Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Revenge of the Birchers: the Republican Party's Current Woes in Historical Context

As Karl Marx once quipped, history repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as farce.  Way back in the 1950s, the John Birch Society and other affiliated paranoiacs threatened to gain control of the Republican Party and the conservative movement at large.  Prominent conservative leaders like William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater managed to keep the wolves of conspiracist insanity at bay, forging a powerful new conservative wing of the GOP in the process, culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan.  Hard to believe, but the Gipper looks positively moderate compared to the wackos on the hard Right decried by Buckley and company.  Represented by Father Coughlin and other anti-Semitic, quasi-fascistic hate mongers in the thirties, and by McCarthyite witch-hunters in the fifties, they saw wicked conspiracy everywhere, to the point of labeling Dwight Eisenhower a Soviet puppet.

Venerable historian Richard Hofstader once famously defined a "paranoid style in American politics," and the Birchers, McCarthyites, and Coughlin devotees certainly fit the bill.  They are the political grandchildren of the Anti-Masons and Know Nothings.  That paranoid style has never died out in this country, and seems to have stormed its way back into the mainstream with the rise of the Tea Party.  Having once swept the tinfoil be-hatted crowd into the closet, the Republicans let loose the dogs of paranoiac politics in order to win the elections in 2010.  Like the proverbial sorcerer's apprentice or Victor Frankenstein, however, they have lost control over their creation, which now threatens to destroy them.

This week, amidst the annual barking at the moon at CPAC's conference and Rick Santorum's trifecta of wins in states where he did not have to face tidal waves of corporate advertising against him, it has become totally obvious that lunatics are running the asylum in the Republican party.  Confirming this assessment, the New York Times reports this week that many Tea Party groups have been acting locally to derail sustainable energy and public transportation, proclaiming both to be part of a UN plot for world domination.  Ron Paul, a candidate who has the biggest grass roots support among the young Republican activists, is a classic paranoiac whose old newsletters preached coming armageddon, and whose devotion to the gold standard reflects the long tradition of anti-bank paranoia in American politics.  Steve King, one of the party's more prominent members, today spouted fear and paranoia at CPAC over the eradication of old-fashioned, inefficient lightbulbs, which for some reason has become a cause celebre in certain corners of the Right.  His obsession seems wacky to me, but it has taken on the quality of common sense in the conservative media.

The rhetoric of even the mainstream sectors of the party reflects the paranoid style.  Like the Know Nothings of yore who depicted Catholics as puppets of a foreign pope, Barack Obama's political opponents consistently portray him as a foreign force out to corrupt and alter America.  Newt Gingrich has claimed that the president is a Kenyan socialist hostile to Western (i.e. white) civilization.  Mitt Romney, supposedly the moderate option, warns that he needs to be president in order to "keep America American," as if the current president were conspiring to change the nation's very being.

My one hope is that all of this paranoid raving and lunacy will push the GOP so far out of the mainstream that voters will strongly rebuke it at the polls.  My fear, however, is that many Americans dissatisfied with the current economic situation will vote for Republicans assuming that they represent a centrist alternative, not a vehicle for extremist ideology.

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