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October 1, 2012 / Sandy Asher


Ebook jacket art for AMERICA – THE OWNER’S MANUAL

Please note:  “Playing with Fire:  Paranoid Politics American Style” is the final post in the America – The Owner’s Manual series.  A collection of the posts (minus the August election prediction, “It’s Not Just the Economy, Stupid,” but plus additional sources and resources for each essay) is now available as an ebook for only 99c:

For Kindle —

For all other readers, libraries, any computer, to give as a gift, and more — .

Barnes and Noble will soon have a direct link, as well, for Nook readers.

If you’ve enjoyed these posts, I would very much appreciate your “like,” “share,” and/or review of the book on your blog, Facebook, and/or the above sites.

Many thanks to all of my followers, here in America and abroad.  You’ve made this a gratifying and enjoyable experience.  My goal was to get all the essays written and posted before the election on November 6.  Please share them with the voters in your life, and please GET THEE TO A VOTING BOOTH! 

But first, “Playing with Fire” . . .

Recently AmericanDoctors4Truth ran an ad showing an actor playing President Obama pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair off a cliff.

An Agenda Project ad showed another woman suffering the same fate, only this time the heartless shove was delivered by an actor playing the part of vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan.

There is nothing subtle here about the objective of these ads: to heighten and exploit for electoral advantage the concerns elderly voters have about the future of Medicare and Medicaid. This kind of shameful and calculated behavior – portraying an opponent as the Devil Incarnate — has been going on forever in American politics.  The consequences are divisive, destructive, and dangerous.

Throughout history, players of this nefarious game have concocted sinister conspiracies whereby they charge machinery has been set in motion, often secretly, to undermine our religious freedom, our democratic government, and/or — most difficult to pin down — our American way of life.  These demonizers operate from a stance of righteousness and indignation, declaring with certitude that time is running out for them to put our country back on course. They portray the enemy as ruthless and offer an honorable, no-holds-barred fight to the finish against those who would destroy America.

In 1965, Richard Hofstadter looked closely at those fear mongers in his brilliant essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”  Most who indulge the paranoid style, he tells us, are not paranoid in the clinical sense. Outside of the hunt for the devil’s disciples, they can be kind and helpful neighbors, committed spouses and parents, and loving grandparents. They come from both the left and right of the political spectrum.

While their writings and rhetoric may contain defensible assumptions and facts, they push for unrealistic goals bereft of sensible judgment.  If, for example, they name government programs as problematic, the solution is not to improve the programs, but to weaken, undermine, or destroy “big government” itself.  When pressed by evidence and experience at odds with their assumptions – anti-government business leaders begging the federal government to help, for instance, in times when the economy tanked (in the late nineteenth century, and the Great Depression, and the 2008 housing crash) – these crusaders keep up their selective paranoia for their own political reasons.

What makes these techniques palatable to the American electorate?  We can’t say for certain what triggers receptivity to the paranoid style.  There is, however, a human propensity toward orienting our lives locally that leads us to be suspicious of anyone seen as an outsider.  There is a corresponding propensity among Alpha politicos to exploit that instinctive wariness.  Nothing unites a group faster than fear of a common enemy.

Does the politics of fear work?  Sometimes, it does.  But not always. 

It did not work in the elections of 1800, 1824, and 1828, when Federalist and National Republican opponents claimed victories by Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson would open the floodgates to mob rule and violence.  Jefferson and Jackson won their races.

Fear tactics gave the Know-Nothing Party more than fifteen minutes of fame, but not by much.  Founded in 1854, the party played on anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant fears to capture control, a year later, of many New England legislatures and become the dominant opposition party to Democrats in more than a few states.  It even ran a candidate for president in 1856, former President Millard Fillmore, who received 20% of the popular vote.  Know-Nothing politicians accused the Catholic Church of plotting to overthrow the government of the United States and to replace it with papal despotism. They worked to bar (immigrant Irish) Catholics from holding public office and to increase the residency time for becoming an American citizen from one to twenty years.  The failed presidential run proved to be the party’s swan song.

