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Paranoid style is in again Add to ...

Think back a year, and it seemed no one had a way with words like Barack Obama. He could fill a stadium - and did, at the 2008 Democratic national convention - with prose that blew through your doublespeak detectors as you surrendered to its splendour.

It went downhill from Inauguration Day. As they settled into the West Wing, Mr. Obama's vaunted speechwriters somehow lost their touch and their boss lost his. The U.S. President now often seems as stiff as the teleprompter on which he has developed such an acute dependence.

No, Americans looking for evocative language from their public figures in 2009 had to turn to the anti-Obamas. It wasn't hard to find them - they have dominated the national soapbox since mid-year, outdoing each other in their preposterousness.

Picking the choicest quotes of 2009 is, hence, not quite the uplifting affair it might have been in 2008, when Mr. Obama was still compelling and Republicans still aspired to more than the political equivalent of demolition derby. The past 12 months have served up more sinister stuff.

Take Glenn Beck, the Fox News host who emerged last year as the U.S. right's conspiracy-theorist-in-chief. Government ownership of General Motors, he warned, enables the Obama administration to spy on Americans by way of the OnStar GPS devices installed in GM products: "I just don't believe in giving that kind of technology to this government."

Sarah Palin launched her crusade against Obamacare with this: "The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's death panel so his bureaucrats can decide … whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil."

And Michele Bachmann, another syntactically challenged Republican politician on the rise, greeted a Dec. 15 rally against the Democrats' proposed health-care reform by crying: "That is our wish for fellow citizens here in the United States - for freedom, not for government enslavement."

It would be easy to dismiss this trio as harmless hewers of ill-considered hyperbole, were it not for their supporting roles in the most pervasive and potentially consequential phenomenon to emerge in U.S. politics in 2009. Paranoia, it seems, has become the U.S. right's stock in trade. It is not the first time this has happened, of course. Conspiracy theories have been such a recurring theme in U.S. political discourse that there is something almost archetypal about it. Yet there is also something just a little more unsettling about it all, this time around.

In a seminal essay published 45 years ago, Richard Hofstadter chronicled the long history of the "paranoid style" in U.S. politics. It is typically, though not exclusively, the preserve of the right. It stretches from early Americans' obsession with rooting out Freemasons (is it any wonder Dan Brown's books are so popular?) to the Ku Klux Klan's hatred of Catholics. It ranges from Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt against Communists in the 1950s to Barry Goldwater's improbable 1964 presidential bid to "stop a government establishment that is preparing to nationalize our society."

American politics, Mr. Hofstadter observed, has long been "an arena for uncommonly angry minds" in which substantial leverage "can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority." Mr. Hofstadter was a historian, not a psychiatrist. He was not diagnosing Mr. McCarthy or Mr. Goldwater when he labelled them as purveyors of the "paranoid style." Rather, he explained, he used the term as an art historian "might speak of baroque."


Mr. Goldwater, of course, was a spectacular flame-out, a conservative Cassandra whose claim that "the moral fibre of the American people is beset by rot and decay" must have seemed laughable to young Americans liberated at last by the pill. Yet Mr. Goldwater begat Ronald Reagan, "who would bring to pseudo-conservatism the warmth and optimism it had lacked," noted Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University political historian, in the foreword to a 2008 re-edition of Mr. Hofstadter's essays.

Mr. Hofstadter called Mr. Goldwater a pseudo-conservative because he thought his ideas were actually quite radical. That same radicalism is at the core of the politics practised by the current crop of paranoid stylists. They too call themselves conservatives. But unlike Messrs. Goldwater and Reagan, Mr. Beck, Ms. Palin and Ms. Bachmann actually seem to believe their own paranoid rhetoric.

"Goldwater, not unlike Reagan, was a regular politician … They would exploit the paranoid style," Prof. Wilentz explained in an interview. "Now we're down to the real thing."

In other words, for Ms. Palin et al., it's not an act.

The paranoid spokesman's "sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic," Mr. Hofstadter wrote, "goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and moral indignation." When Ms. Bachmann accuses Mr. Obama of holding "anti-American views," or when Ms. Palin decries "the agenda-driven policies being pursued in Copenhagen," they feed into the same anger that drives thousands of Americans to show up for "tea parties," where they give voice to many who feel dispossessed. "They refuse to listen" is the slogan of the Tea Party Patriots. It expresses the frustration of those who feel their country and their government have been usurped by Mr. Obama and his "socialist" cohorts.

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