24 August 2009

The Wingnuts : Paranoia and Rage Serve the GOP Well

Paranoia, rage and right wing populism

From the time of Plato, thinkers have noted that building fear and anger directed at the 'Other' is a potent political tool.
By Sherman DeBrosse / The Rag Blog / August 25, 2009

Lately, we have seen extreme manifestations of anger and rage in our politics. On C-Span we have watched numerous town meetings at which raging rightists have shouted down Congressmen and Senators. The noisy ones rarely had coherent comments. They came to disrupt and were fueled by their hatred of progressives.

When President Barack Obama appeared in Arizona, people showed up wearing guns. One man showed newsmen his semiautomatic rifle. Others had guns strapped on their hips. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a man named Kostric showed up with a gun at President Obama’s August 11 meeting and recited Thomas Jefferson’s words about occasionally sprinkling the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants. This man did not understand that most Americans believe that violence may have been sanctioned before we became a republic, but that violence thereafter is an attack on the republic and people of the United States.

Lately people have been appearing at meetings with posters of Obama as Hitler. Some of these posters came from the followers of Lyndon LaRouche. One can only wonder who gave the cash-strapped LaRouche movement cash for the vile signs. The inclusion of the LaRouchists in the conservative anti-Obama coalition underscores a decision to draw more upon the growing far-right fringe groups.

Any sane person should realize these Brown Shirt tactics can inflict massive damage on democracy. Shouting down speakers and bringing guns to meetings are means of intimidation and pose threats of violence. These tactics are meant to short-circuit the democratic process. Yet David Broder, the dean of pundits, simply cautioned that the right was playing with fire and that the tactic could backfire.

He noted that a Texas Congressman who incited a mob against LBJ in 1964 was turned out of office. It is doubtful that a backfire will occur this time. Cokie and Steve Roberts, positioned ever so slightly right of center, thought the tactics normal and said the Democrats make a mistake in complaining. Maybe the Roberts were trying to say that Americans have come to tolerate almost any kind of destructive behavior from the Right.

Recalling conservatives who once defended our American institutions

Can you imagine what Edmund Burke or John Adams or Alexander Hamilton would say about the riotous behavior of “conservatives” at political meetings?

Decades ago, conservatives were people who took very seriously the task of defending our institutions. They deplored mob tactics as irrational and destructive. Today, conservative organizations send out instructions on how to disrupt a political meeting and how to divert the police so they cannot protect besieged speakers. Other people bearing that label defend the incendiaries or find clever ways to avoid criticizing them.

Traditional conservatives are very rare these days, and those now bearing the term are interested in defending incendiaries and not protecting our hallowed institutions. Today the word “conservative” applies to people who are willing to wreck our political institutions to defend insurance and pharmaceutical companies and to impose their narrow, warped values on the rest of us.

Right-wing populism

How did all this come about? From the time of Plato, thinkers have noted that building fear and anger directed at the “Other” is a potent political tool. These two emotions fuel what is called right-wing populism, which centers around the belief that an alleged cultural elite is plotting against the cultural values of good, God-fearing ordinary folks. McCarthyism and, before that, Father Coughlin’s movement were of this stripe. It has proven to be a very popular political tool. Social scientists long thought that these ugly outbreaks were short lived, as people soon came to their senses.

Since the 1970s, rightist strategists in “conservative” think tanks have figured out how to keep right-wing populism up and running for decades on end. The goal is to protect entrenched corporate power, but right-wing populists rarely see this. The exceptions would be the few people picketing town hall meetings with signs defending insurance company profits. A massive information network, limitless money, a mastery of cognitive psychology, and the use of conservative churches for political purposes were all deployed to create the Republican’s right-wing populist base.

Usually, the fear/anger approach does not result in ugly actions but it does motivate people to turn out and vote. Some think the New Right is all about religion and family values, but both values and religion are essentially tools that are secondary to right-wing populism. The religious issues are necessary to distinguish the populists from the so-called elitists. Time and again, the Christian conservatives have shown that they are not overly concerned about misbehavior by leaders like Henry Hyde, David Vitters, or any number of others. Also crucial are advances in cognitive science which permit conservative propagandists to literally create new memories for people, thus rewiring their very mental processes and shaping their political thought.

The authoritarian impulse

Some theorists think right wing populism can morph into something different and worse which is characterized by an openness to authoritarianism, a willingness to do anything to political enemies, and a great deal of paranoia and rage. It is not a certainty, at least to this writer, that there is a natural evolution from right-wing populism to an extremist mindset that is a mental illness by most standards.

