Most Americans have by now forgotten, somewhat gratefully, the ghoulish inaugural address delivered by our last president, in which he spoke of “the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives,” and “the rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones” that he labeled “American carnage.”
George W. Bush, another Republican who assumed the presidency after losing the popular vote, offered this candid assessment: “That was some weird s***.”
In fact, Trump was doing little more than channeling the fear-mongering narrative that has become the animating force of the Republican Party.
For decades, the loudest voices on the right have been honing what the historian Richard Hofstadter termed — back in 1964 — “the paranoid style in American politics."
“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 explained. “The idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”
At this point, the Republican Party’s national policy goals ... have given way to a kind of primal clamor in which the only real goal is to convince voters that they are under siege.
This paranoid style has, in fact, become the driving force behind the vast right-wing media complex, one that makes millions by stoking imaginary fears that prevent us from dealing with the real crises we face as a democracy.
The most heinous example, at the moment, are the demagogues exhorting folks to fear the vaccine (and reject masks) when they should be scared of the delta variant that is now threatening to reignite the pandemic.
But other examples of this toxic dichotomy abound.
Americans should be scared of the climate crisis that is sparking unprecedented wildfires and massive floods. Right-wing demagogues spout nonsense stories about how the Green New Deal will outlaw hamburgers.
The list goes on and on.
Rather than worrying about its constituents dying, or going bankrupt because they didn’t have health insurance, right-wingers chose to tall tales about death panels.
At this point, the Republican Party’s national policy goals — deregulation and tax cuts for its corporate donors, basically — have given way to a kind of primal clamor in which the only real goal is to convince voters that they are under siege.
The natural outgrowth of such ideation, as Hofstadter warned us more than 50 years ago, is militancy. Social conflict is no longer “mediated and compromised.” Instead, the paranoid exhorts his followers to “fight things out to the finish … The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms. He is always manning the barricades of civilization.”
This should help explain why the former president responded to his election loss by fomenting a coup, and why so many of his supporters were eager to storm the United States Capitol on January 6. It should also explain why Republican members of Congress — many of whom were directly threatened by the mob, which left four people dead and hundreds injured — are now refusing to hold the insurrectionists accountable, and instead seeking to cast blame on those who were terrorized by the violence.
In a fundamental sense, we’ve reached the logical endpoint of this fear-mongering industry. For years, the most prominent voices on the right told their audiences to fear the government. They are now telling their audiences to fear — and attack — democracy itself.