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The Paranoid Rightwing

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For all the hoo-rah generated by the back-bencher Joe Wilson of South Kallikacky this past week one might think that there is a vast movement afoot, some kind of new (old) politics spreading around among Americans, unsuspecting and otherwise. In the aftermath of Wilson's "You lie (, ... boy)!" outburst during the speech of President Obama to a Joint Session of Congress on Health Care Reform, you will have read how utterly wrong about his facts was Rep. Wilson, or, if you were reading closely, you might have read comments on pundits who said that overriding public health concerns will dictate that federal funds will be spent on illegal aliens, if they are posing a health risk to the rest of us, particularly in the food processing industry and in public schools. The real issue about Wilson was the inappropriate anger and consternation that overcame him, although a cursory review of his past suggests that Wilson's best mental efforts were never much to crow about. Wilson does represent a strain of American thinking that is highly concentrated in his home locale and gives rise to authentically bad behaviors from time to time.

But, the movement afoot is nowhere near a mass movement and it is not a new form of politics. It is a retread version of an old politics as journalist Max Blumenthal in his new book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party points out in a quotation from Eric Hoffer's The True Believer ...
"A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises," he wrote, "but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence." The true believer was at his core an ineffectual man with no capacity for self-fulfillment. Only the drama provided by a mass movement gave him purpose. "Faith in a holy cause," Hoffer wrote, "is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves."
The weakness of the human spirit portrayed by Hoffer was the engine used for the rise of the Brown Shirt Nazis in Germany.

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Blumenthal goes on to describe this weakness and willingness to trade the anxieties of freedom for something else less demanding. He quotes Eric Fromm
Ten years before Hoffer published his book, a social psychologist and psychoanalyst named Erich Fromm identified and analyzed the character structure of people "eager to surrender their freedom," who sought personal transcendence through authoritarian causes and figureheads.
In fact people whose routine lives are overturned by their own inattention to the progress of change, who wake up one day and find that a person of mixed black and white blood has become President of the United States and that cotton is no longer king, that "separate facilities insure inequality," and that their own current financial situation is iffy at best, like
"... millions of ordinary Germans "instead of wanting freedom . . . sought for ways of escape from it."


The question arises in the current situation about multiple causes of anxiety and, I believe, any cure for the situation must address the Brown Shirts on multiple fronts. Racism and economic instability count high on the list of issues, but beneath virtually all of the causes there is a fundamental problem with external authority, in most cases (I would be willing to bet), resulting from primordial, that is, "childhood", abuse and unsuccessful attempts to declare and achieve personal freedom from an abusive parent or other adult. Students of the "rape complex" of the American South understand how insidious and pervasive that horror was for the white population that "lost everything" in the Civil War. Nothing could have done more damage than the self-righteous reconstruction imposed on that wasted land, but having said that, the ground was fertile with the guilt of pervasive human slavery, a congenital deformity of the body politic which leaves us with a movement centered on the very region where human values were sold down the river and native Americans forced down a trail of tears that will not dry.

Rep. Wilson is heir to all of this. He may think himself a 21st century politician, but like all people who hold tight to a familiar grief and trauma, he is most clearly a 19th century person, trapped in his paranoia about progress, fundamentally a hollow tree, understanding that the winds of change will soon enough knock it down. But Wilson is different from Jindal in Lousiana, whose tradition is a more cynical use and abuse of the proto-Brown Shirts of the region and elsewhere. Sarah Palin, like Jindal, believes half the stuff she says, and is willing to exaggerate for effect. People like Beck and Limbaugh, on the other hand, are mayflies feasting on a riot of money that comes from the most cynical folk of them all, the wealthy corporatists (yes, Fascists) whose interest in American democracy is to keep it at bay, consuming its own, freeing them up to insulate themselves as completely as possible from the vagaries of normal economic life.

The modern American Brown Shirts are a rabble, in other words, a mixed bag of people with a common belief that history does not favor them, that natural law is writ by tooth and claw, that people who participate in the building of a newer, better future are damned fools. Beck is a Brown Shirt, who will be a Black Shirt in the new order he envisions. Limbaugh already has his Black Shirt and has passed from merely feeding from the situation to an arrogance of pretense. He imagines his role to be righteous now, misunderstanding the hesitancy of the real politicians to disturb his audience of paranoid, mentally crippled, traumatized, and hopeless.

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The point of Blumenthal's "Gomorrah" is that the rise of the Brown Shirts is partly the result of a failure on the part of liberal Republicans to deal with their fringe and partly that, now it is a part of the Republican Culture, its virulence could shatter the Party once and for all.

Then there are people like you and me and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC who are uncomfortable with the idea of there being no "loyal opposition." We hope (sort of) that the Republican Party will not be let by its saner members to crumble of its own internal rot. But, like every other person who faces an unknown, we (and millions like us) will choose that familiar "Republican" label for genuine conservatism together with the horrors of the inheritance from the current Party, rather than trusting someone from the real conservative middle to start again. If there is a reason to resurrect real conservatism with appropriate controls over its root metaphor--FEAR--then it will happen, spontaneously and not without trauma, like any birth (or rebirth).

JB
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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)
 

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