American populism, from the time of Andrew Jackson to the agricultural insurgency of William Jennings Bryan and through to the passage of Prohibition in 1920, won broad support by organizing around the concept of a virtuous white Protestant rural majority fighting the power of corrupt and oppressive Northeastern business elites. The concept of populism as a conflict between the average American and morally avaricious elites is embedded in American life.
The imported concepts behind anti-populism—that is, the justifications for lording over the “deplorables”—are, however, relatively little known.
But, beginning with the conflict over whether to enter World War I, populism was increasingly defined by the Midwestern opposition of ethnic Germans to World War I and World War II. The last gasp of rural radicalism came in 1924 when Wisconsin’s “Fighting Bob” La Follette, a vehement opponent of World War I, ran on a third-party populist/progressive ticket which, after expelling the Communists, carried only his home state. More broadly, he won the support of many isolationist German and Scandinavian farmers to capture 17 percent of the national vote. But by the 1920s, for the first time, the cities out-populated rural America and the populists’ sense of themselves as the true face of America was challenged by philo-German thinkers such as H. L. Mencken and Theodore Dreiser, who questioned the value of democracy. The famed Baltimorean, who coined the terms “Bible Belt” and “booboisie,” was a fount of anti-populism. He was, as he crowed to all who would listen, a very superior person whose Germanic identity immunized him against the depredations of America as imposed by the regular meetings of the Rotary society.
This W. C. Fields of letters went out of his way to insult his audience. “So long as there are men in the world,” Mencken clowned, “99 percent of them will be idiots.” “The mob-man,” whom he described as “the boobus Americanus,” “must believe in something, and it must be something indubitably not true. The one thing he can’t get down is a fact.” Facts are something that evaded Mencken in his famous coverage of the Scopes trial. His writings on “the Monkey Trial,” though widely accepted by liberals, were that of a fabulist, as is made clear by the historian Edward Larson’s Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion.
Even admirers avert their gaze from the full force of Mencken’s Germanophilia.
Contemporary journalists deploy Mencken’s marvelous witticisms. “No one,” he exclaimed, “ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American voter.” But for all those who luxuriate in the furrows of Mencken’s dithyrambic denunciations of democracy and the “peasants” and “yokels” who cling to it, there are, more importantly, those taken with not the sound but the substance of Mencken’s writing.
Mencken remains a fugleman—to use one of his favorite words—for philosophical free marketers who tend to look beyond his amusing animadversions to the Nietzschean core of his writings. Still, even they avert their gaze from the full force of Mencken’s Germanophilia. In 1908 Mencken wrote the first account of Nietzsche’s thought published in America. The book was more than exposition, it was, notes the Mencken biographer Terry Teachout, “an autobiography in disguise.” Nietzsche gave Mencken, a distant cousin of Otto von Bismarck, his grounding, and a worldview from which he never deviated.
Like many of Mencken’s admirers, the editor and critic Joseph Epstein describes Mencken as having been harassed during World War I for being “insufficiently patriotic.” But that defies the facts. Mencken was a German nationalist and as such both a paladin of anti-Americanism and a champion of the Kaiser’s armies in World War I.
Mencken’s Nietzschean World War I writings on behalf of imperial Germany have been ignored by his enthusiasts. Opposed to American intervention in the Great War on the side of the Allies, Mencken had no objection to war per se; Drawing on Nietzsche’s conception of the “will to power,” he wrote: “War is a good thing, because it is honest, it admits the central fact of human nature. . . . A nation too long at peace becomes a sort of gigantic old maid.” What he opposed were British, and then American, efforts at defeating German militarism.
The war, notes the Mencken biographer Fred Hobson, “focused his thoughts.” Mencken explained:
I, too, like the leaders of Germany, had grave doubts about democracy. . . . It suddenly dawned on me, somewhat to my surprise, that the whole body of doctrine that I had been preaching was fundamentally anti-Anglo-Saxon, and that if I had any spiritual home at all, it must be in the land of my ancestors. When World War I actually started, I began forthwith to whoop for the Kaiser, and I kept up that whooping so long as there was any free speech left.
