Commentary: The power of paranoia

Published March 22, 2014 1:01 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

By Carter Eskew

Special to The Washington Post

"American politics," historian Richard Hofstadter wrote 50 years ago, "has often been an arena for angry minds."

He identified a "paranoid style" in U.S. politics that has run throughout our history from the anti-Masonic movement of the late 18th century to the John Birch Society and McCarthyism.

Hofstadter died of leukemia in 1970 at age 54, but he would have had no trouble recognizing the continuation of the paranoid style in the NRA, the tea party and Occupy Wall Street.

Rand Paul also seems to fit this mold. In a speech Wednesday to Berkeley College Republicans (once an oxymoron), the Kentucky senator decried the National Security Agency's surveillance of Americans and compared its tactics to the FBI's spying on civil rights leaders, and thus embodied two characteristics common to the paranoid style: seeing your opponent as a powerful conspiracy and anticipating the apocalypse if this enemy is not destroyed.

Since he began his long run for the presidency, I have thought Rand Paul's libertarianism would be a force in the Republican Party.

Swaths of the country are angry and are fertile ground for his message that government isn't incompetent, it is highly effective at destroying individual initiative and freedom for its own nefarious purposes.

Again, as Hofstadter wrote, we should not underestimate "how much leverage can be got out of the passions and animosities of a small minority."

Carter Eskew is a co-host of The Insiders blog, offering commentary from a Democratic perspective, and was the chief strategist for the Gore 2000 presidential campaign.

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