Magical Thinking and the Paranoid Style

Guest Post by Mark Jamison, a retired Postmaster in North Carolina.

The Rightwing echo chamber has gone nuts at the comments of Jonathon Gruber, comments that were, at the least insensitive and more than a little cynical. Gruber’s assertions that the American public was not very bright and had to be tricked into accepting Obamacare were not very respectful but they did and do reflect what many elites think of the general public.

On the Left we wonder “What’s the matter with Kansas?” and bemoan the fact that so many folks seem to vote against their own economic interests, if they even bother to vote. The Right however has no greater respect for the intellect of the American public. On the contrary, the Right with its highly tuned sensitivity towards the prevailing American religion of MarketThink, sees the ignorance of the populace as a business opportunity; as H.L. Mencken observed, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

My inbox was recently graced with an e-mail that informed that a number of recent lotto winners were terrified, “because they’re starting to draw a lot of unwanted attention from state lotto office.” The e-mail went on to tell me of a surefire system that “guaranteed” winning lottery numbers. Yikes!

Glen Beck is first and foremost a shill who uses overheated rhetoric and fear mongering to send his audience to gold dealers and get rich quick investment schemes. Now he is using his “brand” to sell expensive hipster clothing.

Several months ago, I subscribed to several right wing news sites like Newsmax, Daily Caller, and Red State while doing some research on conservative ideas and memes. The sites are filled with the expected paranoid stories of dastardly Liberal deeds, religious fundamentalism, and the conservative economic and political memes making an intelligent or cogent discussion about policy almost impossible to have. The sponsored content at these sites solicited donations for various political causes, mostly characterized as essential for stopping Liberals from destroying civilization as we know it.

Many of the sites sponsor “polls” with questions like “Do you agree with Obama’s plan to confiscate guns?” Clicking through a poll gets you subscribed to an e-mail list; the great goal of the Conservative movement from time immemorial seems to have been to acquire as many names as possible for direct mail and now e-mail lists. The e-mails are relentless, they come in droves, all with a predictable format; they offer me a vision of something to be very frightened of and then they try to sell me something through a version of hucksterism that is quintessentially American, dating back to carnival barkers and snake-oil salesmen.

The conservative movement is built on two interlocking premises, Americans can be made to fear almost anything and that fear can be used to sell most anything; paranoia and magical thinking combined for profit and political power. Rick Perlstein wrote a piece for Baffler a few years ago,“The Long Con: Mail Order Conservatism” that captures the con-artist element perfectly while Richard Hofstadter’s classic, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” captures our long historical dalliance with crazy.

Over the years, the Right in the United States has been comprised of a sort of mainstream Babbitt Republicanism which, with the 1971 Powell Memo coalesced into a celebration of Friedmanism, a sort of religious celebration of self-interest that dovetails nicely with elements of conservative huckster-paranoia. The result is a Republican Party that cannot really control the forces it has manipulated to gain and retain power. In the end though the Republican Party is a fusion of high-toned grifters selling bad economics designed to further the interests of the military/financial/corporatist industrial complex and small time con artists who use direct mail and now the internet to fan the flames of fear, resentment, and division, primarily as a selling strategy.

The non-ethic of magical thinking and paranoia even seems to have tainted what stands for intellectualism on the Right. Whether it is Charles Murray engaging in crimes of bad social science to further racist memes, or Stephen Moore of Heritage writing WaPo op-eds that idolize Reagan while butchering facts, or John Cochran tendentiously ignoring or recasting evidence to sell a brand of economics that is baldly partisan to the Right; the message loses any real commitment to a common civic vision or ideal. Simply put it is all about the money and unfortunately a large percentage of Americans are buying the miracle cures.

The philosopher John Gray argues that the human species does not so much make progress as spin in cycles or follow swings of the pendulum; human nature prevents us from developing a progressive ethic. In some ways, I hope he is not right but then the idea that the pendulum will swing back, especially after the last election is at least something to which to cling. It would not speak much though for the future if the only way to contest the Right’s strategies of big lies, magical thinking, and incitement through fear is by fighting fire with more of the same.