In 1914, before the United States entered World War I, Mencken wrote “The Mailed Fist and Its Prophet,” in which he presented Germany as a model the United States should emulate. In the 1870s, contended Mencken, writing as much about himself as Nietzsche, their fatherland was so backward that:
No epithet [from Nietzsche] was too outrageous, no charge was too far-fetched, no manipulation or interpretation of evidence was too daring, to enter into his ferocious indictment. He accused the Germans of stupidity, superstitiousness, and silliness; of a chronic weakness for dodging issues, a fatuous “barnyard” and “green-grazing” contentment; of yielding supinely to the commands and exactions of a clumsy and unintelligent government.
And worse yet, 1870s Germany, according to Nietzsche, was guilty “of a slavish devotion to” Christianity, “a spiritual dyspepsia,” and “a puerile mysticism.”
But, according to Mencken, by 1892 when Nietzsche wrote his masterpiece Thus Spake Zarathustra, “an enormous change . . . had come over the German scene,” with vast new energies unleashed “not by the old [Junker] aristocracy of the barracks and the court, but by a new aristocracy of the laboratory, the study, and the shop.” Germany surged to the forefront of the world.
Germany, insisted Mencken, had transcended the Anglo-American world:
But this new democracy that thus arose in Germany was not, of course, a democracy in the American sense, or anything colorably resembling it. It was founded upon no romantic theory that all men were natural equals; it was free from the taint of mobocracy; it was empty of soothing and windy phrases. On the contrary, it was a delimited, aristocratic democracy in the Athenian sense—a democracy of intelligence, of strength, of superior fitness—a democracy at the top. . . . [T]he final determination of all matters was plainly vested, not in politicians or in majorities, but in experts, in men above all politics, in the superbly efficient ruling caste.
“The new Germany,” which was challenging America in the war to succeed the British as the dominant global power, “was,” explained an adoring Mencken, “even more contemptuous of weakness, within or without, than the old. What had been the haughtiness of a single class became the haughtiness of a whole people.”
World War I, as Mencken saw it, was the culmination of Germany’s Nietzsche-inspired ascent to power. To prove his point, Mencken quoted from Zarathustra:
I do not advise you to compromise and make peace, but to conquer. Let your labor be fighting, and your peace victory. . . . What is good? All that increases the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad? All that proceeds from weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power increases, that resistance is being overcome. . . . Not contentment, but more power! Not peace at any price, but war! Not virtue, but efficiency! . . . The weak and the botched must perish: that is the first principle of our humanity. And they should be helped to perish! . . . I am writing for the lords of the earth.
Thus, concluded Mencken, with Germany’s armies on the march in 1914, “Germany becomes Nietzsche; Nietzsche become Germany.”
Mencken cheered the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania by a German sub that claimed 128 American lives. He dismissed the slaughter of civilians in Belgium as beneath his concerns, while writing about the greatness of the Kaiser and Germany’s commanding general Erich Ludendorff. Mencken’s adoring Atlantic magazine essay on the authoritarian genius of Ludendorff in fighting a Nietzschean war makes it clear that Mencken’s concerns about freedom were secreted when he was presented with what he saw as beautiful Teutonic authority worthy of being obeyed. The essay on Ludendorff revealed that Mencken wanted freedom, not so that the citizen wouldn’t be subject to arbitrary authority, but because he didn’t want the Übermenschen constrained by ordinary people. The Baltimorean liked unregulated capitalism, not because it gives the poor a chance to rise, but because it allowed the superior men to have their way unobtruded.
Mencken liked unregulated capitalism because it allowed the superior men to have their way unobtruded.
Mencken, who was a courageous critic of censorship, had his reputation saved by an act of self-censorship. His intriguing essay “After Germany’s Conquest of the United States”—and in fact the Kaiser planned to launch dirigibles against New York—talked about the benefits to America of being ruled by the hard men of a superior Kultur. Known only because of the exchange of letters between Mencken and the editors of The Atlantic, the article was withdrawn and never published. Interestingly, despite Mencken’s extraordinary efforts to document his own life, the manuscript, according to Vincent Fitzpatrick, the curator of the Mencken collection at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, cannot be found. Mencken’s reputation, it seems, was saved by the uncharacteristic decision not to publish what he had written.
The origins of America’s political anti-populism lie in the early 1920s when Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the intellectual heirs of Randolph Bourne initiated a cultural politics that defined itself in opposition to middle-class America. The period was described by Alfred Kazin as “the Age of Mencken.” It was a time when the clowning curmudgeon expressed better than his peers the post-war disillusionment with Woodrow Wilson, in particular, and America, in general. These writers, wrote Malcolm Cowley, “seized power in the literary world . . . almost like the Bolsheviks in Russia.” They all wrote, said the philosopher George Santayana, to “denounce the Constitution . . . the churches, and above all they denounce the spirit that vivifies and unifies all these things, the spirit of Business.”
