In 1964, historian Richard Hofstadter described "the paranoid style" as a periodic recurrence in American national life, characterized by "the use of paranoid modes of expressions by more or less normal people . . . heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy."
Teagate, the overhyped, underattended events of last week, closely tracks this taxonomy.
What were the protests supposedly about? Taxes and government spending. But in fact, the president's economic program has already cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans—and state and local tax increases would be far steeper without the protestors' other target, the Obama stimulus package, which provides recession-fighting funds to state and local governments.
Incoherent as a program, Teagate was relatively insubstantial as a protest. The usual suspects—from Fox News to Karl Rove—dutifully, at times desperately, hyped it as an outpouring of public dissatisfaction. A writer for the right-wing Manhattan Institute managed to see "the tidal wave of the future" in the tea leaves. But truth confounds belief. Nate Silver, the master of political statistics who predicted the 2008 election results almost precisely, compiled a crowd count from "reasonably nonpartisan and credible sources." He calculated a total of just over 300,000 protestors at hundreds of sites.
This isn't de minimis, but it's no tidal wave. It was hardly even national. As Silver noted, turnout was "much larger in the South than in other regions." In most major cities, around 2,000 people showed up—a turnout that would get an advance man for a major candidate fired. Even in Atlanta, where the rally featured an all-star right-wing line-up of Sean Hannity, Mike Huckabee, and Dick Armey, the 15,000 who came to hear and jeer were a pale shadow of the massive demonstrations of earlier eras—and fewer than showed up for the Atlanta Braves game the same night.
With the paranoid style, the more things change, the more they look the same. Once, in the face of the first waves of Irish Catholic immigration, it was "the pope of Rome" who was "plotting America's destruction." In the fevered minds of the rabid Right, the New Deal aimed "to pave the way for socialism or communism." Other examples can be drawn from every period of stress and change in our national experience. Sen. Joseph McCarthy deserves his own chapter—from his absurd charge early in the Cold War that Democrats were guilty of "20 years of treason" to his later assaults on Dwight Eisenhower and the State Department. But McCarthy had not only followers but heirs. Leaflets distributed in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, indicted John Kennedy for giving "support and encouragement to the Communist-inspired racial riots."
The tea-gaters' often hate-filled excoriation of President Obama announced the latest manifestation of the paranoid style. Just look at the signs they proudly waved. It was paranoia on parade:
"If I Wanted to Be a Commie, I'd Stay in China."
"Obamunism" (with Obama pictured as Che Guevera)
"Mr. Obama Where's Your Birth Certificate?"
"Wake up America Your Muslim President Bowed to His Muslim King"
This last one was repeated, shorn of its overt religious bigotry, by Newt Gingrich, who never misses an opportunity to stoke paranoid politics. But he's not the only one. Across the terrain of Teagate, we witnessed the pathetic spectacle of Republican politicians grasping for political leverage. Tennessee Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn spoke at a Nashville tea gaggle where a sign equated Obama and his campaign logo with Hitler and the swastika. To paraphrase a reproof from a previous manifestation of the paranoid style, have Republicans "no sense of decency?" Or for that matter no common sense—as illustrated by Texas Gov. Rick Perry's wacky acquiescence to the fanciful notion that Texas can secede from the Union?
Teagate is not the only sign of paranoid reaction. Gun sales have reached record levels, fueled by the improbability that the president is plotting new gun-control laws. Republican Sen. Jim DeMint arraigns Obama as "the world's best salesman of socialism." The comically malaprop Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has proclaimed her fears about Obama's creating "re-education camps for young people" through the new National Service Bill named for Edward Kennedy, which is scheduled to be signed into law at a White House ceremony Tuesday. (You can bet she won't be there.)
This is a time of great change and, for many Americans, Obama is "the other"—the first African-American president. It's no accident that in all the images of Teagate, it was hard to find minority faces. But there is a real and diverse majority of Americans that seems increasingly confident as Barack Obama nears the end of his first 100 days. From economic policy to health care, from the G-20 Summit to the Summit of the Americas, he offers hope for a transformative national renewal. Most Americans aren't drinking the right-wing tea. It's just a shame that instead of seeking common ground or offering genuine alternatives, the GOP is pandering to the paranoid style in American politics.