There Will Be Paranoia

As long as there are dispossessed white people, there will be conspiracies.

Steve Weinberg March 10, 2012

Our illegitimate, socialist and Kenyan-born commander-in-chief. (Tomasz Kobosz)

Lengthy screeds fea­tur­ing the dan­gers and hypocrisy of the New Right are com­mon fare in pro­gres­sive pub­li­ca­tions. Although I tend to agree with the screeds, I find them tire­some and some­times coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. By bestow­ing so much atten­tion on the haters who have formed the 

Goldwag's central, and disturbing, insight is that what stands out most prominently about contemporary paranoids and conspiracists is, ironically, their lack of newness.

Tea Par­ty move­ment and large­ly co-opt­ed the Repub­li­can Par­ty, the authors of the screeds flat­ter those who would oppress the afflict­ed rather than help the afflict­ed help themselves. 

But Arthur Goldwag’s The New Hate: A His­to­ry of Fear and Loathing on the Pop­ulist Right (Pan­theon) is a wel­come relief. Yes, Gold­wag is wor­ried about the men and women who con­sti­tute what he calls the Pop­ulist Right. But instead of mount­ing anoth­er frontal attack, Gold­wag offers sober his­tor­i­cal con­text. Noth­ing neu­tral­izes bul­lies like deri­sion ground­ed in research, and Gold­wag offers enough mate­r­i­al to yield a life­time of snick­er­ing, if not out­right laugh­ter. He col­lect­ed some of that mate­r­i­al in his pre­vi­ous books: Cults, Con­spir­a­cies, and Secret Soci­eties: The Straight Scoop on Freema­sons, The Illu­mi­nati, Skull and Bones, Black Heli­copters, The New World Order, and many, many more; and Isms and Olo­gies: All the Move­ments, Ide­olo­gies and Doc­trines That Have Shaped Our World.

Gold­wag wants to under­stand the ori­gins of the hos­til­i­ty in his new book. Here is per­haps his best expla­na­tion: The New Hate is at once the expres­sion of a quixot­ic desire to turn back the clock to a myth­i­cal gold­en age when women and minori­ties and gays and for­eign­ers were less trou­ble­some than they are today; when the gov­ern­ment only gave and nev­er took; and a cyn­i­cal ploy to up the turnout of Repub­li­can vot­ers. Most of the time it’s reflex­ive and vin­dic­tive to its core.”

Gold­wag under­scores how the past serves as pro­logue. Again and again in The New Hate, he demon­strates how the the­o­ries, and the rhetoric spread­ing those the­o­ries, were devised decades and some­times cen­turies ear­li­er by pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of con­spir­a­cy-mind­ed, his­to­ry-twist­ing, racist, misog­y­nis­tic, homo­pho­bic evan­gel­i­cals. Since the inter­net spawned author­i­ta­tive-sound­ing blogs and social media, the haters appear to have become bet­ter at reach­ing beyond the lunatic fringe. For exam­ple, right after Barack Obama’s elec­tion, Gold­wag noticed the con­tro­ver­sy over Obama’s birth cer­tifi­cate con­tin­ued unabat­ed. He won­dered whether to add a para­graph about Birthers to a new edi­tion of one of his pre­vi­ous books, but decid­ed that ref­er­ences to such a tran­si­to­ry polit­i­cal derange­ment might just as eas­i­ly date” the book as update it. No one will remem­ber the Birthers six months hence, he cal­cu­lat­ed – mistakenly.

The equiv­a­lent of the Birther move­ment has exist­ed in pre­vi­ous cen­turies and inspired books by clear­head­ed authors. As Gold­wag notes, the canon­i­cal works of schol­ar­ship” pre­ced­ing his include The Para­noid Style in Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics by Richard Hof­s­tadter; Right-Wing Pop­ulism in Amer­i­ca: Too Close for Com­fort by Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons; and The Pol­i­tics of Unrea­son: Right-Wing Extrem­ism in Amer­i­ca, 1790 – 1967 by Sey­mour Mar­tin Lipset and Earl Raab. Goldwag’s tome is the most up-to-date, nat­u­ral­ly, but it is also the best writ­ten and the least para­noid about para­noid haters.