But had Mencken’s article been published, it’s hard to imagine that even the politically tone-deaf literary critic Edmund Wilson could have insisted in 1921 that “Mencken is the civilized conscience of modern America.” Wilson wasn’t alone. The New York Times thought Mencken “the most powerful private citizen in America.” He was so beloved by the campus smart set that one college newspaper called him “the guiding outlaw of undergraduates.” Walter Lippmann admired Mencken. But Lippmann shrewdly noted that Mencken often couldn’t tell the difference between ignorance and evil.
Mencken created a liberal demonology out of the Scopes trial with only a loose connection to the evidence. The trial was initiated by the aclu looking for a test case, not by the locals, as Mencken suggested. Nor were the locals the mean-spirited boobs he depicted. They supported the trial as a bit of boosterism, a way to put their town on the map. Scopes was well-treated and well-liked by the people of Dayton, Tennessee, whom Mencken described as cretins. And the supposedly buffoonish William Jennings Bryan, described by Mencken as “the idol of Morondom,” was a well-read world traveler who had debated Darwin’s On the Origin of Species with Henry Fairfield Osborn, the president of the Museum of Natural History. Bryan, the national symbol of what remained of populism, was indeed completely wrong about evolution, but his criticism of the Social Darwinism that Mencken subscribed to was to prove prescient with the coming of the Nazis. When Bryan died suddenly, shortly after the trial, Mencken gloated, “We killed the son of a bitch.”
In 1926, the year after the Scopes trial, Mencken published a book he had been working on for a long time. It explained that a government by yokels was “sure to be a scandal and a farce. The United States is such a farce and scandal.” Titled Notes on Democracy, the book proved an embarrassment to most, with the exception of the Kaiser, who praised it.
Democracy, Mencken explained, for the umpteenth but far from the last time, was a conspiracy against the superior men who had a monopoly on the higher virtues. But Mencken’s efforts demonstrated that, on the subject of democracy, as opposed to his own three volumes of autobiography, Mencken at full length was far less compelling than in his intentionally comic columns. In the newspapers, his crotchets were overshadowed by his descriptions of histrionic preachers, preachy presidents, and overwrought enthusiasts for golf and political poltroonery. A friend sighed that he wished Mencken hadn’t written the book “because it reveals too much about him.”
Mencken created a liberal demonology out of the Scopes trial.
Carried along by the public’s animus to the anti-alcoholists, Mencken’s star ascended to the heavens in the 1920s. But it descended rapidly in the 1930s. The “sage’s” animus towards fdr and indifference to the suffering of the Depression cast a shadow over his once-incendiary wordplay. But, by the time Mencken’s reputation crashed, he had taken down populism with him.
Broadly speaking, the Populist movements, starting from the Jacksonian “revolution” of the 1820s and 1830s and on into the twentieth century, were considered left-wing. They were then seen as left-wing insofar as they insisted on the merit of the average American. After the interregnum of the 1920, the last left-wing incarnation of populism came from the Communist-led Popular Front during the New Deal of the 1930s.
In the time of the Popular Front, the great African-American singer Paul Robeson was celebrated for performing the cantata “A Ballad for Americans.” The lyrics defined the central trope of populism—what it was to be an American:
Well, you see it’s like this. I started to tell you.
I represent the whole . . .
I’m the everybody who’s nobody,
I’m the nobody who’s everybody . . .
Deep as our valleys,
High as our mountains,
Strong as the people who made it.
For I have always believed it, and I believe it now,
And now you know who I am.
Who are you?
The Popular Front era also brought the first anticipation of a right-wing populism in the form of the Michigan radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin. Coughlin, who had begun his radio career as a staunch supporter of fdr, gradually shifted into philo-German opposition to fighting the Nazis. In the post–World War II years, as the Soviets subverted Eastern Europe and the Cold War raged, Coughlin’s heir of sorts was Senator Joe McCarthy. Like La Follette, McCarthy, a senator from Wisconsin, was partially successful in defining anti-Communism as the emblem of Americanism.
