The BBC Magazine on paranoiac fantasies: “Trump promises to make America Great Again - as if the US somehow was no longer the most powerful country in the world”
The title of this post is taken from a BBC magazine web article which can be read here. The article is of great interest to VNP because it adds further weight to the VNP theme which links fundamentalism, collective paranoia and right wing politics into an integrated socio-psychological complex. Although I’m not talking here about clinical paranoia, the term is singularly appropriate in this context because there is a close social analogy to clinical paranoia – in particular, the way the fearful imagination invents baroque conspiratorial narratives about malign wills working behind the scenes to persecute, corrupt, subvert and control.
Below is a quote from the article:
The phrase "paranoid style in American politics" was coined by the late historian Richard Hofstadter. He defined the Paranoid Style, "an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent."
In a country that at its best radiates an infectious optimism, it is interesting how often fear has stalked the American landscape.
Richard Parker, who lectures on religion in the early days of America at Harvard's John F Kennedy School of Government, traces paranoia in American public life back to the Salem Witch Trials in the late 17th Century and even before that, to the religious politics of the Mother Country.
It's easy to forget how closely tied the first colonies were to England, particularly in Massachusetts. The Pilgrims were dissenting Protestants who sided closely with Cromwell in the English Civil War. When the Commonwealth was overthrown and the Stuarts restored to the British throne, there was renewed struggle with Catholicism - and the religious suspicions surrounding the court of James II were magnified out of all proportion on the other side of the Atlantic.
Add in the daily struggles with nature, fighting with native Americans, and millennial religious practice that thought the end times were approaching and you have, Parker points out, "a community primed to be fearful".
And so in the town of Salem, people turned on their more free-thinking neighbours, and accused them of being witches. At this time, the idea of witchcraft was not something from fiction. People really did believe, in Parker's words, "dark spirits could inhabit souls and bodies. It was the basis for primitive psychology and physiology."
This is not just a US phenomenon, although it might be more prevalent there; I’ve seen similar fears among extremist Protestants in the UK. As the quote above suggests the US may have inherited its complex of easily aroused fear from the mother country: The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries set a paranoiac backdrop; the religious apocalyptic mind-set of those times is implicated as the origin of a recurring socio-psychological malaise. English government went through a time of trepidation about Roman Catholic conspiracies. In the seventeenth century this was compounded by national infighting as dissenting Protestants found themselves at odds with the English government, the state church and one another. It was a time of mutual suspicion and fear. Many nonconforming Protestants decided to start a new life on the American continent free from the interference of government and all those other heretics. The American Revolution was founded on anti-taxation grievances as the English war-machine demanded taxes to finance its battles against a competing French empire. The parliamentary opposition to Royal taxation and absolute monarchy precipitated the English civil war and this opposition migrated, along with the colonists, to the middle classes of America.
The article lists examples of the historical recrudescence of paranoia in the US about the machinations of hidden malign parties. I’ll high light just one recent and well known case:
Following World War Two the fear shifted to the Soviet Union. Leaders of the far-right vied with each other to see who could turn up the most Communists. This led Robert Welch, the founder of the ultra-right John Birch Society, to claim that President Dwight D Eisenhower was "a tool of the communists".
That latter claim reminds me of some of the things which have been said about President Obama. Given VNP’s critique of religious extremism, VNP’s interest was particularly piqued when the BBC article quoted Harvard history professor Lisa McGirr as saying the following about the US tendency toward collective paranoia:
"I think it is linked to religiosity: evangelicalism and fundamentalism which have deep strands in American life,"
And needless to say Trump knows how to tug those strands:
Writing off Donald Trump was the default setting of most pundits and political professionals in the first months of the campaign. It isn't any more. Trump understood more than they did that a significant chunk of American society is fearful. He plays to those fears - whether they are rational or not. He doesn't speak in what he calls "politically correct" terms.
In South Carolina, recently, I met a gentleman named Robert Sandifer. In his 70s, well-educated and well-off, he had retired to a lovely island just south of Charleston, one of the nicest cities in America.
"Trump has instilled hope in people," Sandifer told me.
"Hope? Sounds to me like desperation," I told him.
Sandifer politely disagreed. "If he does what he says he's gonna do, we would be less fearful." He added, for emphasis: "We fear the federal government very much."
From the intelligent design web site Uncommon Descent, through the Fundamentalist ministry of Answers in Genesis, to religious crackpots like William Tapley, the American right wing is suffused with fear, a sense of impending doom and a deep hatred of the liberal views of government funded academics.
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