Southern politicians fought Republican Reconstruction policies by playing the race card to intensify white fears of free blacks posing a serious threat to the Southern social order.  Successful fear-monger Ben Tillman, multi-term governor and senator from South Carolina proclaimed he “. . . would willingly lead a mob in lynching a Negro who had committed an assault against a white woman.”

The Ku Klux Klan, a paramilitary white supremacist organization founded in the late 1860s that terrorized blacks eventually added immigrants, Jews, and Catholics to its list of undesirables. By the 1920s, it had over a million members (a conservative estimate). Five U.S. senators and four state governors were Klansmen.  Mayors from Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and San Francisco received KKK endorsements and that approval helped cement their elections.   Score 12 for the fear-mongerers.       

The politics of paranoia appeared in the hysterical atmosphere whipped up by Attorney General Mitchell Palmer in the aftermath of WWI to advance his presidential ambitions by showing his toughness.  However, when his prediction of a violent attempt by “socialists and communists” to overthrow the government on May 1, 1920, did not materialize, his political career vanished, as did the phantom enemy he pursued.  His defeat did not, however, undo the damage wreaked on thousands of falsely accused “revolutionaries.”

In many ways, Palmer’s siege mentality only took to the next level attitudes encouraged by the Woodrow Wilson administration after the US entered WWI. To rally citizens around the flag, the Committee on Public Information, following Wilson’s lead, stressed the danger posed by German-American traitors in our midst and warned the public to be vigilant in reporting suspicious activities by the enemy within. The Wilson-sponsored Espionage and Sedition Acts led to the incarceration of many war dissenters, including national labor leader Eugene Debs.  In this case, fear fueled by portrayals of “the Huns” as an inhumane and merciless common enemy united the country in its war fervor while depriving citizens of their basic civil liberties.

At the end of January, 1941, a government report prepared by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts alleged without a shred of evidence that Hawaii-based Japanese-American spies had abetted the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor. Other unsubstantiated reports of Japanese-American agents on the West Coast communicating with the enemy on both sea and land soon followed.  Public fear swelled along with a clamoring for draconian measures.  On February 19th, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the containment of all who posed a danger to the national security.  As a result, more than 100,000 innocent Japanese-Americans living in the continental United States were evicted from their homes and placed in relocation camps.  Once again, a president and his military advisors used the politics of fear to bolster a war effort.  Ironically, this was the president who told us, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” 

Hoftstadter’s essay focused on Cold War paranoia, and how it ate away at old American virtues like fairness and freedom of expression.  The Cold War saw Harry Truman join the Republican chorus to “scare the hell” out of the American people.  He created Loyalty Review Boards to ferret out possible communist operatives inside the government.  With Republicans charging that he was soft on communism, a show of strength became essential for his run at the presidency in 1948. 

On the way to his 1946 election to the House of Representatives, Richard Nixon painted California Congressman Jerry Voorhris “Red.” Four year later, in his campaign for the Senate seat from California, Nixon tarred Democratic candidate Helen Gahagan Douglas with allusions to her Red sympathies and associations with communist fellow travelers. “Tricky Dick,” as she dubbed him, won the contest.  None of the accusations stuck, but the nickname did.

Hence when Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy was looking for an issue to enhance his reelection prospects he was aware that Red-baiting worked. He settled on fueling suspicions about an omnipresent conspiracy by “communists” working in the state department whom he accused of serving the world policy of the Kremlin and delivering China to the Russians. When opponents demanded McCarthy show proof, he refused to release any incriminating documents on the grounds they were secret.

The fact is McCarthy never identified a single subversive. His widely scattered accusations led to the dismissals or resignations of scores of talented and loyal Foreign Service employees. His downfall came in 1954, when he went after the army for promoting a dentist who as a youth flirted with leftist groups.  After army lawyer Joseph Welch confronted McCarthy with the words, “Have you no decency?” – during nationally televised hearings — McCarthy’s stock plummeted.  Only after untold damage was done was he censored by his Senate colleagues “for conduct unbecoming to a United States Senator.”