What gave McCarthy and, before him, the ranters on the House Un-American Activities Committee their running room was the tardy response of the American government, including the fbi, to information about Soviet espionage that was first brought to light in 1939 by the former Communist Whittaker Chambers. But the Popular Front, which united liberals and Communists in a version of Americanism at home and a common crusade against fascism abroad, blinded many American leftists to the true nature of the Soviet regime. The great literary critic Lionel Trilling saw that, for many artists and intellectuals, Stalinism was seen as just an advanced form of liberalism, rather than as a threat to freedom. In the 1940s:
No Federal agency was immune to Soviet penetration. There were at least sixteen Soviet agents in the OSS, predecessor to the CIA, including Duncan Lee, chief counsel to General William Donovan. The Office of war Information, the Board of Economic Warfare, United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, War Production Board, War Department, Signal Corps, Censorship office, the Justice Department were all penetrated. In the State Department Alger Hiss was not the only Soviet spy. Larry Duggan, in charge of Latin American affairs, was an agent. Lauchlin Currie, one of six presidential assistants, provided information. The most highly placed spy was Harry Dexter White, the number two man [at] the Treasury Department and one of the architects of the post-war international financial order—he designed the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Bretton Woods agreement.
The Soviet penetration of American government was on the back burner while the ussr was America’s ally in the fight against Nazi Germany. But Soviet seizures of Eastern European governments—Poland in 1947, Czechoslovakia in 1948—began to reshape American assumptions. In 1949 the anti-Communist North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established, the Soviets—thanks to espionage—detonated their first atomic bomb, and the Communists won the Chinese civil war.
The ensuing trials, in which the disreputable, louche, unattractive Chambers testified against the well-connected, personable Hiss, polarized the country. To the anti-Communists, Hiss was a perfect example of the way liberalism, fellow-traveling, and active support of the ussr all bled into one another. To most liberals, by contrast, Hiss was the innocent victim of Chambers’s ideologically motivated denunciations.
Had the Hiss case been the end of the matter, the civil war on the left between anti-Stalinists and Stalin’s apologists might have produced a morally clarifying debate that pushed some liberals to come to grips with their own failings. But when Dean Acheson, who was a great anti-Communist Secretary of State, insisted that he would never turn his back on the Communist Alger Hiss, he opened the door to the demagogue Joe McCarthy.
Before McCarthy emerged on the scene in 1950 with his supposed list of spies—he had no new information—anti-Communism had been handled not only by Congressional yahoos on the House Un-American Activities Committee but also by anti-Stalinist and ex-Stalinist activists and intellectuals who had acquired knowledge of Communism in the course of close combat. But with McCarthy, a Republican senator from Wisconsin, a thug who liked to think of himself as the Rocky Marciano of politics, the yahoos and the pseudo-sophisticates came to the fore.
Our contemporary misunderstanding of both McCarthy and populism derives, in large measure, from a set of 1954 Columbia University seminar papers on the Wisconsin senator. Written in the waning years of McCarthy’s political influence, they introduced into American public life a grotesque but lasting misreading of both Nazism and the American middle class. The ideological misconceptions were put forth by a group of Marxist intellectuals who had migrated from Germany to the United States known as the Frankfurt School.
With McCarthy, the yahoos and the pseudo-sophisticates came to the fore.
The Frankfurt School, first established in 1923, was modeled on the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. In the United States, the most influential piece of writing from the Frankfurt School was the 1950 multi-volume account of the Authoritarian Personality. The pseudo-scientific study purported to depict the American middle class as a hotbed of pre-fascist inclinations. It was based largely on a 1936 tome by the most conceptually fecund of the Frankfurters, Erich Fromm. It was entitled Autorität und Familie. It claimed that the Nazis had arisen because of the authoritarian nature of the German middle-class family dominated by a patriarch:
The German middle class would appear to represent this syndrome of authority—in personality, in family, and in society—par excellence: in its strict familial set-up, with the dominant father and the submissive mother and children; in its attachment to the hierarchies of bureaucracy and military organization; finally, in its creation and acceptance of the authoritarian state in its purest form. And it was this group that was also responsible for the most murderous form of anti-Semitism ever known. Might it not therefore be possible that anti-Semitism was a direct expression of the authoritarian personality?
The conceptual heart of Autorität und Familie was drawn from Friedrich Engels’s 1884 tract, written in Marx’s spirit but after his death, entitled The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. Engels saw the bourgeois family as a bulwark of private property and capitalism that desperately needed to be displaced.
