Fear Factor

The Internet is littered with images such as this portraying President Obama as everything from a communist and fascist dictator to radical Islamic fundamentalist and peacenik.

The Internet is littered with images such as this portraying President Obama as everything from a communist and fascist dictator to radical Islamic fundamentalist and peacenik.

By Tom Robotham


A lot of people today are concerned with rising sea levels—as well they should be. But there is another rising tide that poses an even greater threat to our collective wellbeing: a tide of political hatred.

Fear and loathing in the political arena is nothing new, of course. The great historian Richard Hofstadter wrote about it in Harper’s Magazine back in 1964, in an article called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” (He later published a book by that title.)

“American politics,” he observed, “has often been an arena for angry minds. 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. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

Hofstadter cited Joseph McCarthy as a prime example of this mentality. But he put the phenomenon in a much broader context, noting periodic upswells of hatred directed at countless other groups. Indeed, anyone with even a cursory knowledge of American history knows that over the last two centuries, paranoia and its associated rhetoric have been directed at African-Americans, Jews, Asians, the Irish, Roman Catholics of whatever ethnicity, Muslims, Hispanics, homosexuals and, of course, anyone suspected of being a communist. In many cases, these groups have not only been targeted for hatred but blamed for all of our nation’s ills.

This tide of paranoia-based hatred has ebbed and flowed. Certainly there have been periods when the level of vitriol between Republicans and Democrats in Congress was not as high as it is now. But it has never gone away entirely, and one could make the case that the tide—like our sea levels—is higher than it’s ever been.

Before I go further I should note that I agree with Hofstadter on another point: This has not been a characteristic of the radical right exclusively. In the 1960s, for example, there were radical leftists bent on violence in the name of their cause. But I think it’s clear that today “the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” as Hofstadter put it, comes overwhelmingly from radical right-wingers.

Just last week, for example, Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama declared that the Democratic Party has launched a “war on whites.” It’s hard to think of a better example of conspiratorial fantasy.

This sort of comment is also ironic, given that radical right-wingers are incessantly accusing the left of promoting a “victim mentality.” Nevertheless, it’s widespread. A week before Brooks made his comment, I got another taste of this brand of bitterness during a “debate” on Facebook with a right-winger who routinely posts comments calling President Obama a “communist,” and left-wingers, “morons,” “idiots,” “cowards,” or worse.

I put “debate” in quotation marks because it’s ultimately impossible to have a real discussion with certain people. A case in point: When my Facebook friend patronizingly suggested that I read the Constitution and argued that he was just exercising his “First Amendment rights,” I pointed out a contradiction: Not a minute earlier, he’d commented that “the left needs to shut the hell up.” Apparently, I noted, he believes the First Amendment only applies to people with whom he agrees.

But there was a bigger flaw in his argument—namely, his simplistic lumping together of “leftists.” One thing that becomes clear in any study of American political history is that various factions of “the left” have always been fiercely at odds with each other. In the 1960s, for example, the more extreme leftists hated “liberals” as much as or more than conservatives did. Needless to say, there was also profound animosity between some black leaders of the Civil Rights movement. During earlier periods, moreover, Communists fought bitterly with socialists (see the movie Reds for a good illustration of this). Indeed, this, arguably, is why a real progressive movement has never taken hold in the United States: the “left” has always been far too fragmented.

But these days, the various commentaries I read and hear from the radical right utterly ignore this fact, often implying—and sometimes asserting flat-out—that there is no difference between “communists, socialists, liberals, Obama-supporters and jihadists,” as one Facebook meme put it recently.

The casual hurling about of the word “communist” may be the most bizarre facet of this trend. While the Red Scare was way overblown during the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘50s and ‘60s, it was at least understandable, given the rise of the Soviet Union. Today I hear the word bandied about almost as often as it was during the McCarthy era, in spite of the fact that the international political landscape has changed dramatically. But threats from abroad aside, it is ludicrous beyond measure to call President Obama a “communist.” He’s not even very liberal by historical standards. Compared with FDR, for example, Obama is middle of the road on social policy. Hell, one could argue that he’s not even as progressive as Richard Nixon was on some issues. It was Nixon, after all, who established the Environmental Protection Agency, a favorite target of today’s radical right.

Most Democrats in Congress are middle of the road as well, compared with earlier periods in our history. And across the land, true communists make up a tiny fraction of left-wing activists. The careless use of political labels today suggests that we need to do a better job of teaching political philosophy so that people grow up understanding the distinct differences between communism, fascism, socialism, and liberalism.

