“Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the man come
And take you away”
----Buffalo Springfield “For What It’s Worth”
Historians have long observed the American propensity to be deeply paranoid (1). Indeed, from the “Great Awakenings” of the late 18th and early 19th centuries to the “Know-Nothing” movement of the mid and late nineteenth century, to the “Palmer Raids” in the immediate aftermath of World War One to the McCarthy era and the hysteria that permeated much of the cold war, paranoia has often—all-too-often it seems— come to define the political landscape.
Americans have always been a deeply paranoid lot but the paranoia that currently holds the conservative movement in its grip is a most peculiar strain and a uniquely modern phenomenon.
I have written previously (2) citing the works of Corey Robin of the deep sense of persecution felt by what I call “the victims of property and standing”, dating back at least to the French Revolution. Here is an excerpt of that post from 2008, a long segment of which bears repeating:
Corey Robin in an essay entitled “Out of Place” quotes the opening statement of Ronald Story and Bruce Laurie's “The Rise of Conservatism in America, 1945-2000” that 'the central story of American politics since World War II is the emergence of the conservative movement'. “Yet”, writes Robin, “for some reason Will still feels that the travails of his political kinsmen are insufficiently appreciated and recognized”. Robin continues: “Will is not the first conservative to believe himself an exile in his own country. A sense of exclusion has haunted conservatism from the beginning when emigres fled the French Revolution and Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre took up their cause. Born in the shadow of loss—of property, standing, memory, inheritance, a place in the sun—conservatism remains a gathering of fugitives (emphasis added). (3) Buckley and his cohorts saw themselves at “out of place” with their badge of exclusion making them just about the “hottest thing in town” (3)
“Plato's guardians were wise”, writes Robin, “Aquinas's king was good; Hobbes's sovereign was, well, sovereign. But the best defense of monarchy that Maistre could muster in “Considerations on France” (1787) was that his aspiring king had attended the 'terrible school of adversity”. Similarly, Edmund Burke in his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790) would describe Marie Antoinette “dragged 'almost naked' by 'the furies of hell' from her bedroom in Versailles and marched to 'a Bastille for kings' in Paris'. “Marie Antoinette”, Robin continues, “was a particular kind of loser, a person with everything who finds herself utterly and at once dispossessed. Burke saw in her fall an archetype of classical tragedy, the great person laid low by fortune. But in tragedy, the most any hero can achieve is an understanding of his fate: the wheel of time cannot be reversed; suffering cannot be undone. Conservatives, however, are not content with illumination or wisdom. They want restoration.” (3)
What we have here, according to Robin, is the truly “bizarre” nature of modern Conservatism: a ruling class that for the first time rests its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood asking “us not to obey them but to feel sorry for them—or to obey them because we feel sorry for them.” Whereas other political movements must persuade “the disenfranchised that they have rights and power”, the modern conservative poses a novel justification: “they are aggrieved and entitled—aggrieved because entitled—and already convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the inevitability of its triumph. They can play victim and victor with a conviction and dexterity the subaltern can only imagine, making them formidable claimants on our allegiance and affection.” (3)
A deep sense of paranoia, born of an abiding persecution complex, inhabits the conservative mind, and colors the political landscape.
But, alas, Corey Robin hasn’t entirely mapped the extent of it. Beginning in the immediate wake of the Supreme Court Decision Roe v. Wade, forces already breaking loose from established main-line protestant denominations began to organize; forces already at war with the federal government’s efforts to integrate the public schools; forces representing strains of Protestantism deeply at war with reason, science and natural history; forces deeply suspicious, deeply intolerant, and deeply paranoid. First falling under the banner, at the presidential level, of one James Earl Carter Jr, and later switching to Ronald Reagan they have become the foot soldiers of the emerging conservative crusade, willing to man the phones, pound on doors, stuff envelopes and attend rallies. What distinguishes them from typical congregants and parishioners is their loose or non-existent connections with some greater presbytery (answerable to no higher church authority), their unparalleled intolerance fueled by a deep and abiding paranoia. I am here speaking largely of the so-called “evangelicals” but also the free-lance non-denominational hucksters like Robertson, Hagee, Olsteen, and Dollar.
What has brought these disparate elements of the conservative coalition together is not taxation, monetary or economic policy, certainly not the legalization of abortion by the Supreme Court. What they have in common is a deep and abiding paranoia, born of real but mostly imagined persecution: in the case of the intellectual lights and financial scions of the movement it is government regulation and taxation and the refusals of academics to give credence to their demonstrable nonsense; in the case of the religious zealots it is alleged persecution at the hands of virtually everyone who doesn’t follow their version of the gospels. And, by degrees, it is variously held that the wealthy deserve the lion’s share just as the true Christian has a prior claim on the fruits of the planet and the governance thereof.
To accomplish this, we are continually reminded of persecutions real or imagined from unspecified burdensome regulation to tales of Christian persecution despite a church standing on every other street corner of America. For this purpose, tales of Muslim conquest although centuries ago and far less draconian than our collective memory has it color a deep suspicion in these quarters of anyone hailing from the region. For this purpose, the Crusades keep re-emerging as a template ignorant of the fact that we lost the Crusades. For this purpose, a strain of anti-Catholicism colors the political wrong as the inquisition is rehashed. It is a persecution complex as old as Christianity itself dating back to Roman times, embroidered by time into a full-fledged tapestry deeply coloring how the assembled view the world.
On this point one must consult, briefly, the historical record. The historian Gibbon in his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, estimated, after consulting contemporary records, that perhaps 1,800 persons were put to death in the 400 years before Christianity became the state religion noting that subsequent persecutions by Christians far outnumbered the original sin. Never mind, for Rome had become the first Anti-Christ, a trend that has continued down to our time to include our own government.
The fact is that these people have always been in control, only now a much more virulent strain of the disease that is American Conservatism has taken the palace exhibiting a much more deranged, delusional and far more deeply paranoid behavior. Convinced now that they are being “sandbagged” by a “deep state”, tRUMP and his associates—foremost advisor Steve Bannon lately of Breitbart “News”—have balked at staffing high government positions, refusing to refill vacancies left from the previous administration thereby destroying institutional memory. They have moved to cut funding of the State Department hampering intelligence gathering worldwide thereby insuring that this country will be blindsided in some upcoming international crisis. They have even cut funding for NASA satellites monitoring global warming. Deeply suspicious, deeply intolerant of opposing points of view, deeply paranoid, tRUMP and associates spend their time “tweeting” away the presidency engaging themselves only is uneven attempts to expunge Obama from the historical record and getting revenge upon “enemies” real and imagined.
This is what unchecked paranoia can do to a body politic, and this too is a legacy of the ever delusional “Generation of Swine.”
(1). See, for instance, Hofstadter, Richard. “Anti-Intellectualism in America American Life”
(2). See my post dated October 2, 2008: A Question of Will, Exile on Main Street, Victims of Property and Standing.
(3). Robin, Corey. “Out of Place” The Nation June 23, 2008 pages 25-33