Max Horkheimer agreed with Engels. A central figure at the Institute, Horkheimer was welcomed to Columbia University after he fled Germany. In his 1939 essay “The Jews & Europe,” Horkheimer wrote, “those who do not wish to speak of capitalism should be silent about fascism.” In his 1941 book, Eclipse of Reason, Horkheimer, anxious to protect the tradition of German romanticism from criticism, argued that Germany had suffered from a surfeit of Enlightenment reason that in turn led to fascism:
If by enlightenment and intellectual progress we mean the freeing of man from superstitious belief in evil forces, in demons and fairies, in blind fate—in short, the emancipation from fear—then denunciation of what is currently called reason is the greatest service we can render.
It was an extraordinary argument by inversion. In fact Germany under Hitler had suffered from a gaping deficit of rationality. Like the Nazi apologist Martin Heidegger, the Frankfurt School saw mechanization and modernity as the great evils to be combated.
The widespread interest and influence of The Authoritarian Personality was part of a new development in American life. In the post-war years, for the first time so-called “social scientists,” some drawing on Freud, wielded influence. Books such as Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma on race, the Kinsey Reports on sexuality, and The Lonely Crowd, a 1950 sociological analysis by David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney on the sociology of America, made a major mark on how the newly emerged superpower thought about itself.
Though rent by ideological bias, empirical sleights of hand, and a political agenda—the melding of Marxism with a version of Freudian theories of personality development—the “study” evoked widespread interest in intellectual circles. Arbitrary and authoritarian patriarchal families were purported to produce volcanic anger towards parents. But rather than express that anger, the children were supposed to have transferred that hostility into an admiration for authoritarian political figures. In other words, that political and intellectual history of Nazism was replaced by a psychological deception. In the words of the book’s famously anti-empiricist author, Theodor Adorno:
It is a well-known hypothesis that susceptibility to fascism is most characteristically a middle-class phenomenon, that it is “in the culture” and, hence, that those who conform the most to this culture will be the most prejudiced.
“In a real sense,” Adorno wrote in 1935, referring to kids who had bullied him as a schoolboy, “I ought to be able to deduce fascism from the memories of my childhood. As a conqueror dispatches envoys to the remotest provinces, fascism had sent its advance guard there long before it marched in.” Horkheimer’s wife presciently observed of Adorno, “Teddie is the most monstrous narcissist to be found in either the Old World or the New.”
In 1955 the collected Columbia seminar papers appeared in a book The Radical Right edited by Daniel Bell. The most influential essays in the collection came from the historian Richard Hofstadter. For Hofstadter, populism itself was the great danger in American history, starting with the know-nothings and continuing all the way down to McCarthyism.
The seminar papers on McCarthy and McCarthyism, written by such distinguished figure as David Reisman, Talcott Parsons, Nathan Glazer, and Seymour Martin Lipset, had very little to say about the events of the Cold War that led Polish and Eastern European Catholics to bitterly denounce fdr’s Yalta agreements and Truman’s slow response to Soviet subversion. Instead, borrowing from the Frankfurt School, the essays made the problem of “status anxiety” central to McCarthyism. Lower-middle-class and middle-class America—it was argued with very little evidence but dollops of theory—was suffering from fears about its future.
Richard Hofstadter, sometimes known as “the second Mencken,” latched onto the concept of status anxiety as he tried to incorporate the Frankfurt school’s “social science” into history. In his contribution to The Radical Right, he borrowed the idea of “pseudo-conservatism” from The Authoritarian Personality. Hofstadter uses it to describe Constitutionalist and free-market critics of the New Deal as psychologically afflicted, ill-tempered, and unreasonable reactionary threats to the Republic. The pseudo-conservatives like McCarthy saw themselves as the victims of a conspiracy that wanted to manipulate them. Like the Nazis, their relationships supposedly involved “more or less complete domination or submission.” In that 1955 essay, Hofstadter, little concerned with the question of guilt or innocence, describes Alger Hiss as “the hostage the pseudo-conservatives hold from the New Deal Generation.” Better yet, “he is a heaven-sent gift. If he did not exist the pseudo-conservatives,” like Hiss’s adversary, the “shabby genteel” Whittaker Chambers, “would not have been able to invent him.”
Hofstadter returned time and again to his keystone subject, McCarthyism broadly understood. McCarthy was a Catholic with numerous Catholic supporters. But Hofstadter’s repeated insistence that America’s failing derived from its intense Protestant morality had little to say on the subject of Catholic support for McCarthy.
