Joseph E. Green called "Reality and the Moving Image: The Paranoid Style in American Cinema." At the time I had no idea what the subtitle was referring to, but it was an interesting look at the kind of generalized propaganda that Hollywood uses in popular film to indoctrinate viewers toward a particular kind of conformity that suits government aims. But it wasn't unit after I began reading Susan Jacoby's work that I came across a reference to historian Richard Hofstadter and from their made my way to his collection of essays entitled, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. As I began reading that book, however, I didn't even make it through the introduction by Sean Wilentz because in it he mentioned that the beginnings of the title essay had originally appeared in another anthology called The Radical Right, by fellow historians Daniel Bell from Columbia and Seymour Lipset at the University of Chicago, that discussed the coopting of the Republican party by radical forces on the right. That essay was titled "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt." I immediately sought out that anthology and was utterly captivated by the ideas contained within.
Reading historian Richard Hofstadter is like taking the blue pill from Lawrence Fishburn and waking up in a world where things finally make sense. After reading and analyzing Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation” I stopped using that word because of my realization about the inherent subjectivity of interpretations. In the same way, I cannot use the word “conservative” to define those on the right wing of American politics anymore, because it simply isn’t true. Hofstadter is able to explain so much that doesn’t make sense about our politics and never really has. Republicans are fond of calling liberals “radicals,” as if they are out destroy this country by trying to implement crazy ideas, but the truth is exactly the opposite. It is right-wing Republicans who are the real radicals in this country. They are the ones who hate America. They are the ones who are intent on destroying the kind of democracy the founders had always intended. And they are the ones who have cultivated a following of the kind of people who vote for a misogynistic, xenophobic, jingoistic, fascist, anti-intellectual like Donald J. Trump. What makes Hofstadter’s analysis so compelling is that he is an historian, and is therefore able to put these political trends into a context that exposes them for what they really are, rather than spin them the way political pundits do to misdirect the public today.
The whole thing begins during the Great Depression with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt after four years of failed, do-nothing policies by Herbert Hoover that only acerbated the financial crisis under which that the country was suffering. These existing right wing policies were ones that had benefited the rich almost since the death of Lincoln sixty years earlier. Hofstadter opens his essay with this declaration, saying about the implementation of FDR’s new policies, “The dynamic force in American political life came from the side of liberal dissent, from the impulse to reform the inequities of our economic and social system and to change our ways of doing things, to the end that the sufferings of the Great Depression would never be repeated.” Roosevelt’s New Deal was a major shift in political thinking that was only realized through the will of the people. Some, like Teddy Roosevelt, had certainly made inroads at the turn of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t until the economic crash of 1929 that the majority of the public turned to the federal government and demand it live up to its responsibility to protect the public that it served, rich and poor alike. But right-wing politics--and it was especially so after the war--are reactionary by nature, and because of a paranoid tendency inherent in the right from the very beginning they became radicalized and turned themselves into the very enemy that their own propaganda warned against.
The New Deal was such a monumental shift in U.S. politics, and the gains so immense, Roosevelt’s policies were able to spur the recovery to an even greater extent during the war years. Because of that, it isn’t really the Republican politics of the Eisenhower administration that define the fifties, but the legacy of FDR. In the early post-war period many of those who voted for Roosevelt’s policies “still keep the emotional commitments to the liberal dissent with which they grew up politically, but their social condition is one of solid comfort. Among them the dominant tone has become one of satisfaction, even of a kind of conservatism.” Thus it wasn’t Republican values that were being conserved by the middle class in the fifties, it was liberal ones. Hofstadter quotes the great Adlai Stevenson from 1952 to that effect and it is essentially the thesis of his essay:
The strange alchemy of time has somehow converted the Democrats into the truly conservative
party of this country--the party dedicated to preserving all that is best, and building solidly and
safely on those foundations.