We know that prejudice, rigid cognitive functioning, a preference for conventional wisdom, an interest in punishing folks who violate the dictates of conventional wisdom, and an inclination to scapegoat others are characteristics of people who are more likely than others to accept authoritarianism and to acquire authoritarian personalities. Etiologist Konrad Lorenz thought that some people have more aggressive instincts than others and that this lends them to authoritarianism.

We have all seen that fear becomes paranoia, and anger becomes rage. Somehow when rage and paranoia merge they become more powerful and an inclination toward authoritarianism emerges as what appears to be an authoritarian person. For whatever reason, rage and paranoia generate great energy and have a way of spreading and attracting converts. They are most powerful in the body politics in bad economic times.

Samuel Goldhagen has used the term “eliminationism.” Maybe that is not the best term as it would seem to only characterize the extreme stage of this pathological form of political extremism. Yet, it is clear that those who are disrupting town meetings are bent on excluding opponents from meaningful participation in the political process. Granted, for the moment, they are not inclined to use actual force. On the other hand, they present many of the characteristics of authoritarians.

Fear/anger become paranoia/rage and people approach eliminationism. Language and actions come closer to violence; at its extreme, eliminationism results in one people wanting to wipe out as many enemies as possible. Sometimes this happened in the West when settlers massacred Native Americans or in the East, earlier, when the Pequots almost disappeared. In Germany, Hitler preached eliminationism against the Jews. Of course, these are extreme cases and hardly possible now.

Examples of people who fall into the second category are white supremacists, survivalists and militia people, gun nuts who fear the government will invade their homes tomorrow, members of the different secessionist and anti-income tax movements, and Christian Identity people, who think Christ only saved whites. Some far-right Christians are even saying Obama is the Antichrist because of some strange and wrong interpretations of the sounds of two Hebrew words. Membership in such extremist groups grew in the Clinton years, and we now see thousands flocking to the militias because we have a black president. Ammo and weapons are literally flying off store shelves.

Right-wing populists and the extremists to the right of them sometimes work together. We saw this when many circulated films accusing the Clintons of bringing about the death of Vincent Foster. The Swift Boater attack on John Kerry was another example. In this case, careful observers would have learned that the media treats the extremists with respect and spreads their lies. Moreover, the general public does not punish those allied with the extremists. Indeed, the extremists briefly make many converts to whatever massive lie they are spreading.

We have no way of knowing what runs through the minds of right-wing strategists. They must have noticed that they can ignite the Republican base and temporarily enlarge it when they use language and ideas borrowed from the far right extremists some might call “eliminationists.” When Governor Sarah Palin used these techniques her political meetings resembled Klan rallies. These sorts of appeal were second nature for Governor Palin who had attended Alaska Independence Party rallies. Her husband had been a member of this extremist-leaning party.

A few Republicans criticized her because she seemed to do nothing to overcome her broad ignorance, but the critics did not mention the appeals to extremism. There is no evidence that any voters changed their votes because of the demonstration of rage evinced at her meetings. Earlier this year, the anti-tax, anti-Obama “tea parties” were sponsored by FOX News, Glenn Beck, and other shockjocks,. They had the aspect of Survivalist/Patriot rallies. Some, including one governor, spoke favorably of secession rather than living with a liberal regime. There was strange talk about the income tax being illegal. The tactic of appealing to the extremists on the right fringe ignited the GOP base and seems to have had no down side.

Why are appeals to paranoia and rage successful now?

Liberals and leftists have been known to accept strange conspiracy theories and authoritarian notions, but, as the late Richard Hofstadter noted, this sort of conduct is far more common on the right. Perhaps it is, as Wilhelm Reich speculated, that people raised in authoritarian, patriarchal homes were most likely to be seduced by authoritarian political ideology. This kind of upbringing is most common in the South and other red areas. Of course, many living in urban areas have grown up in similar situations, where traditional values were also reinforced by conservative religion.

So many working class people are caught in the situation of suffering as a result of our economic system but still being reactionary in their basic cultural and political outlook. They fear change, even change that will help them. They talk about freedom and often see the gun as the symbol of their freedom. Yet, they are afraid to exercise freedom by casting votes that could result in systemic change. So they react against big government, when it is in the hands of progressives, by joining militias and/or essentially serving as foot soldiers in the political arena in upholding an economic system that places them at a great disadvantage. Reich claimed they do so in part because their wretched economic position makes them fear progress. They will not take chances, even on a better life.

He believed they suppress their rebellious instincts because they are products of authoritarian households. They have to deal with their desire to rebel with subservience and this preconditions them to accept an extreme right wing ideology. For some, it is simply continued acceptance of what is. In either case, there is an unconscious inhibition against rebellion and meaningful change. These people feel so much more comfortable upholding the economic status quo and the extreme version of the values learned in their authoritarian homes.