For Hofstadter, populism itself was the great danger in American history.
In 1963, Hofstadter published Anti-Intellectualism in America, a rambling extended essay which updated Mencken by tracing McCarthyism back to nineteenth-century Protestant eruptions of millennialism. The main enemies of the American mind, Hofstadter argues, have been the populist democracy, Evangelical Protestantism, and the business mentality, the same trio that was described by Mencken’s adepts as “Bryanism, Babbittry and the Bible Belt.” In 1950 Hofstadter insisted that “What was lacking in” Bryan’s late-ninteenth-century populism “was a sense of alienation.” Bryan was short on “the excitement of intellectual discovery that comes with . . . the revolt of the youth against paternal authority . . . of the artist against . . . the whole bourgeois community.”
Anti-intellectualism drove itself into a conceptual dead end that led Hofstadter to outdo his odd-ball accusations about Bryan’s lack of alienation. Hofstadter closed his “account” of anti-intellectualism by praising a twentieth-century Greenwich Village version of irrationalism. Norman Mailer’s celebrated 1957 essay about hipsterdom, “The White Negro,” Hofstadter tells us, was “a really solid kind of estrangement.” “Hip,” explains Mailer, “is the sophistication of the wise primitive in a giant jungle.” Mailer found something admirable in the audacity of two hoodlums who chose to beat in the brains of a shopkeeper. “Courage of a sort is necessary,” explains Mailer, “for one murders not only a weak fifty-year-old man but an institution as well . . . one violates private property. . . . The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown.” Of all this, Hofstadter concludes, “Certainly the earlier prophets of alienation never had this much imagination.”
Picking up on the nineteenth-century themes that supposedly led to McCarthy, Hofstadter applied them to Goldwater: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” Hofstadter wrote. “In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.”
It was in anticipation of Goldwater’s monumental defeat that he wrote the profoundly influential essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” It was published in Harper’s as America was preparing to go to the polls for the 1964 election. In 1965, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” and other essays were published as a book. The paperback edition featured a picture of Joe McCarthy wearing glasses filled by the stars and stripes of the American flag. The book has never been out of print since.
In “The Paranoid Style,” Hofstadter wrote that the right-wing Republican has “the sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic,” this “goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and moral indignation.” The right-wing Republican “feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from [him],” but he is “determined to try to repossess it.”
Hofstadter wheeled out all the standard Frankfurt School-derived apparatus such as the emphasis on “status loss” and “pseudo-conservatism,” but he also added what would become his signature trope—the concept of the “paranoid personality,” as Hofstadter borrowed it from the Frankfurt School. They had seen the “crank” and the paranoid as integral to the political right in both Europe and America. In the United States these were said to be frustrated rural Yankee-Protestant and paranoid people for whom ethnic prejudice was sometimes all-consuming. Teetering on the edge of mental illness, cranks were quick to see conspiracies that were out to get them.
After Hofstadter, the American right, notes The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger, “wasn’t just wrong on policy. Its people were psychologically dangerous and undeserving of holding authority for any public purpose. By this mental geography, the John Birch Society and the Tea Party are cut from the same backwoods cloth.”
In the 2010 Congressional elections the now defunct but then newly emergent and Constitutionally oriented Tea Party inflicted a heavy political blow on Barack Obama’s congressional supporters. Disoriented by the crushing defeat, liberals put the Paranoid Style on full inverted display after the attempted assassination of an Arizona Congresswoman. On January 8, 2010, twenty-three-year-old Jared Loughner opened fire on the Jewish moderate Congresswoman Gabby Giffords who was holding a meeting in a Safeway supermarket with her Tucson, Arizona constituents. He wounded her severely. He also wounded thirteen others while killing six.
Well before any evidence had been gathered, the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, George Packer of The New Yorker, E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post, and Jonathan Alter of Newsweek concluded, noted William Voegeli, that the carnage was a reflection of right-wing racial hostility to Barack Obama. Krugman asked in his opinion column: “Were you, at some level, expecting something like this atrocity to happen?” The “you” would be his audience, and the answer is “yes,” they thought that in these times “something like this” could happen in the United States. (In his 2007 book, The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman, like Hillary Clinton, insisted that “there is a vast right-wing conspiracy.”)
Primed, in the wake of the Giffords shooting, Krugman quickly evoked Hofstadter. Krugman noted of the right that “they obviously believe that their dishonesty serves a higher truth. . . . The question is, what is that higher truth?” In other words, as with The Radical Right’s essays on McCarthy, there was no need to take the arguments of “these people” seriously; what was important was exposing the psychological disabilities that produced their worldview in the first place.