In reality, those on the right who call themselves conservatives are not really conservative at all. They are radicals who want to destroy the basic tenants of the U.S. Government. This is true whether one is talking about Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” or Pat Robertson’s “Moral Majority” or the more fanatical movements like New Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” the Tea Baggers, or Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” The one thing Hofstadter points out that all of these groups have in common is, surprisingly, “a profound if largely unconscious hatred of our society and its ways.” I say surprisingly, because the right-wing propaganda machine led by Fox News would have us believe that it is the left that hates America. The brutal truth is, the right has no idea what “America” actually is, and therefore their distorted view of this country has allowed their leaders to blind them to what truly makes America great. Hofstadter appropriated the term “pseudo-conservative” from social scientist Theodore W. Adorno in his work The Authoritarian Personality. In describing this phenomenon, Adorno states, “The pseudo-conservative is a [person] who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”
The Age of American Unreason:
It is the greatest irony, and a stellar illustration of the law of unintended consequences, that
the American experiment in complete religious liberty led large numbers of Americans to
embrace antirational, anti-intellectual forms of faith . . . In America, the absence of a coercive
state-established church meant that American citizens had no need to uproot existing religious
institutions in order to change political institutions, and vice versa. Americans dissatisfied with
their church simply founded another one and moved on . . . During the early nineteenth century,
as the church became a pillar of slavery [in the South], devotion to freedom of conscience,
exemplified by Madison and Jefferson, was replaced by adherence to ultra-conservative religion
dedicated to upholding the social order.
Thus, to the present day, the religious right has clung to a false notion of the place of religion in America, whether it is their Puritan beginnings in New England that actually eroded long before the Revolution, or their fundamentalism that justified slavery in the South that was destroyed by the Civil War. Religion and ignorance have always gone hand in hand in this country, but it wasn’t until the fifties that they really infected politics. The most visible symbols of this pollution are the phrase “in God we trust” that violated the First Amendment separation of church and state when it was place on our money, and “one nation under God” that was injected into the Pledge of Allegiance, both of which occurred in the 1950s. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how the ignorant religious right would believe that those two phrases were coined by the founders and use that to justify their erroneous belief that America is a “Christian nation.” Nothing, in reality, could be further from the truth. The right has no idea about the true nature of this country because they don’t want to know. But then the anti-intellectual component of the radical right is one of its most prominent features. Hofstadter puts it this way: “The pseudo-conservative can be found in practically all classes in society, although its power probably rests largely upon its appeal to the less educated members of the middle class. The ideology of pseudo-conservatism can be characterized but not defined, because the pseudo-conservative tends to be more than ordinarily incoherent about politics.” A more accurate reading of the supporters of Donald Trump would be difficult to find.
The characterization that Hofstadter gives of the pseudo-conservative is incredibly accurate and describes to perfection the beliefs that the right wing in this country have held for the last sixty years.
He believes himself to be living in a world in which he is spied upon, plotted against, betrayed,
and very likely destined for total ruin. He feels that his liberties have been arbitrarily and out-
rageously invaded. He is opposed to almost everything that has happened in American politics
[since the Depression] . . . He sees his own country as being so weak that it is constantly about
about to fall victim to subversion; and yet he feels that it is so all-powerful that any failure it may
experience must be attributed to its having been betrayed. He is the most bitter of all our citizens
about our involvement in the wars of the past, but seems the least concerned about avoiding the
next one. He would much rather concern himself with the domestic scene . . . He is likely to be
antagonistic to most of the operations of our federal government except Congressional investiga-
tions, and to almost all of its expenditures.
This is one of the most accurate portraits of the modern Republican party that has ever appeared in print, and explains much of their behavior in the recent presidential primary season.
The Republican right in this country has only one goal, to tear down the freedoms that this country was founded on and replace them with a fascist rule in which the only freedom is the freedom to believe as they do. The way they attempt to accomplish this is through the legal system. The freedoms guaranteed to American citizens in the Constitution--with the exception of the few that Republicans like, guns and religion for example--are what they want to get rid of. “A great deal of pseudo-conservative thinking takes the form of trying to devise means of absolute protection against that betrayal by our own officialdom which the pseudo-conservative feels is always imminent.” And to that end, “the pseudo-conservative revolt seems to specialize in Constitutional revision.” What Republicans really want to do is to convert the Constitution from a living, breathing document that allows ideas like Prohibition to come and go, into something etched in stone like the Ten Commandments. Rather than a document that tells citizens what they are allowed to do, the choices and freedoms they have as members of this country, the right wants a document that outlines what we can’t do. Again, this goes against the very principals our country was founded on, something the anti-intellectual supporters of the right will never understand. As a result it is true conservatives, in the form of liberal Democrats, who are fighting the good fight to save those protections we have earned and keep the freedoms we do have, from being destroyed by the radical right.