In times of liberal dominance since World War II, it seems that more people have been prone to violence and violent language. The language has been fierce and can be categorized as exclusionist in that these people have been willing to separate others, whom they detested, from the American body politic. Right-wing Minutemen and militias were prominent in the Kennedy years. Kennedy was a liberal and many did not realize that he was only a nominal Catholic.

Some believed the Soviets were about to take over. Another militia group, the Posse Comitatus emerged in the Carter years. In the Clinton years, there was the Oklahoma City bombing, which probably involved the Christian Identity movement and there were six anti-abortion murders. The rhetoric level was white hot sometimes. Now, with Barack Obama in the White House, there seems to be more extremism on the Right than before. The problem is exacerbated by the deep economic recession and the aftermath of 9/11.

The horrific events of 9/11 created a volcano of fear and anger that was soon exploited by adroit right-wing politicians. It created positive energy to the degree that we moved to protect our beloved homeland. But there was a great deal of destructive energy that did not dissipate. Politicians milked it for their own gains, claiming that their opponents were somehow in league with terrorists. This was done effectively in 2002 and 2004.

Who in his right mind, under normal circumstances, could believe that Max Cleland, who lost limbs in service of his country, was a traitor. The fallout of 9/11 made it possible to convince the people of Georgia that this was true and to turn Senator Cleland out of office. The power of rage was effectively demonstrated by the Swiftboaters in 2004. Someone must have also noted that the mainstream media acted as a megaphone for these wild and irresponsible charges.

We still have not cornered Osama bin Laden, an event that might help diminish some of the festering fear/rage. It seems that building hostility has gotten to the depths of many people’s personalities, polluting their inner lives, and warping their political judgments. Sigmund Freud taught that this hostility has to go somewhere and that displacement is likely to occur. So people find substitutes against whom to vent their rage. That explains who the people of Georgia and South Dakota were influenced by videos showing these men with Osama bin Laden. But the displacement can move to other areas, away from terrorism.

Playing the wingnut card, but not too often

Rick Perlstein has noted that the Republicans have, at each outbreak of rightist extremism, “adroitly hive{ed] off the embarrassing fringe while laying claim to some of the grassroots anger that inspired it.” But at each outbreak, they have borrowed some extremist language. Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh have done this and have even imported some notions that are popular on the far right.

Republican leaders, fighting Obama and health care reform, fanned paranoia and rage with absurd claims, and soon Obama’s support levels began to fall. Senator John Cornyn says that Obama’s health care plan is a scheme to construct an enemies list. At one time, 47% of Republicans believed Obama was born outside the country. Now that figure is down to 29%. Most Southern Republicans still believe this. Other Republicans, with a few remarkable exceptions, think it is fine to bring guns to meetings addressed by Obama. Then Sarah Palin claimed the plan included “death panels” that would euthanize old people. Only two Republicans, one with personal reasons to oppose the governor, criticized these comments. Even columnist Kathleen Parker, no Palin backer, wrote a fascinating column full of double talk explaining how one could imagine “death panels” in the House bill. A popular sign is “Obama Lies; Grandma Dies.”

Another extreme tactic is to claim that health care reform carries a mandate to pay for all abortions. Within Catholic circles, the far right anti-abortionists who have consistently worked for the Republicans and misstated facts have attacked church organizations that support reform, claiming they are automatically backing abortion. So far, the reform has been neutral as far as abortion is concerned. There has even been a wild attack upon the character of Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association. It was claimed she backed reform in hopes of personal monetary profits.

The resort to extremism is proving useful in the fight against health care reform, and we can expect more of this when Congress reconvenes in the fall.

If the Republicans are unable to attract more support among the young and Hispanics, it is likely that they will make more frequent appeals to people of an authoritarian cast of mind who are most susceptible to demagogic appeals. The tactic has produced considerable success in the battle against health care reform, and it, to some degree, revived John McCain’s flagging presidential campaign.

There is a danger to using it too often as the GOP will rule again some day and reliance on such tactics would greatly diminish the cachet of American democracy abroad. Moreover, the appearance of a functioning healthy democracy is essential for corporate and conservative forces who exercise hegemony by dominating the mainstream media and establishing the content of givenness and conventional wisdom.

It is not in the interest of corporate America and its allies to deploy jackboot tactics on a regular basis, and it is possible that the mob actions and wild and irresponsible appeals could get out of hand and produce serious violence. Even the current tactic of likening Obama to a potential Hitler could set off some unhinged rightist to emulate Lee Harvey Oswald or Richard McVeigh.

[There is a great deal more on these topics in Sherm’s The New Republican Coalition : Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America). It can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go here.]

The Rag Blog

Only a few posts now show on a page, due to Blogger pagination changes beyond our control.

Please click on 'Older Posts' to continue reading The Rag Blog.