It was in that half-baked tradition of Hofstadter and unmasking that Krugman and his ilk quickly decided that the assassin—clearly a right-winger as they saw it—had been driven to his dastardly and possibly anti-Semitic deed by the ranting of conservative talk radio. But, it soon became clear that Loughner—a conspiratorialist who had neither left- nor right-wing leanings—was not a listener of right-wing radio. Instead, he was quite literally schizophrenic, with a history of mental illness (and had gone off his medication). Needless to say, Krugman never apologized for his inanities.
The initial intimations of what became the Tea Party were first seen in the 2006 mid-term elections when Independents, former Perotistas, and fiscally conservative Republicans deserted the gop in droves. They did so again in 2008. These Tea Partiers avant la lettre were taking the revenge of the Rotarians. They were at the outset ordinary people strongly supportive of self-government and rightly appalled by a government class that had gone into business for itself.
When the initial bailouts and tarp (the Troubled Assets Relief Program) were proposed under President Bush and his Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, they aroused an angry response. When those same programs were dramatically expanded under President Obama and provided insurer aig and Goldman Sachs, who both played important roles in generating the financial crisis, a rich bounty at public expense, the nascent Tea Parties were presented with rich targets for their anger. Similarly, when the executives of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored corporations that backed mortgages and were key malefactors in the financial collapse, were similarly rewarded, the public’s ire was aroused.
The public looks to a revival of Constitutional restraints to protect themselves and America from a self-serving government and its “expert” flacks. Its ruling passion is a belief in the ability of the ordinary citizen to make decisions for himself or herself without the guidance or “help” of experts and professionals.
The public anger, noted William Voegeli writing in The Claremont Review of Books, was crystallized on the morning of February 19, 2009, by Rick Santelli, a correspondent for cnbc. Speaking from the trading floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, Santelli responded to a question from his studio anchors by denouncing a proposed $75 billion government program to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. As the traders around him began to look up from their computers to listen, then to applaud and cheer, Santelli turned to them and asked, “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage who has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” Getting more worked up, Santelli said, “We’re thinking about having a Chicago tea party in July. All of you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m going to start organizing it.”
The big battalions of American life were increasingly intertwined into a ruling oligarchy.
Santelli’s cnbc and YouTube viewers launched websites and Facebook pages within hours of the rant heard ’round the world. Within weeks, a new factor in American politics emerged, a “right-wing street-protest movement,” according to the liberal journalist Michael Tomasky, something unprecedented in modern American politics. Following Santelli’s famous outburst, the Tea Party movement “materialized . . . out of nowhere,” Tomasky reported forthrightly but regretfully, “with an intensity no one would have predicted.” What the Tea Partiers understood was the big battalions of American life—big government, big business, big labor, and preening professionals—were increasingly intertwined into a ruling oligarchy.
The Tea Party activists wanted to restore America’s founding principles. They insisted on a respect for the Constitutional limits on federal power. But they were met with contempt and incredulity. When she was Speaker of the House in 2009 and the Democrats controlled all the elected branches of government, Nancy Pelosi backed the illegitimate parliamentary procedure—the use of a reconciliation bill designed narrowly for fiscal matters—which allowed Obama to ram the Orwellian-named Affordable Care Act through Congress. When Pelosi was asked by a reporter, “Where specifically does the Constitution grant Congress the authority to enact an individual health insurance mandate?” the Speaker responded: “Are you serious?” The “Are you serious” response was repeated in many town halls across the country in 2010, where members of Congress were stunned by the peaceful but ferocious hostility that met what was presented as health care legislation but which was actually primarily a political matter redistributing income from the middle class to the non-white poor. The upshot, reported an astounded Tomasky, was that, during and after the town-hall session wherein members of Congress were grilled, “the self-identified independent voters flipped on health care . . . from support to opposition.”
The Tea Party, notes Henninger, itself got help from history—the arrival of a clarifying event, the sovereign debt crisis of 2010. “Simultaneously in the capitals of Europe, California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and elsewhere it was revealed that fiscal commitments made across decades, often for liberally inspired social goals, had put all these states into a condition of effective bankruptcy.”
