A luta continua, paranoid style: The US far right’s war with the 1960s/1860s is never-ending

A luta continua, paranoid style: The US far right’s war with the 1960s/1860s is never-ending
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In 1964, a master historian Richard Hofstadter clinically diagnosed the passions of the ‘paranoid style’ of the US far right in ways that remain strikingly relevant today. It is appropriate that these insights were dissected in the 1960s, for that is one of the key decades that the US far right is in an endless war against. Another is the 1860s.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

In 1964, Harper’s Magazine published an essay by Richard Hofstadter entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”. Hofstadter’s essay — originally delivered as a lecture at Oxford the previous year — appeared against the backdrop of Barry Goldwater’s failed bid to win the US presidency as the Republican Party candidate. Hofstadter wrote that the Goldwater movement, which included the extreme-right John Birch Society, demonstrated “…how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority”. 

Hofstadter is regarded by many as the most influential American historian of his day, and this essay shows why. Written more than a half-century ago, its insights are as penetrating today as they were then. “I call it the paranoid style,” he wrote, “… simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind”. Those words could have been penned now to describe the far-right cult following of former president Donald Trump. Think, for example, of QAnon, or the baseless notion that the 2020 election was stolen. 

Or take Hofstadter’s piercing breakdown of the anatomy of this political phenomenon:

“Let us now abstract the basic elements of the paranoid style. The central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life… The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point: it is now or never in organizing resistance to the conspiracy. Time is forever running out.” 

This will strike a familiar chord with anyone who has followed the rantings of the likes of talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who is constantly warning that the radical left wants to destroy America as it was founded. In this worldview, America was founded righteously as a Christian (read Protestant) nation. Slavery and genocide against Amerindians, to take but two examples, are often dispatched down the memory hole in this rendering. It is a refrain taken up by various Fox News hosts and other right-wing outlets. It is a movement that led to the sacking of the US Capitol by nutjobs waving Confederate flags. 

It is appropriate that its discontents were so clinically diagnosed by a master historian in the 1960s, for that is one of two key decades that the torchbearers of the paranoid style, pitchforks in hand, have declared war on. To borrow a phrase from the British Marxist historian EJ Hobsbawm, who spoke of the “long nineteenth century” — beginning with the age of revolution in the late 18th century and ending with World War 1 — we can perhaps speak of the “long 1960s”. The politics of backlash was present before then against the “New Deal” and initiatives like that, but the long decade of the 1960s was the far-right movement’s ultimate nightmare.

One way to view the long 1960s is through the lens of what the hard right has come to call “judicial activism” on social and cultural issues. Seen this way, its beginning — or at least the backlash to it — began with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, a landmark 1954 Supreme Court case which ruled as unconstitutional the racial segregation of public schools. For a South African, let’s call it educational apartheid, or a variant on “Bantu education”. Its bookend would be the court’s 1973 decision that ruled as unconstitutional unduly restrictive state regulation of abortion. In between, there was the Supreme Court’s 1962 ruling that school-sponsored prayer in public schools violated the First Amendment. 

This trifecta of decisions pushed the hot buttons — racial segregation and supremacy, America’s (alleged) Christian identity, and The Handmaid’s Tale-style role of women in it — of the “paranoid right”. When this correspondent covered the US Religious Right for Reuters from Dallas from 2006 to 2011, nominating conservative justices to the Supreme Court was one of the movement’s key driving forces. The goal of overturning Roe vs Wade in particular united socially conservative Catholics and evangelicals, a common cause that papered over past conflicts. That is one of the reasons so many fell under the trance of Trump, who delivered three conservative justices, giving the nine-seat court a clear tilt to the right. 

“I think we got the social and moral issues on the front burner. But while we have made progress… we have not won any of the battles yet. It is a long road back. We are at least one US Supreme Court Justice short of a socially conservative court,” Jerry Falwell, one of the movement’s leading crusaders, told me in an interview for Reuters in 2007 shortly before he died. 

“My goal is to do my little part to preserve America for our children and grandchildren, the kind of America that I grew up in,” he said. 

Falwell was 73 at the time, and so he was referring to a mystical golden era before the 1960s. The America he grew up in — specifically, Virginia — was racially segregated, school prayer was the norm, and the stereotypical (white) suburban mother was the housewife so fondly evoked by Trump. Falwell admitted to being a segregationist, but said he was long past that. That may have been true, but many of his ilk were not, as their support for Trump has shown. 

