Paranoia, Politics and Jeremiads, American Style

            President Barack Obama honored a tradition first established by President Dwight Eisenhower 65 years ago by hosting a National Prayer Breakfast on February 5. In his remarks that day the nation’s chief executive gently scolded political leaders too willing to equate the Islamic faith with the twisted and maniacal radicalism of Al Qaeda or ISIL. He reminded attendees that Christians, too, had often historically perverted their faith to carry out horrific acts, but those who had done so were not today considered legitimate emissaries of that tradition. In fact, religions of all sorts have frequently been abused by a share of their faithful and used to justify unspeakable actions. Today, ISIL, the Taliban and Al Qaeda do not reflect the Islamic religion generally, nor are they examples of anything but the power mongering, mayhem and murder each is willing to practice. Here is what the President said at the breakfast at the Washington Hilton:

Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhi, the person who helped to liberate that nation. … This is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us (as human beings), a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith" (Obama, 2015).

            The President’s reference to the Crusades—the 11th-century battles between Roman Catholic knights and Muslim moors for territory and dominance in Europe—has particularly angered conservative radio talk show hosts and like-minded politicians who have argued that one cannot equate that conflict with today’s context. While this sort of criticism has been de rigueur of late among conservatives, who have accused Obama of being too willing to accord moral standing to terrible people, it has by no means been the only critique of this sort these groups and their spokespersons have recently launched against the President.

            Indeed, the latest volley came from former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Catholic, who reportedly told a gathering of Republicans in New York recently: "The Crusades were kind of an equal battle between two groups of barbarians. The Muslims and the crusading barbarians" (Hartmann, 2015). Prominent historians and other journalists have questioned Giuliani’s characterization of these historical events, suggesting that neither side was barbarian, but that both had surely committed terrible atrocities. In any case, his comments obviously did not reach the point of the President’s analogy.

            Nonetheless Giuliani added another criticism at a recent gathering for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a likely candidate for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. His fresh disparagement was markedly similar in its fundaments: the President cannot be trusted because he stands apart from “right-thinking” Americans:

I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the President loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of this country (Hartmann, 2015).

The former mayor deepened this criticism in a follow-up interview with CNN:

President Obama was brought up in an atmosphere in which he was taught to be a critic of America. That is a distinction with prior American Presidents (Hartmann, 2015).

Not content to make this sort of argument twice, Giuliani has since repeated it at other venues in recent days.

            The problem for the former executive is that there is simply no evidence for his assertions. Many past presidents of both major political parties have raised issues and concerns for the country’s consideration. That is, they have critiqued existing conditions or attitudes, and those presidents include Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Notably, Giuliani has not labeled these individuals as “UnAmerican.” Indeed, one might argue that all presidents should bring concerns to the American people and call for change when injustices exist or when popular perspectives become clouded and change is needed. They are elected, whatever their political party, in no small measure to do just that. In fact, our country’s greatest presidents have all sought to redress injustices in our society. That work has ever required them to point out existing deficiencies, a stance Giuliani has chosen to label as a priori unpatriotic.

            Apart from the logical ludicrousness of Giuliani’s “othering” assertions, there is no evidence that President Obama has done anything except work assiduously on behalf of the American people. But the former mayor’s attacks on the President are not principally meant as claims of fact. They are meant instead, as Jeffrey Toobin has contended in The New Yorker,

… To tap into a deep wellspring of American political thought, one defined by the Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter five decades ago. In an article in Harper’s, Hofstadter described ‘the paranoid style in American politics,’ which he said was characterized by ‘heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.’ Looking back, Hofstadter pointed to the anti-Masonic movement and the nativist and anti-Catholic movement as examples, but he also ascribed the paranoid style to his own era (Toobin, 2015).

Here is how Hofstadter characterized the paranoid style in American politics in 1964:

The modern right wing …feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high (Hofstadter, 1964).

            Hofstadter wrote those words more than 50 years ago, but they surely also describe, as Toobin contends, Giuliani’s continuing rhetorical attacks. The former mayor has sought to depict President Obama as somehow alien to the nation that twice elected him, and as apart from its people. Giuliani and other Republicans pillory Obama and anyone who might support him, as a threat to “their” America, and contend apocalyptically that their perspective on that nation is the only legitimate one, and that its importance is fast slipping away because those they malign are unwilling to acknowledge its greatness.

            In short, this current conservative trope is hardly new, but it is nonetheless alarming, since it is used daily not to critique specific policies and offer alternatives, but instead to decry rightfully elected and honorable leaders as somehow illegitimate and unfit, a quite different contention. Its continued vitality in our culture raises three broad questions for longer-term reflection. First, why has this paranoiac streak persisted in American politics in the face of incontrovertible evidence of its nonsensical and discriminatory character? Second, why do the elites currently pressing these claims feel threatened now, assuming this stance is not simply cynical, when for 40 or more years their economic and political position in society has only risen to unprecedented heights? Finally, and a corollary of my first question, these arguments are absolutist and apocalyptic in character and predicated on a vision of the United States as under attack by subversive agents internal to the country, whether President Obama currently, or the United Nations, Communists or Jesuits (among others) historically. The animating claim is essentially self-righteous, dichotomous and unbounded. One must, in the name of this contention, be willing to fight the imagined evil at any price and pursue complete victory. This orientation is deeply troubling in a diverse society that seeks to accord individuals rights to possess different points of view. How does one equip the nation’s population with the knowledge and critical acuity to reject the apparent allure of these typically morally and ethically repugnant assertions?

            Each of these three concerns in turn has implications for the character and possibility of our governance and status as a free people. One may hope these issues continue to receive thoughtful attention irrespective of Giuliani’s willingness and others of his ilk to label all such efforts “unpatriotic” and their purveyors “UnAmerican.” This matter is simply too important to ignore.

References

Hartmann, Margaret, “Giuliani says he Doesn’t Think Obama ‘Loves America,’” New York Magazine, February 19, 2015, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/02/giuliani-doesnt-think-obama-loves-america.html

Hartmann, Margaret, “Giuliani says he Doesn’t Think Obama ‘Loves America,’” New York Magazine, February 19, 2015, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/02/giuliani-doesnt-think-obama-loves-america.html

Hofstadter, Richard, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s Magazine, November 1964, http://harpers.org/archive/1964/11/the-paranoid-style-in-american-politics/

Obama, Barack, Remarks by the President at National Prayer Breakfast, February 5, 2015. The White House website. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/05/remarks-president-national-prayer-breakfast

Toobin, Jeffrey, “The Paranoid Style of Rudy Giuliani,” The New Yorker, February 20, 2015, http://feeds.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/paranoid-style-rudy-giuliani