Today my latest Library of America volume was delivered--two books and some collected essays by historian Richard Hofstadter. I decided to read a short essay entitled "The American Right Wing and the Paranoid Style." The title seemed timely, despite having been written in 1959. It was an illuminating read, both for what has remained similar and for what has changed.
Hofstadter points out that the right wing is "organized into an extraordinarily large number of fanatical groups of indeterminable size," which seems to be mostly the same. He adds that they sometimes will unite despite their differences, usually around a personality, like Senator McCarthy. He states that it is between 10 and 15 percent of the population.
Two ideas seemed to be shared by right wing groups of the 1950's--"isolationism in foreign policy" and "a dogmatic insistence on laissez-faire liberalism in economic policy." He adds that these are generally followed by "ethnic prejudice" and "a fanatically intense anti-Communism." But what he thinks distinguishes the extreme right wing from its more intellectual members (like Bill Buckley) is the style of thought or frame of mind he calls "the paranoid style."
Intriguing to see what remains the same and what has altered on this list. I'm sure he would be surprised to find pro-Putin apologists in the contemporary right wing, for instance.
The paranoid style has a number of features. First is " the tendency to dwell upon the failures of the past rather than to work on programmatic proposals for the future." Check.
Prejudice, is the second feature. He lists anti-Black and anti-Jewish prejudice, noting that anti-Catholic prejudice was far less than it once had been given the common cause against communism by fundamentalist Protestants and fundamentalist Catholics. Update some of the prejudices, and check.
The third feature is that its spokespeople are "indignants." He writes, "Their capacity for indignation is very high in proportion to their capacity for understanding of what is going on." Check.
Next is "an awareness of their own victimization." Check.
But the most important feature of the paranoid style is an emphasis on conspiracies. Check, check, check. He writes, "The imaginative artists of the right wing, who work in the paranoid style, never feel themselves to be in the grip of history: they are always in the grip of wicked persons."
In his final paragraph he says that they haven't had much political success apart from "making life miserable for thousands of their favorite scapegoats" and impairing "freedom of thought in America by their pressures on teachers, writers, and librarians." Check those continuing negative outcomes, except for the fact that they did finally have electoral successes in the 21st century.
He also says they are not fascists because they lack "the fascist determination or capacity to seize power." Wrong about that one Hofstadter.
And so he concludes, "For while they are unlikely to vault into a position from which they can govern, they are frequently in a position to hinder those who do govern from doing so with the wisdom and restraint that the times demand."