact any of Trump’s black friends (or at least those who are still alive).  After all, who knows what they might have said.  They might have said they like the guy.  They might also say that Trump dotes a little too much on his now-Jewish daughter to be a Nazi.  And heaven knows we can’t have that.

Of course, it’s not just Trump the mainstream media intends to shoehorn into its narrative.  There are, you see, Nazis everywhere.  It turns out you can’t swing a dead cat in this country without hitting a Nazi.  As Elliot Kaufman points out at National Review Online, the Times’ newest opinion sensation, a contributing columnist called Lindy West, is our own modern-day Simon Wiesenthal, hunting down Nazis wherever they hide:

I think the best way to describe her is as the unrestrained id of the Democratic party.   [West] is convinced, as if by impulse, that conservatives are terrible people, and will say so at every opportunity.  I can see no evidence of any self-regulating mechanism in her work.  No, the author of Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, lets it all out.  On Wednesday, West called Republicans every name in the book.  She started off relatively mild: Republicans — aside from Trump — pretend to be “on the side of goodness and rationality and respect.  Do not let them off the hook so easy,” she wrote.  Apparently, we right-wingers are all on the side of badness, irrationality, and so forth.

For West, this was only the beginning. “Sure, pre-Trump Republicans traded more in dog-whistles and plausible deniability than overt Nazi sloganeering,” she wrote.  “But the goal was the same: white men in charge, white women at their elbows.  Systematically enforced poverty turning millionaires into billionaires.  Bigots may have swapped subtext for the Jumbotron, but what is the substantive difference?”

In her eyes, there is no “substantive difference” between normal, pre-Trump Republican rhetoric and “overt Nazi sloganeering.”  Further, what Republicans want, she claims, is to keep women and minorities down, and to perpetuate systemic poverty.  That is the goal, she believes, of half the country.  That is their vision of success in politics. . . .

“It is easy to denounce Nazis.  Republican lawmakers, if you truly repudiate this march and this violence, then repudiate . . . ,” she wrote, before launching into a list of 18 things that Republicans must disavow — including opposition to abortion, environmental regulations, gun control, reparations for African Americans, Obamacare, and transgender rights — in order to “truly” oppose Nazism.

Now, we know what you’re thinking:  Gosh!  We didn’t know that Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler were opposed to Obamacare!  But that goes to prove that you don’t know as much about the ol’ Third Reich as you thought you did.

In a recent post on his blog, Scott Adams, the author of the Dilbert comic strip and a Trump savant, suggested that the reaction to the business in Charlottesville (and, to a lesser extent the entirety of the case against Trump) was the product of “mass hysteria.”

A mass hysteria happens when the public gets a wrong idea about something that has strong emotional content and it triggers cognitive dissonance that is often supported by confirmation bias.  In other words, people spontaneously hallucinate a whole new (and usually crazy-sounding) reality and believe they see plenty of evidence for it.  The Salem Witch Trials are the best-known example of mass hysteria.  The McMartin Pre-School case and the Tulip Bulb hysteria are others.  The dotcom bubble probably qualifies.  We might soon learn that the Russian Collusion story was mass hysteria in hindsight.  The curious lack of solid evidence for Russian collusion is a red flag.  But we’ll see how that plays out.

The most visible Mass Hysteria of the moment involves the idea that the United States intentionally elected a racist President.  If that statement just triggered you, it might mean you are in the Mass Hysteria bubble. . . .

If you read Adams’ whole piece – and we suggest that you do – then you’ll see that his argument makes a certain amount of sense.  Nevertheless, we’re going to suggest an alternative explanation.  We think Adams has been pretty prescient about most things Trump, but we think in this case, that he misses the forest for the trees.

In his book about Buckley, Alvin Felzenberg tells a story about John Lindsay, the late Mayor of New York and presidential wannabe.  When Lindsay was running for mayor, a vestigial Bircher from New Orleans sent a mailer to a thousand residents of the New York. accusing Lindsay of being “pro-Communist.”  Rather than simply dismissing the letter or writing it off as the work of a lone weirdo, Lindsay crafted his own conspiracy theory, one in which the letter was “payback” delivered upon him by Barry Goldwater because Lindsay did not support the Senator’s presidential bid.  Bill Buckley, for his part, dismissed the Bircher as a kook, but then, according to Felzenberg, “suggested that by advancing such conspiracy theories about Goldwater and others, Lindsay sounded more like Robert Welch than a candidate of the New York Liberal Party.”

This, we think, is the real legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s work, the real effect of the “paranoid style.”  The Left and the media have become so reliant on this narrative, so unwilling to look beyond it and to forge their own ideas about the Right, about white people, about the ongoing causes of racial friction in this country, that they are unable to do much other than search for grand conspiracies.

When the Left proclaims that the Right is using “dog whistles” to signal their supporters, they are engaging in hermeneutics or textual interpretation; they are “reading between the lines” to see what other cannot.  This is classic paranoia (not to mention post-modern gibberish).  When the Left sees every Republican, every conservative, or every working class white person as someone motivated by a specific but hidden ideology; when they accuse Republicans of having a secret agenda that they mask with phony concern about “markets,” “the economy,” “liberty” or “deregulation,” they are engaging in paranoid, conspiratorial thinking.  When the Left engages in linguistic yoga in an effort to demonstrate how conservative ideas about the environment or reproductive “rights” or taxes will “harm” minorities more than they any other identity group, they are desperately seeking to find hidden meaning where none exists; they are searching for furtive plots.  When the Left insists that Republican efforts to reform Medicare and Social Security or to modernize farm policy are really attempts to throw grandma off a cliff or enrich financial services firms and big agribusiness, they are longing for an “America [that] has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.”

What we are seeing today is not, in our estimation, the effect of mass hysteria.  Rather, it is the effect of long-term, ongoing, and undiagnosed paranoia on the American Left and in its allies in the mainstream press.  We will admit that President Trump handled the aftermath of Charlottesville incredibly badly.  We will admit that there are significant numbers of people on the “alt-Right” who hold unsavory, even loathsome views.  We will even admit that somewhere in this country, there are real, bona fide neo-Nazis, goose-stepping around in stupid costumes with their greasy little hands in the air.  We saw them at Charlottesville and we have been writing about them, off and on, for almost twenty years.  But none of this evidence of the grand conspiracy the Left sees.  Indeed, no such evidence exists.

If there is a “paranoid style” in American politics today, it is on the Left.  And ironically enough, it was fostered, in part, by Richard Hofstadter.

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