Believing that more arms were better, Senator John F. Kennedy and his supporters in the 1960 election trumped up public fears by claiming the existence of a dangerous “missile gap” favoring the Soviet Union. The opposite was true.  Knowing full well they were behind the United States and fearing the gap would now increase, the Soviets reacted by installing missiles in Cuba.  Both sides acting out of fear brought about the most serious threat since the end of WWII – the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, whereby the USA and the USSR went to the brink of nuclear war.     

Bent on ending the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime, President George W. Bush asserted dubious “weapons of mass destruction” to gain public support for the invasion of Iraq.

More recently, we have “birthers” tapping anti-Muslim and xenophobic passions on the rise since 9/11 to raise doubts about the loyalty and patriotism of Barack Obama and his legitimacy as president.   Other fear-mongerers bent on denying Obama another four years in office accuse him of being a radical or socialist.

The politics of paranoia advances causes, fills campaign chests, and ignites the passions of a candidate’s supporters.  Wild accusations reap the bonus of larger press coverage.  Later retractions, when forthcoming, get buried in the back pages. 

The paranoid style in American politics has stopped short of the extremes elsewhere – Nazi Germany, the Balkans, and Rwanda, for instance — because our long democratic traditions as expressed in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights remain a constant counterweight. It’s hard to muster support for killing fellow Americans in the name of political disagreement.  Quotas, blacklists, suspension of civil liberties, and false imprisonment eventually come up against our image of America as the land of the free.            

Sometimes the fear factor is so blatant, hardly anyone falls for it – i.e., the wheelchair examples (one would hope).  Sometimes it’s cleverly couched in democratic or legal language, making it difficult to detect: stricter voter registration laws meant to limit turnout of certain groups are disguised as a guard against (non-existing) election fraud.     

History suggests that when politicians who know better fail to resist gutter politics, it continues to fester. When President Eisenhower refused to confront McCarthy’s demagoguery, not wanting to stoop to his level and give him even more publicity, the situation went from bad to worse.  Eventually, no one was safe from McCarthy’s scrutiny:  teachers, librarians, postmen, the butcher, the baker – anyone rumored to be a security risk.

Contrast that with Senator John McCain’s behavior when a supporter at a town hall meeting said she didn’t like Obama because he was an Arab, therefore aligned with terrorists.  McCain forcefully replied: “No, he is a decent person and you do not have to be scared of him as president of the U.S.A.”  

To combat paranoid politics, individuals must speak up and newspapers and other media must stop presenting both sides of a story in the name of balance when one of them is demonstrably wacky. The value of the Fourth Estate would be markedly enhanced if it focused more on ferreting out the truth than on giving equal time to all points of view. It does that to some extent in lengthy, award-winning exposes. What we are talking about here, however, is on-the-spot, short and swift rebuttal.

Most of us lack the time, money, knowledge, and know-how to confront irrational fears promulgated by authority figures, and we may run risk of physical harm, economic retaliation, or psychological retribution. But we are not powerless. When politicians issue extreme and dire warnings, we can take the time to ask, “What’s in this for you?”  We have shining examples of individuals, grass roots groups, and national organizations protesting against the purveyors of fear.  And we have the one weapon that most strikes fear – realistic fear — into the hearts of all who would lead us astray for their own advantage:  the ballot box. 


Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays (1965)

David Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (1999)

Lawrence Davidson, “Islamophobia as a Form of Paranoid Politics,” Logos, vol. 10, issue 1 (2011)

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion  (2011)

Daniell Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

Steve Hutt, “Fear Pols, Don’t Let Them Scare You,”



Leave a Comment
  1. Moses Goldberg / Oct 1 2012 6:26 pm

    Thanks for this series. It is sometimes convenient to forget that History can give us essential information when it comes to interpreting the present. Your well written and well constructed reminders are timely and much appreciated.

    • Harvey Asher / Oct 3 2012 12:27 am

      That was my objective in writing the essays, Moses. I appreciate your kind words.

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