Richard Hofstadter Explains Trump and the Populist Right

Richard Hofstadter Explains Trump and the Populist Right August 14, 2017

If you want to understand our current situation, from the Tea Party to the rise of Trump and the mainstreaming of the far-right populist and nationalist fringe, including the KKK and neo-Nazis, I cannot stress enough the importance of reading historian Richard Hofstadter.


Most germane to this subject is his 1964 essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics. In it, he traces the history of the kind of populist and nationalist rhetoric throughout our history, the political movements it accompanied, and the terrible consequences both for our politics and for the inevitable victims of violence that followed those spasms of fear and hatred. Take a look at these quotes he includes from various point in history. He starts with Sen. Joe McCarthy in 1951:

How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, which it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men. . . . What can be made of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence. . . . The laws of probability would dictate that part of . . . [the] decisions would serve the country’s interest.

Then goes back to 1895 and a manifesto put out by the Populist Party:

As early as 1865–66 a conspiracy was entered into between the gold gamblers of Europe and America. . . . For nearly thirty years these conspirators have kept the people quarreling over less important matters while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one central purpose. . . . Every device of treachery, every resource of statecraft, and every artifice known to the secret cabals of the international gold ring are being used to deal a blow to the prosperity of the people and the financial and commercial independence of the country.

And then back another few decades, to an editorial in a Texas newspaper in 1845:

. . . It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism. . . . The Pope has recently sent his ambassador of state to this country on a secret commission, the effect of which is an extraordinary boldness of the Catholic church throughout the United States. . . . These minions of the Pope are boldly insulting our Senators; reprimanding our Statesmen; propagating the adulterous union of Church and State; abusing with foul calumny all governments but Catholic, and spewing out the bitterest execrations on all Protestantism. The Catholics in the United States receive from abroad more than $200,000 annually for the propagation of their creed. Add to this the vast revenues collected here. . . .

The identities of the invading hordes or the source of the internal rot change but the rhetoric remains virtually identical. There’s a foreign enemy who has managed to secretly get control of the levers of government and are bent on destroying us. Papists, Russians, Muslims, it doesn’t really matter. The enemies are always there, to be found, as Hofstadter notes, “in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims.”

Immigrants in particular are always a target. Each new wave of immigration brings about a reaction of nativism, bigotry and xenophobia. Irish, Polish, German, Chinese, now Mexican and Latino, or Muslim, all make convenient scapegoats. Demagogues skillfully push the buttons of fear in the minds of those given to such emotions, something that study after study shows maps almost exactly with conservative political ideology. This is just the latest incarnation.

At best, it results in bigotry and violence — at best. At worst, it results in passing laws that allow certain groups to be murdered with impunity and in official state violence, as against Native Americans, Mormons (at one time in at least two states, it was actually legal to kill Mormons), the Chinese and others. It results in throwing people in prison for being anti-war or for protesting for equality and justice, something the constitution was supposed to protect against.

It goes back to at least the anti-Masonic and Illuminati conspiracies of the late 18th century, at the time of the nation’s founding. And it never actually goes away, it merely lays relatively dormant for a while until another demagogue comes along to whip the mob up into a fervor. When Hofstadter was writing this essay, the John Birch Society was just getting started. In 2010, the JBS resurfaced but called itself the Tea Party. And now we have open neo-fascists in the White House, put there by a guy in Trump who, while not a white supremacist himself, has a con man’s sense of how to bring a mob to a frenzy.

These are terrifying times. The racists, the fascists, the know-nothings, the violent thugs who hate anyone different from them, are on the rise and on the march. Looking at our history, I do think we’ll manage at some point to put them back into their cages, but it’s going to take a while. And inevitably, they will pick the lock again and pour out into the streets to wreak havoc once again.

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