Crime is down, jobs are growing, America is pre-eminent. And yet Republican candidates are still fanning the flames of fear.
At the beginning of this year, after a Republican sweep in the midterms, new Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell had a message for the incoming class as the party geared up for the 2016 presidential contest: Don’t be “scary.”
“I don’t want the American people to think that if they add a Republican president to a Republican Congress, that’s going to be a scary outcome,” he said. “I want the American people to be comfortable with the fact that the Republican House and Senate is a responsible, right-of-center, governing majority.”
Around the same time, we began hearing more talk of the rise of the “reformocon,” a calmer, more practical, policy-minded and less viscerally anti-government stripe of Republican. One who maybe even might be able to resist the temptation to actively antagonize Latinos, the nation’s fastest-growing electoral bloc. For a moment, it looked like the fever that had burned since the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 had broken.
But then came the Mexican rapists, and Benghazi, and the plot to “Islamize” America, and Planned Parenthood acting as an agent of holocaust. We heard endless dark warnings about Obama the Nazi, Obama the ISIS apologist. We learned that the Affordable Care Act is tantamount to slavery and the Holocaust could have been averted if the Jews had just had guns, and that the Iran deal will trigger the second Holocaust (so many holocausts!).
Once the Paris attacks happened, the panic tightened its grip, with two leading Republican presidential candidates suddenly possessed by dueling hallucinations of celebratory Muslims in Jersey on 9/11. Then came San Bernardino. Donald Trump, who had previously contented himself with talk of an authoritarian state in which Muslims were made to register and neighbor spied upon neighbor, doubled down, calling for a ban of all Muslims trying to come to the United States. The rest of the field, while not quite scaling such rhetorical heights, hardly distinguished itself with steely Churchillian reserve, opting instead for a flurry of Muppet arms. When Obama gave a speech emphasizing calm and fortitude, Marco Rubio responded by saying that, on the contrary, Americans are “really scared,” John Kasich said “our way of life is at stake,” Chris Christie proclaimed that World War III had begun, and Jeb Bush said ISIS is “organizing to destroy Western Civilization.”
McConnell may have tried—however lamely—to get the scary horse back into the barn, but time passes and news breaks and the beast does not abide. What is driving all this panic? It’s easy to blame it on individual demagogues and pin it all on the symptoms of Obama Derangement Syndrome. This was the view on display in a November column by the New York Times’ Paul Krugman, who attributed the abundance of panic in the GOP to the fact that “many bullies are also cowards” and “the apocalyptic mind-set that has developed among Republicans during the Obama years.” There is something to that, but it’s hardly the whole story.
The fact is, the variety of political panic we are presently enjoying is woven into the fabric of our society, an unfortunate side effect of living in a continually morphing nation of immigrants. This panic has historically afflicted the right more than the left (though the left is not immune to panics of its own), and though it usually simmers just beneath the surface of our politics, it has, at this particular moment in time, not just reemerged but, seemingly, gone mainstream.
For the most part, the current field of Republicans is riding the wave, ginning up panic whenever possible, in a campaign season that often seems less like an application to the White House and more like one for the ding farm. But will it work? Can this trembling, red-eyed, dark-minded impulse at the core of our national experience be marshaled to win a national election? And, perhaps more importantly, can it be stopped?
For all our talk of steady hands and rugged individualism, there’s a long and hallowed tradition of sheer barking panic in American politics. “There’s no country in the world that can get more hysterical!” Sinclair Lewis wrote in It Can’t Happen Here, his 1935 novel about a folksy American politician who leads a panicky nation into fascism. And indeed, we’ve done our part to prove him right. Over the decades, Americans, minds afire with doomsday visions of wild plots and schemes, have lost it over the illuminati, the Masons, the pope of Rome and his marauding Jesuits, the League of Nations, the U.N., communist infiltrators, welfare queens, Willie Horton, Jeremiah Wright, birtherism, gay plots, “death panels,” Jade Helm, no-go zones, the aforementioned Mexican rapists/ethnic cleansers/Ebola-infected ISIS supporters, and so on.
And throughout, most of those eruptions have come from a certain spot on the American political spectrum. Writing in 1954, historian Richard Hofstadter, borrowing a term from the social theorist Theodore Adorno, dubbed these people “pseudo-conservatives.” In his essay “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” which Hofstadter wrote in response to the rise of far-right demagogues like Joe McCarthy and groups like the John Birch Society, he defined the type:
“Although they believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatives, [pseudo-conservatives] show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, its institutions and traditions.” They may call themselves conservatives, Hofstadter noted, but they do so mainly for the veneer of political legitimacy the term confers. In reality, they are more a mix of ultraconservative, isolationist and, occasionally, radical. “They have little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism in the classical sense of the word.”
The pseudo-conservative, Hofstadter continued, “is likely to be antagonistic to most of the operations of our federal government except congressional investigations.” He is preoccupied with his loyalty and the perceived disloyalty of others and prone to constant patriotic “self-advertisement.” He “sees his own country as being so weak that it is constantly about to fall victim to subversion; and yet he feels it is so all-powerful that any failure it may experience in getting its way in the world … cannot possibly be due to its own limitations but must be attributed to its having been betrayed.” He believes that “those who place greater stress on negotiation and accommodation are engaged in treasonable conspiracy or are guilty of well-nigh criminal failings in moral and intellectual fiber.”
All these years later, Hofstadter’s essay reads like the whiteboard from a breakout session at CPAC. While the author blamed the confluence of uncertain times and the advent of mass media—which keeps people “in an almost constant state of political mobilization”—he also argued that the animating spirit of pseudo-conservatism was tied to the “rootlessness and heterogeneity” at the center of the American experiment:
“Because we no longer have the relative ethnic homogeneity we had up to about eighty years ago,” he wrote, “our sense of belonging has long had about it a high degree of uncertainty. We boast of ‘the melting pot,’ but we are not quite sure what it is that will remain when we are melted down.”