The Messianic Style in American Politics

In 1964, prominent historian Richard Hofstedter published, in Harper’s magazine, an essay with the title, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” There he described a deep seated impulse among a cohort of political actors in the United States who lived in constant terror of some malevolent force that threatened the continued existence of the Republic. His description proved regrettably prophetic. At the time he published, he could point to the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, who in some ways deplored the paranoiacs, but who in the long run encouraged and abetted them more than he apparently realized.

No one could have known in 1964 that a whole new technology, the world wide web, would make it very easy for the paranoiacs to publicize their wacky ideas to the point that they would have an impact on the new President of the United States. But here we are, 53 years later, with a man who puts his paranoid forebears to shame, having gained national fame with a web site that pushes theories for which the term, “paranoid,” looks laughably tepid, Alex Jones, having the ear of the so called President, Donald Trump. Unlike 1964, in 2016, the paranoid style won the election.

With all due respect to Professor Hofstadter, the intervening years have revealed the need for an important emendation of his famous claim. We can now see that the distinctive pathology of American politics is not merely paranoia, but messianic fervor. It was perhaps less obvious when Hofstadter wrote because the messianic character of the paranoia still faded into the background of what was then yet an even more overwhelmingly Christian culture than ours now is. In the interim, the messianic rump has grown far more distinct from the larger culture, even as it clings to disproportionate influence through cultural habit and bull headedness.

On the one hand, as many polls have shown repeatedly, Americans are becoming less religious. In 2016, the book that had all of the pundits in a tizzy was The End of White Christian America, which accumulated the data showing a demographic transformation that scholars had been predicting for decades, as the percentage of the population that is both white and Christian has been declining steadily at least, amusingly, since 1965, when the Immigration Act eliminated the explicitly racist national origins quota system from U.S. immigration law and allowed a growing influx of Asian immigrants even as the long standing African American and Hispanic minorities continued to have higher fertility rates than white, native born Americans.

On the other hand, as the result of distinct political events, but also as the demographic changes become more obvious, the paranoid rump among the now minority of white Christians has become notably more active and more vicious. It is not too much an exaggeration to say that the American empire, as it dies, is just the last gasp of the impulse that drove the crusades of the medieval period, which in broadest terms, seems to have been to spread Christianity the world over, by force as necessary. Among the events that signaled the shift from the medieval to the early modern period was the beginning of European exploration of the rest of the world. It is not obvious why Europeans would be the regional population who would circumnavigate the globe, exporting their culture everywhere. China and India both had more ancient civilizations and the technology. The same may be true of Africa, for all we know despite the success of European Christians at destroying most of the indigenous cultures of Africa, much to the detriment of Africans.

But European Christians were nowhere as successful at taking over new territory wholesale, and entirely eradicating the existing population, as in the Americas, to a significant degree because the geographical isolation of the Americas from the Eurasian land mass caused the people in the Americas to lack immunity to diseases that were common in Europe. When the Puritans showed up in what is now Massachusetts, the indigenous population had already suffered decimation by diseases coming from the south, where European explorers had invaded, leaving the land looking vacant. The Puritans, with the overweening sense of self righteousness that prompted them to leave England to begin with, soon began to inflict their culture and religion on the adjacent populations who survived.

The culture of the United States still has striking components of Puritanism lurking within it. Having completely subjugated the Native population of the Americas — or almost completely — the lingering Puritans of the United States turned their attention back to the original Christian target, the Muslim population of the middle east. President George W. Bush referred to obscure biblical prophecy in trying to persuade French President Jacques Chirac to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Christian conservatives in the United States strongly support Israel because they tend to believe in a biblical prophecy according to which Jews must live there before armageddon occurs. Insofar as such persons exercise influence on U.S. policy greater than their numbers warrant, they push foreign policy, anyway, in a literally messianic direction.

One of many problems with Christian belief is that it too often inspires a sort of exceptionally obtuse self righteousness that leads believers to ignore all reason and evidence in favor of what they think their religion requires them to believe. We can call this the Galileo rule, or creationist theme park rule. Christian belief is a common reason why Republicans refuse to believe that human activity causes climate change.

Perhaps this is an indication of the sincerity of their belief. If you really believe your omnipotent daddy god is going to come back and wreak havoc on people whom you perceive to be “enemies,” it makes sense not to worry about making the earth uninhabitable because you can tell yourself god’s favor is more important than clean air or water for human survival. You can completely ignore the well being of Muslims in the Middle East because you can tell yourself that your daddy god is going to kill them all when he comes back anyway. You can ignore the profoundly, glaringly immoral behavior of your champion du jour.

Even as he described what he saw as a real historical phenomenon and did so with the gravitas that befits a serious scholar, still Professor Hofstadter described the paranoiacs in the United States in a slightly bemused tone. No one can predict the future, as historians well know, so he had no way of knowing that the losing paranoiacs of 1964 would become the victorious, and incredibly dangerous, messianics of 2016.

The Republic has survived worse, but the messianic style in American politics looks distressingly threatening from the inside. We can only hope that this is truly the death throes of Christian dominance in U.S. politics.

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *