The Paranoid Style in Tea Party Politics

I have argued many times before that the Tea Party movement is little more than the reemergence of the paranoid far right, in the style of McCarthyism and the John Birch Society, as a major player in American politics. I’ve noted that what Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1963 in The Paranoid Style in American Politics applies quite well today. Kim Messick argues much the same thing at

Pointing to the rhetoric of Glenn Beck and to Hofstadter’s seminal essay, Messick makes some interesting observations about the role of psychological project and in-group identity politics in spurring the Tea Party movement.

Hofstadter sees that the paranoid style involves “a projection of the self,” but he thinks it proceeds from the self to the conspiratorial Other. (The political paranoid ascribes to the Other qualities, good and bad, that he detects in himself.) This seems plausible enough, but an even more vital instance of projection, I think, extends from the self to the nation. Tormented by difference, unable or unwilling to abide the fluidity of American identity, some persons anchor it in the racial, ideological, or ethnic features of their own community. This community then becomes “normative” for the nation as a whole; any threat to the former, any challenge to its prestige or authority, is automatically a threat to the latter.

This series of equations — self with community, community with nation — underlies, I believe, the characteristic elements of the Tea Party’s vision of politics. In the quotation above, Beck makes explicit the identification of “our country” with what we “believe,” such that a change in our “ideas” must prompt the question, “Who are we?” It never occurs to him that America might be seen as a prolonged argument about which ideas we should adopt, or that even when we agree on what these ideas are (liberty, say, or equality or fairness), we tend to disagree about exactly what they mean. In Beck’s mind, those whose definition of freedom differs from his own — who don’t take it to mean that we “make … our own way in life” for instance — aren’t advocates of an alternative notion of freedom; they’re simply people who don’t understand what “freedom” is. Because Beck’s community — the Tea Party community — is normative for America as a whole, its vocabulary is the standard reference for all political actors. Their lexicon is our dictionary. Anyone whose usage differs from theirs literally speaks a foreign tongue.

To Beck’s credit, his conception of America’s normative community is usually couched in these ideological terms; he generally (though not always) avoids the racial and ethnic spite that mars so much Tea Party rhetoric. (His July 28, 2009, remark that President Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people” is rightly notorious.) But the critical step is the act of identification itself; its precise content is of only secondary importance. In the summer of 2009, during the raucous town hall meetings that followed the early debates over “Obamacare,” I saw an elderly white woman cry out, “I feel like I’ve lost my country!” At the time, my impulse was to answer, “No, you didn’t lose your country. You lost an election.” But this reply now strikes me as overly facile. From her point of view, it pointed to a difference where there was no difference. The country had recently elected a President whose political values differed fundamentally from her own; and as her values were those of the normative community — the community uniquely definitive of what America means — it followed that America had a president who was, quite literally, unAmerican. For her, and those like her, the country really had been lost.

On my view, this inability — or refusal — to untangle national from personal identity is the ultimate source of the paranoid style. For it means that political conflicts will almost always engage the anxieties and energies associated with self-preservation. The space most of us enjoy between the personal and the political does not exist for Hofstadter’s paranoid; anything that disturbs the latter also disturbs the former. But this means that Hofstadter’s distinction, the distinction between taking oneself or one’s country as the object of conspiracy, has already collapsed. The political paranoid knows that the “circus masters” and their familiars aren’t simply after the “sticks of power”: they’re after him. He (or she) is the ultimate quarry of the long, intricate conspiracy that is American history.

This is identical to how these same people usually react to criticism of their religion, of course. Any “attack” on their religious views is an attack on them. Religion, race, political ideology are really just tribal identities, with our personal identity indistinguishable from the group, and the tribe is forever locked in mortal combat with the Other. The barbarians — immigrants (dark-skinned ones, at least), Muslims, communists, the United Nations — are forever at the gate, about to overrun the nation. In the 50s it was the Chinese massing on our borders; today it’s Mexicans and Muslims.

Or worse, our own government secretly in league with the barbarians, who are no longer merely outside the gate but have taken over the levers of power. Thus we get the rhetoric from the far right today that the Muslim Brotherhood has “infiltrated” the government and taken over, nearly identical to the declarations of the John Birch Society that Eisenhower was secretly under the control of the Soviet Union. It’s the same paranoid, dystopic fantasies, the same arguments, the same fears, only the names have changed. Lather, rinse, repeat.

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  • grumpyoldfart

    Jesus was preaching the same message 2,000 years ago:

    He who is not with me is against me.

    Matthew 12:30

  • petemoulton

    It’s like they’re living in a never-ending Red Dawn nightmare. Of course they act like the Birchers. After all, a lot of their funding comes from the sons of ol’ Fred Koch, founding member of the JBS.

