In November 1964, the historian Richard Hofstadter published, in Harper’s magazine, what would become a famous essay on some disturbing tendencies in American political life. "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" traced the history of what Hofstadter described as "the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy" that, at different points in America’s past, has characterized panics over the Illuminati, Masons, Jesuits, Catholic immigrants, and communist subversives.
In that same month, an Arizona senator’s run for president ended in one of the most lopsided defeats any major party presidential candidate has ever suffered. Barry Goldwater’s campaign, Hofstadter noted, illustrated "how much political leverage can be gotten out of the animosities and passions of a small minority."
The animosities and passions that animated Goldwater’s unexpected victory in the race for the GOP presidential nomination were mainly two: fears of communist subversion, and of racial integration (Goldwater had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and his only electoral votes, other than from his home state, came from five southern states that hadn’t voted for a Republican since Reconstruction).
Goldwater had made his political name by being a staunch supporter of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s campaign to rid American institutions of communists. McCarthy was a lunatic, or a charlatan, or both, who among other things claimed that George C. Marshall, General of the Army during World War II, author of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense, was either a communist agent, or a helpless dupe of "a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man."
The modern American conservative movement rose from the ashes of Goldwater’s defeat, and reached its climax with the election of Ronald Reagan sixteen years later. Next month it seems likely that John McCain, who took over Goldwater’s Senate seat in 1986, will captain that movement to a defeat whose proportions may resemble those it suffered in November 1964.
It’s considered impolite to dwell on the fact, but much of the conservative movement’s energy has always come from the same paranoid fears that played such a large role in the sudden rise of Barry Goldwater to national political prominence: the fear of foreign subversion, and of black people.
It was thus perhaps inevitable that McCain’s run against Barack Obama would degenerate into a cynical attempt to take advantage of widespread paranoia regarding Obama’s supposedly secret identity. According to this theory, a man who appears to be a moderate Democrat with mild reformist tendencies is actually a radical Muslim terrorist in disguise.
Signs of this appeared months ago, when a Fox News anchor speculated that Obama and his wife might be engaging in a "terrorist fist-bump" (and if you believe something like that appears on Fox News by accident, I have some unsecured Collateralized Debt Obligations for sale).
This past week McCain-Palin campaign rallies have featured shouts of "terrorist!" and "kill him!" and a microphone-wielding supporter pointed out to McCain that Obama is an Arab, and therefore can’t be trusted (he isn’t – his father was from Kenya and his mother was from Kansas).
Even the supposedly high-toned intellectual precincts of the National Review have featured bizarre fantasies that Obama is a "radical . . . more Maoist than Stalinist," who is dedicated to "infiltrating (and training others to infiltrate) bourgeois institutions in order to change them from within."
The author of these insights, Andrew McCarthy, brushes aside objections that there’s no actual evidence for any of his claims by pointing out that hiding all the evidence is exactly what you would expect a truly clever radical subversive to do.
Every mass political movement has its lunatic fringe. In the case of contemporary conservatism, that fringe is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from the center.
(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)