One of the interesting theories that Hofstadter posits, in looking for a root cause, is that because we have mythologized ourselves as a status-less society, nationalism has become intertwined with our self-image and assumed a greater part in self-identification than it rightfully should. “In this country a person’s status--that is, his relative place in the prestige hierarchy of his community--and his rudimentary sense of belonging to the community--that is, what we call his ‘Americanism’--have been intimately joined.” This can certainly be seen today in a shrinking middle class that feels it has increasingly less “prestige hierarchy” and therefore attempts to compensate for it by a proportional increase in their “Americanism.” Because of this phenomenon there have emerged two different types of politics, “interest politics,” and “status politics.” As stated earlier, the generally uneducated and politically incoherent state of the radical right does not allow them any kind of genuine understanding of interest politics, which can be seen as “future-oriented and forward-looking, in the sense that it looks to a time when the adoption of this or that program will materially alleviate or eliminate certain discontents.” Instead, the anti-intellectual nature of the right means that it is left only with status politics, which are “expressed more in vindictiveness, in sour memories, in the search for scapegoats, than in realistic proposals for positive action.” This also describes the state of Trump supporters, who have no interest in policy and gravitate to a cult of personality rather than anything concrete that would actually make a difference in their lives.
The Assassination Complex, had this to say about the subject on a recent episode of Bill Maher:
Just focusing on Trump and what he says, misses a deeper more disturbing reality and that
is that Trump has brought to the public the fact that we have a real strain of fascism in this
country. I think that what Trump has done is to give a public voice to a sentiment that is held
by a significant minority of the population where now someone is saying the things they felt
they couldn’t say in public. So now they can openly be racists, bigots, and they have their
Hofstadter also looks at the psychological underpinnings of these groups who have typically been under educated. What he finds is that the desire to destroy America comes from a hatred of authority in general. “An enormous hostility to authority, which cannot be admitted to consciousness, calls forth a massive overcompensation which is manifest in the form of extravagant submissiveness to strong power.” In this way of thinking, the government represents the totalitarian force in the lives of the pseudo-conservative that, in their minds, has left them utterly helpless to combat.
For pseudo-conservatism is among other things a disorder in relation to authority, characterized
by an inability to find other modes for human relationship than those of more or less complete
domination or submission. The pseudo-conservative always imagines himself to be dominated
and imposed upon because he feels that he is not dominant, and knows of no other way of in-
terpreting his position. He imagines that his own government and his own leadership are engaged
in a more or less continuous conspiracy against him because he has come to think of authority
only as something that aims to manipulate and deprive him.
Given this way of thinking, support for Trump actually makes a lot of sense. He is a figure who is out to dominate, whether it be women, minorities, in business or in politics. This is the only thing that the new Republican base understands anymore, which is another reason that his complete obviation of the code of civil conduct earns him so many supporters. He is their surrogate, a man with power, who will go for them into the corrupt and conspiratorial government and destroy it from the inside.
But the idea of racism is also intertwined with the idea of nationalism and self-identity. Hofstadter makes another fascinating point when he discusses the idea of the United States as an immigrant country--from the very start. Everyone who came to this country came from somewhere else, and he finds a lingering, subconscious distrust amongst ourselves to be the end result. First he establishes the prejudicial nature of the Republican right by pointing out the obvious. “I believe that the typical prejudiced person and the typical pseudo-conservative dissenter are usually the same person, that the mechanisms at work in both complexes are quite the same.” The reason for this is the subconscious distrust for each other among a nation of people who have abandoned their country of origin, even if it was many generations earlier. And the way that mechanism functions is that they are “so desperately eager for reassurance of their fundamental Americanism,” that they “can conveniently converge on liberals, critics, and non-conformists of various sorts.” The non-conformists in this election cycle happen to be trans-gender people, but the radical right is not picky and they’ll go after anyone. In Hofstadter’s words, “in true pseudo-conservative fashion they relish weak victims and shrink from asserting themselves against the strong.”