It is also worth noting that Falwell, an evangelical preacher who founded a massive church and Christian-focused university in Lynchburg — seriously — Virginia, as well as the arch-conservative political movement known as the “Moral Majority”, once said that gays, lesbians and abortionists were partly to blame for the hijacked plane attacks in September 2001. Far-right US conservatives were saying far out things long before Trump exploded on the scene. Falwell’s son Jerry Jr was a staunch Trump supporter, but fell into disgrace over a bizarre sexual triangle involving his wife and a pool guy. Like so much from the Trump era, it is hard to make this stuff up.

The baby boomers generally enjoyed far higher standards of living than their parents. For many in the generations that followed, their parents had the enviable lifestyle. The low-paid greeters you see in any US Walmart today may well have previously had a decent factory job, or one of their parents did.

There were far more than judicial decisions to stoke the American right’s ire during the long decade that was the 1960s. The civil rights movement, the rise of the New Left, feminism, the anti-Vietnam War movement, not to mention sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. The modern battle for gay rights also had roots in the era, though as a movement it really blossomed in the aftermath, provoking and hardening the right-wing backlash. Temples of (often patriarchal) authority everywhere were crumbling as the baby boomers, who flooded the universities in record numbers, questioned and rebelled against the conventional wisdom of their elders. It is no coincidence that universities and the “elites” they breed remain a target of right-wing rage.

It is perhaps hard for subsequent generations to grasp the sheer scale of these cultural shifts. The American parents of the baby boomers had suffered the hardships of the Depression and then the sacrifice demanded by World War 2. In its wake came a period of prosperity that saw a dramatic rise in the living standards of working-class households, who could now afford amenities that were beyond their parents’ wildest dreams of avarice. (Similar trends unfolded in Canada — this correspondent’s father was a World War 2 veteran and both parents grew up in rural Nova Scotia in homes that lacked electricity and running water. Coming to the city in the 1960s was a massive step up the social ladder).

A generation that had grown up without such things could now afford a house in the suburbs and a big Ford, as well as household gadgets with a paid vacation thrown in — often thanks to a unionised job in a factory. One of the ironies of this rising tide of affluence was that it provided the baby boomers with opportunities to question their own privileges, and leisure time coupled with disposable income to buy rock ’n’ roll records and indulge in drugs. The dye was cast and the “culture wars” were on.

For proponents of the America that Falwell grew up in, there was at least still the promise of a decent standard of living and relatively comfortable retirement, even as the cultural tide flowed against their cherished notions. But even that began to unravel in the 1970s with the oil crisis, which heralded decades of stagnating working and lower-middle-class wages, widening the gap between those with a university education and those without.

The baby boomers generally enjoyed far higher standards of living than their parents. For many in the generations that followed, their parents had the enviable lifestyle. The low-paid greeters you see in any US Walmart today may well have previously had a decent factory job, or one of their parents did.

Many of them are white, many are male, and the vast majority lack the higher educational qualifications required to climb out of the rut. Throw in the dislocation of the Great Recession, add a two-term black president on top of a long history of entrenched racism, spice it all up with the perceived condensation of the “liberal elite” (it must be said that even progressives and liberals sometimes find wokeness goes too far sometimes), and then magnify that anger on social media and Fox News. Mix in the passions of conservative evangelicals and their belief that they are defending “Judeo-Christian civilisation”, or that End Times are looming. And presto, you have the paranoid style’s deranged and dangerous 21st-century variant — Donald Trump and his WWE-like cult.

Many of the roots of such discontent go much deeper into American history, which brings us to the other “long decade” that many of today’s paranoid stylers are at war with — the 1860s.

That is why Confederate flags and monuments have become such culture war flashpoints. The Civil War of 1861 to 1865 would herald the end of slavery in the US South and the promise of a better life for freed blacks in its aftermath, a period in US history known as Reconstruction — what Hofstadter’s former student Eric Foner, one of the leading historians of his generation, would call “America’s Unfinished Revolution.”

That promise would be dashed and was effectively gutted by 1877, the victim of wretched political compromise and rampant white terrorism. Segregation and white supremacy would rule in the South for almost a century afterwards, but would begin to crumble during the long decade of the 1960s. 

This war is never ending. A luta continua, paranoid style, with Trump — now thankfully out of office — its current standard bearer. The Biden-Harris administration, seen as illegitimate by many, will add new fuel to this fire. As South Africans are well aware, with this nation’s past and present, old conflicts with racial overtones can get very nasty, to use a favoured phrase of Trump’s. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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