The Obama Haters
We still don't understand how fringe conservatism went mainstream.
This is, I think, the main problem with using Hofstadter and "The Paranoid Style" to understand the birthers and town hall screamers and Glenn Beck acolytes of today. It's difficult enough to write about McCarthyites and Goldwaterites with the proper proportions of imaginative sympathy and moral judgment. But when we're caught in the throes of our own contentious moment, it hardly seems possible to separate the political need to fight irrationalism and zealotry from the psycho-sociological project of distilling the motives of extremists. It's natural, even necessary, to try to make sense of a movement that appears—to many of us, at any rate—delusional. But the most that history, or historians, can do is what Hofstadter did in the first half of the "Paranoid Style": point to the many antecedents of today's right-wing fantasies and, by putting them in historical context, making them more comprehensible and perhaps less fearsome.
Those who talk about being frightened today or act as if Obama is the first president to suffer the slings of what Franklin Roosevelt called "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror" would do well to note that on the back cover of my 1996 reissue of The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays is a quote from Hofstadter's sole equal among his generation of political historians, Arthur Schlesinger:
Recent months have witnessed an attack of unprecedented passion and ferocity against the national government. … Unbridled rhetoric is having consequences far beyond anything that antigovernment politicians intend. The flow of angry words seems to have activated and in a sense legitimized what the historian Richard Hofstadter called the "paranoid strain" in American politics.
Schlesinger published his comment in the Wall Street Journal on June 7, 1995.
The "paranoid" style did not return suddenly this summer. On the contrary, Hofstadter was surely correct when he wrote that while "it comes in waves of different intensity, it appears to be all but ineradicable."
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.