In an article written in Harpers Magazine in 1964, political historian Richard Hofstadter describes the heart and soul of, it would seem, many a white person in these United States. In this essay, Hofstadter says that white Americans, primarily from and of the Right Wing are angry; they feel dispossessed, he says, feeling like “America has largely been taken away from them.” He writes:
…the modern right wing…feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitians and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of America power. (http://harpers.org/archive/1964/11/the-paranoid-style-in-american-politics/)
Hofstadter lays out, in that same article, “basic elements” of contemporary right wing thought: 1) the belief in a sustained conspiracy which reached its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, which was put into place to undermine free capitalism and to bring the economy under federal control; 2) a belief that top government is infiltrated and influenced by Communists, and 3) a belief that the nation is “infused” with a network of communists. (see same article, cited above, pp. 81-82)
The paranoia these days is not so much the Communists, but are, rather, “the Muslims.” Our 21st century paranoid and fear-mongering politicians seem unable at best and unwilling at worst to make the point that not all Muslims are terrorists, even as they ignore the terrorist acts which have been and continue to be carried out by white Christians; they ignore for the most part what white terrorists in America do while they work at feeding the fear of a mass of people who feel dispossessed and angry and scared. Many to all of the world’s problems, these candidates seem to say, can be traced directly to “the Muslims.”
What in the world causes this kind of paranoia within the right-wing? While I am sure there is some left-wing issue I need to address, what sticks out for me is this right-wing hysteria which always seems to have a target on which to pin the blame for its policies and actions. Religious historian Karen Armstrong has said that it is when there has been too much change that we see a rise in right-wing, paranoid rhetoric and a return of religious fundamentalism. The operative word is “change.” It seems that many Americans are all right so long as “things remain the same.”
Of course, that is foolhardy. The essence of life is change. The America that the Founding Fathers envisioned and shaped has long since outgrown that definition. That America was one where white supremacy was the rule, where white, Protestant men were the kings of the road. There was no room for the rights of women, blacks, Hispanics, members of the LGBTQ community. White men apparently believed that that America was the only legitimate America, and as the years have rolled by, the consistent changes have roiled the souls of apparent American purists.
There has been much change, and change is always difficult. I remember in seminary the “inclusive language” movement got its start; I remember being appalled at the new reality that said using male pronouns was wrong, that saying “King” and “Lord” was wrong; I was irritated that words of some of my favorite hymns had to be changed to accommodate the cry for gender equality. In some instances, when “politically correct” lyrics were printed in a program booklet, I purposely sang the words I had grown up with and loved.
And yet, the change was in place, and the reason for the change was valid. The Founding Fathers had no use for women; their ideology was white male- based and white-male driven. Women were tired of being considered second class sex-objects. In spite of my objections, the change was going to take place.
Change has continued to be the foundation of our America, and while it may be difficult for many to most, it is the right-wing that has responded with fear, hatred …and paranoia. Change does not mean that America will be no more; change means that America will be better. Oppressed groups do not need “outsiders” like Communists to spur them to seek liberation and dignity; radical Muslims are no more numerous than are radical Christians and Zionists. The human spirit pushes for that on its own and those who resort to terrorist tactics feel their dignity has been debased. They fight for it, right or wrong, but it seems that in this country, the only fight for liberation and dignity which has been deemed valid is that of white people. The American Revolution was a fight for dignity and independence. White people have loved their freedom and privilege but people of color, women, same-gender loving people want their freedom as well. It is the height of arrogance to believe that oppressed people are satisfied with their lot.
Hofstadter makes the point that the paranoia we are seeing today in the hue and cry of the right wing is not a new phenomenon; there is a history of the right, decrying and denigrating groups including Catholics, Jesuits, Masons, and, as already mentioned, “the Communists.” The author says that “the paranoid style is an old and recurrent theme of America.
Because there is so much change occurring, this nation is not going to see less hateful and racist rhetoric, but more. It is hard to listen to, from Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina …and all the others. Those of us listening to their words can only remember that this sort of thing is not new, that this nation has survived these types of racist outcries in the past and this nation will survive this one. The paranoia which has resulted as the result of too much change is a fear that the “old America” is gone; the goal of the alarmists and hate-mongers is to “take the country back” and to “make America great again.” What they do not understand is that the America about which they are nostalgic is long gone. There is a new America and indeed a new world which American politicians on the right have not yet acknowledged …and they never will. Hofstadter notes in his article that “we are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.” (p. 86)
A true and candid observation …