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 Salon.com.
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.