The Tea Party made major contributions to the striking gop victories in the 2010 and 2014 off-year elections. Barack Obama delivered the worst mid-term performances of any two-term president since Harry Truman in 1946 and 1950. He led 60 senators and 256 members of Congress into the 2010 election, he leaves 2014 with 45 senators and 192 members of Congress. Democrats were already stunned and dismayed by the 2014 outcomes which left the gop in control of thirty-two of the fifty statehouses, including in deep-blue Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts, and sixty-nine of the country’s ninety-nine state legislative houses.
But between November 2014 and the January 2016 Iowa caucuses, the Tea Party was essentially ended by enemies without and scoundrels within. An overwhelming peaceful movement on behalf of limited government, the Tea Party incited invective and outright fabrication from the Democratic Party and its adjuncts in the media. The Tea Party’s “ruling passion,” noted the law professor Glenn Reynolds, was “a belief in the ability of the ordinary citizen to make decisions for himself or herself without the guidance or ‘help’ of experts and professionals.” Yet in the style of Frankfurt School/Hofstadter reasoning, the Tea Party was malevolently accused of racism and fascism. Rather than being a grassroots movement, the Tea Partiers were said to be merely an extension of moneyed Republicans. Unlike the charges of racism and fascism, this charge had a modicum of truth. Most of the assaults on the movement were fabrications of panicked liberals who along with moderate business Republicans saw the Tea Party as a threat to their vested interests
The Tea Party’s Constitutionalism was dealt a severe blow by the curiously concocted June 2012 ruling by Chief Justice John Roberts allowing for the legality of Obamacare. Obama had repeatedly and vigorously insisted that the fees imposed by Obamacare were not a tax. But in his ruling in which he joined the court’s liberals, Roberts, seemingly intimidated by the threats of a liberal backlash if Obamacare was struck down, despite the straightforward language of the legislation, effectively rewrote it to define it as a tax and therefore legal. The language of the Constitution, it turned out, could be explicitly corrupted on behalf of political ends. The Roberts ruling was a severe blow to the Constitutionalist reform movement. It was compounded by the clearly illegal efforts of Obama’s irs to deny Tea Party groups their rightful status as nonprofits.
But for all the external blows, it was the damages done within the gop/conservative coalition that were the most harmful. Hucksters used the decentralized nature of the Tea Parties, which were organized not nationally but in localities, to siphon money by supposed schemes to aid the effort. At the same time, despite additional Tea Party/gop victories in the 2014 elections, the gop leaders in the House, John Boehner, and in the Senate, Mitch McConnnell, seemed incapable of rising to the challenge of Obama’s seizure of illegitimate authority as in his repeated rewritings of the Affordable Care Act and his attempt to impose immigration legislation—clearly a province of Congress—by executive order. Boehner and McConnell, both tied to the moneyed interest that too often drives politics, never effectively challenged Obama’s incompetence and mendacity.
The German victory is moving us towards a soft civil war.
The winners in Obama’s America, where the stock market has doubled even as wages have stagnated, have been the big guys—big business, big labor, big government—in short the people populists despise. Unelected bureaucrats have never had it so good. The Affordable Care Act, for instance, created 159 new boards, commissions, or programs. Elected officials more and more resemble job-for-life bureaucrats, likelier to die in office than to be fired (or voted out) for cause. Washington, D.C., recently passed Silicon Valley as the richest region in the United States. The federal government’s reach has become so vast that it suffocates informed debate and political accountability. No one in the Obama administration has been held accountable—as Richard Nixon’s operatives were—for using the irs as a mechanism to punish dissenters.
The void left by the Hofstadterian destruction of the Tea Parties produced the mendacities of Donald Trump, who had no trouble mocking Obama. The President represents the debacles at home and abroad that have left trust in our “leaders” at an all-time low. The many failures of Obama’s post-Constitutional presidency have produced Trump’s post-Constitutional populism with its calls for a great, forceful leader to set things right. Trump’s patchwork populism builds on something new under the sun: it melds Trump’s anti-elitism with the showman’s monied connections in New York. In the presidential election, Trump matched up against Hillary Clinton, whose honesty was continuously in question, as she campaigned for a third Obama term.
The Germans have won: Mencken and the Frankfurt School each in their own way have displaced civic egalitarianism. Their disdain has become commonplace among upper-middle- class liberals. This might not have produced the current nausea if the pretensions of our professionals were matched by their managerial competence. It isn’t, and the German victory is moving us towards a soft civil war.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 4, on page 4
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com