Because Goldwag’s book is so impres­sive­ly ground­ed in his­tor­i­cal research about the Pop­ulist Right, it does not come across sole­ly as a polemic based on pas­sion and selec­tive use of evi­dence. Still, because of the tar­gets’ sleazi­ness and stu­pid­i­ty, in some of the case stud­ies Gold­wag pro­vides he can­not help edi­to­ri­al­iz­ing. In a pas­sage about Birtherism, Gold­wag notes the alleged con­spir­a­cy would have required either super­nat­ur­al fore­thought or time trav­el, as not only is a birth cer­tifi­cate with a raised seal and sig­na­ture on file in Hawaii’s office of vital records but con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous announce­ments of Obama’s birth were pub­lished in two Hon­olu­lu newspapers.” 

When Gold­wag launched a blog a few years ago, he received lots of cor­re­spon­dence from indi­vid­u­als who prob­a­bly nev­er would have read his books, but found him online. What struck me, over and over again, was how old most of their caus­es turned out to be. Amer­i­cans have been demo­niz­ing blacks, non-Protes­tant Chris­tians, free­thinkers, Asians and Jews since colo­nial times.” 

One of Goldwag’s rev­e­la­tions while research­ing past cen­turies is how a pen­chant for con­spir­a­to­r­i­al think­ing leads to demo­niz­ing por­tions of the pop­u­la­tion who become the oth­er.” As he explains, con­spir­acists are, by def­i­n­i­tion, seek­ing scape­goats to blame for what­ev­er seems wrong in soci­ety. Those scape­goats do not always have dark skin, and do not always pro­fess objec­tion­able reli­gious faiths or athe­ism. As Gold­wag real­ized, Income lev­els and years of school­ing, sex­u­al pref­er­ence, gen­der, and polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tion have all suf­ficed at one time or anoth­er to mark a per­son as belong­ing to a group that is dan­ger­ous­ly oth­er.’ “

There is still a lot to fig­ure out about orga­nized haters, even for ded­i­cat­ed schol­ars such as Gold­wag. He con­cedes being caught unpre­pared five years ago, after pub­li­ca­tion of Isms and Olo­gies. Radio talk show host Tavis Smi­ley asked Gold­wag why the book’s index failed to list the term racism.” Impro­vis­ing a reply, Gold­wag said, That’s because I con­fined myself to spe­cif­ic sys­tems of thought. I wrote about racist philoso­phies, but racism in gen­er­al sig­nals the absence of thought.” Gold­wag could tell Smi­ley found that answer weak, as did Gold­wag. As a result, he con­ceived The New Hate as a book about the role of orga­nized hatreds in the his­tor­i­cal arc of Amer­i­can politics.” 

Orga­niz­ing his book to demon­strate that sear­ing, depress­ing insight proved to be a chal­lenge. After an intro­duc­tion worth the price of admis­sion, Gold­wag devotes two chap­ters to lots of def­i­n­i­tion, first The Para­noid Style of Hatred” fol­lowed by What Is Con­spir­a­cy The­o­ry?” Then he moves to lump togeth­er move­ments by gen­er­a­tion, touch­ing on every­thing from The Pro­to­cols of the Elders of Zion to white suprema­cists.

Gold­wag comes to real­ize that what stands out most about con­tem­po­rary para­noids and con­spir­acists is, iron­i­cal­ly, their lack of new­ness: The most depress­ing thing about the dem­a­gogues who tire­less­ly exploit it – in pam­phlets and books and par­ti­san news­pa­pers two cen­turies ago; on web­sites, elec­tron­ic social net­works, and 24-hour cable news today – is how much alike they all turn out to be.” They can­not, will not, look inside them­selves for the source of their per­ceived or real suf­fer­ing. Find­ing con­spir­a­cies to blame is their default position.

Per­haps at least some of the haters are some­what self-aware. As Gold­wag con­cludes, Though mil­lions of Amer­i­cans claim to believe that Oba­ma is a Mus­lim and a for­eign­er, and some of them hate him because of the col­or of his skin, most of them know that the real issue isn’t what Oba­ma is, but what they increas­ing­ly fear they’re not.” What they are not is part of the rul­ing class, despite the priv­i­lege they believe being born a white Amer­i­can should bestow.

Steve Wein­berg is an inves­tiga­tive reporter in Colum­bia, Mo. His lat­est book is Tak­ing on the Trust: The Epic Bat­tle of Ida Tar­bell and John D. Rock­e­feller.
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