One of the aspects of pseudo-conservatism that is generally misunderstood as actual conservatism is the desire for conformity by those on the right. This is one of the more difficult arguments that Hofstadter takes on as he attempts to tie the idea to the “status aspirations” of all on the radical right. But while it’s complex, it does makes sense. Uneducated, white Americans resent the erosion of the tacit superiority they have always claimed in this country, which for the most part has been subliminally reinforced in everything from entertainment and advertising, to minorities being ghettoized geographically and marginalized in the workplace. What, then, does that say about a country that seems to be going out of its way enforce equality for minorities of all kinds? Rather than look on it as step forward for the kind of inclusionary policies that this country has been moving toward since its founding, the radical right’s demand for conformity is instead an excuse for stripping the rights that minorities have already been granted. And so, in looking at what appears to be non-conformity by those on the right, “Naturally it is resented, and the demand for conformity in public becomes at once an expression of such resentment and a means of displaying one’s own soundness.” Again, it all comes back to the radical right being compelled to tear down the government in order to prove their own self worth, a phenomenon no different than religious cults that instill in their members a sense of specialness that can only be achieved by denigrating others.
Finally, there is no escaping the very real threats that this country faces from abroad, and the distinct ways that the two political parties have attempted to deal with those threats of terrorism from the Middle East. As Hofstadter points out, “We do live in a disordered world, threatened by a powerful ideology. It is a world of enormous potential violence, that has already shown us the ugliest capacities of the human spirit.” While the left makes efforts to understand the enemy, to use our intellect to find solutions to the conflicts that face us, the right wants only to destroy. In fact, in the absence of genuine intelligence, it is the only weapon they have against their own irrational fears. Hofstadter reminds us, “There is just enough reality at most points along the line to give a touch of credibility to the melodramatics of the pseudo-conservative imagination.” Add to this the role of the media which has, to cite Hofstadter, “brought politics closer to the people than ever before and has made politics a form of entertainment in which the spectators feel themselves involved.” This has been and extremely destructive part of our current election cycle because recent trends in direct democracy in internet voting for innocuous things like reality TV personalities and contestants, have transformed into an unrealistic expectation for voters, especially in the Sanders campaign. Reactionary responses to those expectations have resulted in votes for Trump as well as the undermining of the Clinton campaign by Sanders supporters.
One of the surprising things about Hofstadter’s essay is his optimism in the face of the radical right’s commitment to the destruction of the Constitution and the American experiment. “I do not share the widespread foreboding among liberals that this form of dissent will grow until it overwhelms our liberties altogether and plunges us into a totalitarian nightmare.” The reason for his optimism? Hofstadter wrote this essay in 1955. That’s right. This essay, which could have been written yesterday, and describes the Republican base as accurately as anyone could today, is over sixty years old. What was a subtle and insightful description of a growing movement in Republican politics in 1955, has now become so overt as to make his work seem painfully obvious today. But in the middle of the Eisenhower presidency, it certainly wasn’t. In fact, Hofstadter didn’t even live to see Watergate, Reganomics, or the devastation of the W. debacle, and yet in hindsight all of the things he did see in the mid-fifties, were gaining momentum until they came to fruition in the ascension of Donald Trump to the Republican candidacy for U.S. President. In some respects, I share Hofstadter’s belief in the American system of government. To even imagine the destruction of America that Trump represents for so many on the conservative left, “is to my mind a false conception, based on the failure to read American developments in terms of our peculiar American constellation of political realities.” After all, if the country could survive--and I do mean survive--eight years of the George W. Bush presidency, there is no reason to think it can’t endure four years of Donald Trump.
Still, despite his optimism, and as a warning from the past, Richard Hofstadter refuses to diminish the threat from an ideology that the Republicans have been cultivating since his death. As such, I leave the last words to him, just the way he ended his essay in 1955, in the hopes that those who read it will realize its very real description of the political landscape today, and do the right thing in November to reverse the tide of pseudo-conservative insurgency that threatens the very foundation of what it means to be Americans.
However, in a populistic culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and
moral autonomy, and in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for
private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active and well-financed
minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety
would become impossible.