  • karmacat

    I have to read more about what Messick has written, but she? brings up the issue ot self and other, which is interesting. Some people have trouble reconciling their conflicted internal thoughts and feelings, so they project their bad thoughts and feelings onto the other (other people). So the other is the violent, hateful one. It also means that these people can’t tolerate ambiguity and have a need to see the world in black and white terms or us vs them.

  • aaronbaker

    Hofstadter: cerebral, with a dry wit–what more can you ask? This book and his others are all well worth a read.

  • unbound

    Indians beat Jesus to it (about 4th century BC). “A king whose territory has a common boundary with that of an antagonist is an ally” – from the Arthashastra.

  • brucegee1962

    In all fairness, I’m not sure that we liberals can say we’re completely dispassionate about something like, say, global warming. Many of these issues seem fundamentally obvious and are tied to our self-identity in the same way that is described above, and I can’t say that I don’t feel personally engaged when I hear them being attacked. So to them, we look like just as big fear-mongers as they appear to be to us.

    Except we’re right.

  • abb3w
  • Bronze Dog

    This is identical to how these same people usually react to criticism of their religion, of course. Any “attack” on their religious views is an attack on them.

    To add another angle, if someone criticizes an individual’s religiously motivated bigotry or crimes, that person is accused of attacking their god and Christians as a whole because they presume their god and all (true) Christians support their behavior. When listeners buy it, it conveniently distracts people from their bad behavior while making the critic’s laser-like focus on one individual’s wrongdoing look like painting with a broad brush.

  • Hercules Grytpype-Thynne



    Kim Messick lives and writes in North Carolina. He’s working on a novel.

  • freehand

    brucegee1962 –

    The reason we’re right is that:

    1. Generally our beliefs (my beliefs anyway) are based on evidence, and we are willing (however reluctantly) to give up a belief that X is true if there is persuasive evidence to the contrary, and

    2. We humanists generally distinguish between values and beliefs about specific facts, and

    3. Our beliefs often entail a focus on scientific, historical, or legal methodology rather than simple and frequently contradictory statements of fact.

    Hence, for instance, we can engage in free-for-all arguments about constitutionality of a particular law, or the efficacy of 12-step programs for controlling addiction, or whether Obama is corrupt or simply timid, etc. without our membership in the tribe being questioned.

    For these folks, beliefs that X is true is what defines them as Good Christians, True Americans, and Real Men (or Ladies). For them, trying to convince them that global warming is real and serious by using evidence is perceived to be a series of rhetorical tricks to fool them into joining the hippie tribe. Ain’t gonna happen, nosiree, Bob!

    And so we have millions of fearful people who ignore real dangers such as global warming, sociopathic elites buying politicians, and the corporatizing of American government, instead wasting their energy and money on trying to prevent gay marriage rights, blocking the establishment of Sharia law in the US, and removing an usurper in the White House. “Dangers” which we (most of us) would assert are not a problem, impossible, or untrue.

  • Michael Heath

    I’m currently reading economist William L. Silber’s excellent biography of Paul Volcker. One example of how Tea Partiers are different than the leaders of the wingnuts of yesterday is illustrated in this segment.

    Soon after President Reagan was elected he informed Fed Chairman Paul Volcker that some of his supporters were arguing the country should do away with the Federal Reserve Bank. President-elect Reagan was hearing the same tired idiotic argument we now hear from the Pauls, many Tea Partiers, and many libertarians.

    Very early in Reagan’s first term his fiscal policy victories were counter-acting actions by the Fed, which was (then arguably) making it more difficult for the Fed to bring down insufferably high interest rates, in spite of the Fed’s success at getting inflation to start dropping which was also increasing the value of the dollar (against gold and the German Mark).

    Within two years of President Reagan’s term not only had he started promoting tax increases to trim the deficit and get his policies in line with the Fed, he verbally provided unequivocal support for Volcker’s policies, where Volcker was a known Democrat nominated by Reagan’s predecessor (though Volcker had also served and thrived in GOP Administrations like Nixon’s). Chairman Volcker had effectively transformed Mr. Reagan into something the Republican party is no way now but instead what powerful Democrats now are, and that is a fiscal conservative (one who prioritizes deficit reduction, even if it requires tax increases to do so). This sort of evolution by Reagan is not only something we hardly ever see from Republicans, but demonstrating that one can and will evolve is now sure grounds to be challenged in the next primary; even if their policy works as Reagan/Volcker and the U.S. Congresses plans surely did in the mid-1980s (at driving down inflation, the real interest rate, unemployment, and increasing GDP).

    This perhaps the biggest difference. That the whackos who don’t care about results are no longer just the nut in the corner, they’re the ones Republicans are now more than happy to pander to, or they’re one of the nuts themselves.