Simplistic thinking and careless rhetoric, in short are two problems with today’s noisy commentary. But it is the intensity of the hatred behind the rhetoric that stands out the most in my mind. Rush Limbaugh—hero of the radical right—routinely uses the word “feminazi” to describe anyone who believes women have yet to achieve equality. And he never utters the word “environmentalist” without affixing the suffix “whacko” to it. Not long ago, I even heard him assert that “liberals hate children.”

People like my Facebook friend drink up this rhetoric the way kids used to drink Kool-Aid on a hot summer day. Thus, according to them, we have vast hosts of new boogey men: illegal immigrants, advocates for even the most modest gun regulations, environmentalists, secularists, advocates for health-care reform, homosexuals, and many other groups.

What makes this so sad is that any attempt to discuss individual viewpoints on specific issues is often subverted. I would classify myself, for example, as an Obama supporter with serious reservations. Some of those reservations are tied to his disturbing track record on civil liberties, which is arguably no better than Bush’s. Obama has also disappointed me because he’s not been liberal enough on issues like socialized medicine. But in many of my attempts to engage radical right-wingers in discussion, I find myself consistently stonewalled. If I utter one word of support for Obama—or god forbid criticize Ronald Reagan’s legacy (in certain right-wing circles that’s second only to blasphemy against the Almighty himself)—I’m labeled a “no-good, American-hating communist like everyone else on the left.”

The thing is, I’ve noticed that many of the people with whom I try to converse have certain views that one does not typically associate with the political right. My aforementioned Facebook friend, for example, is a vegan—and when he’s not ranting about Obama’s “communist conspiracy,” he’s using social media to promote the cause of animal rights. We can certainly agree on that. But I’ve found that if I challenge him on any issue, he invariably falls back on wild generalizations. Over the years, I’ve encountered this mentality in conversation with countless other people on the political right. But I always go into the conversation hoping that it will be different. Alas, as I’ve said, the problem seems to be growing.

In fairness, I should point out that I hear reckless generalizations from some of my left-wing friends as well. Some are incapable of even having friendships with conservatives, never mind radical right-wingers. It always saddens me, moreover, when I hear people denigrate Christianity, as if all Christians are Bible-thumping, gun-toting homophobes.

That said, I stand firm in my belief that the rising tide of political hatred and social paranoia today has been generated by and large by the radical-right, led by national commentators like Rush Limbaugh and the various right-wing propagandists at Fox “News.”

So what’s the answer? Simple: Liberalism. I’m not talking about liberalism in the careless way in which it is used today; I’m talking about one of its actual dictionary definitions—“broad-minded”—which to my mind is what it means at its core.

To that I would add the word “civil.” I have as one of my role models in that regard not some lefty but Charlton Heston. This may come as a surprise, since he was widely caricatured in old age as a result of his association with the National Rifle Association. But in the mid-1990s, I worked with him on a book and got to know him personally.  “I don’t like ad hominem attacks,” he told me over dinner one night. Yes, he’d grown deeply conservative in the ‘80s. (Reagan was a close friend.) But in conversation he was always gentle and stuck to the issue at hand. He also remarked to me one time that he’d had a great friendship with Gregory Peck. “’Course Greg was a liberal,” he added with a chuckle, “but I forgave him for that.”

I still meet conservatives like that: Men and women who are capable of discussing political and social issues without flying off the handle and sending the conversation into the gutter, where insults flow like sewage.

I meet them in person, that is. And therein, I think, lies the problem: our increasing isolation from one another. Sitting alone in our cars, listening to talk radio, or at home, channel surfing or scrolling through Facebook feeds, it’s easy to fall into the trap of simplistic labeling of “the other” with a heavy dose of vitriol.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been guilty of that myself at times, when emotion has taken over. But I try very hard to avoid it and stick to the issue. What I’ve noticed, alas, is that a lot of people don’t even try—on the contrary, they cling evermore tightly to their neat and simple notions that Obama is as dangerous as Stalin and that Obama supporters either hate America or are too stupid to understand the truth. In this way they are a lot like religious fundamentalists in their discomfort with complexities and contradictions.

A lot of my left-wing friends, as I’ve noted, are tempted to fight fire with fire—to resort, in other words, to the same kinds of insults and exaggerations.  The resulting roar of the flames tends to drown out people who want to lay out reasonable arguments on the issue of healthcare, or global warming, gay rights or gun control, and talk across party and philosophical lines.

We could all work harder, in short, to stick to the high road. If we fail to do so, whatever semblance of democracy we have left will continue to decay—and whatever social fabric that remains will be left in tatters.




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