The Paranoid Style Is Alive and Well in Some Conservative Quarters

One of the most confounding critiques of President Obama from the right has been the expressed belief that the president of the United States has deliberately initiated policies that he knew would injure the economy and the country. In short, Barack Obama wants to destroy America.

Several different motivations are given for this traitorous behavior. Rush Limbaugh thinks it's because Obama wants as much of the population as possible to fall into dependency on government, thus giving Democrats a permanent majority because everyone knows poor people vote Democratic. Others believe it's because the president is a socialist/Communist and in order to remake America, it must first be destroyed.

Darker conspiracies that combine the most paranoid parts of the birther narrative with Cold War revanchist nightmares involving a plot line ripped from the film The Manchurian Candidate (the sublime Frank Sinatra version, not the Denzel Washington turkey) provide a little comic relief to the dourness of the subject matter. Obama as the unholy offspring of Frank Davis or Malcolm X, groomed from birth by the international Communist conspiracy to become leader of the free world, programmed to remake America into a Marxist dictatorship, gives the entire proposition of Obama as Destroyer of America a slightly hysterical tinge.

Thankfully, most on the right don't go quite that far over the cliff in positing the notion that President Obama has deliberately set out to bring America down. Still, there is a desperate paranoia at work among some conservatives if one were to take the notion seriously that this president -- any president -- would purposefully set the nation on a course where America's destruction would be the end result. In order to believe that proposition, you have to also believe that the president is not just an incompetent, indecisive, empty suit in way over his head as chief executive, but that he is the personification of evil.

Conservative film critic, talk show host, and political commentator Michael Medved recently penned an article for the Wall Street Journal that attempted to address this phenomenon and place it in a realistic political context:

None of the attacks on Mr. Obama's intentions offers an even vaguely plausible explanation of how the evil genius, once he has ruined our "strength, influence and standard of living," hopes to get himself re-elected.

The exact same question could have been directed at liberals who believed George W. Bush "lied" about WMD in Iraq in order to plunge the U.S. into a war for oil. Logic would dictate that if Mr. Bush knew beforehand that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he either deliberately set out to be a one-term president or, even more bizarrely, wished to lose the war so that his "lie" would never be discovered. As it was, Bush won a second term by the narrowest of margins -- less than 100,000 votes in Ohio -- proving the potency of that particular conspiracy theory with the electorate. Two committees of Congress and an independent commission found no evidence of Bush pre-war lies about WMD (but plenty of mishandling and misjudging of intelligence) which proves how hard it is for the truth to catch up to any conspiracy theory.

Ah, but we have Obama making that very claim about not caring about re-election just recently. In an interview with Diane Sawyer that aired on January 24, President Obama said: "I'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president."

You would have to be near brain dead to believe that rot. The man has been running for re-election before he sat down in the Oval Office for the first time. When he made that statement three weeks ago, he had already greenlighted his political machine to start the laborious process of fundraising and outreach in battleground states. Unless you believe he really doesn't care about a second term and is doing all of this for show, the only possible explanation is that he is in it to win it and -- his fake humility notwithstanding -- believes what the polls are telling him despite his rotten record: he stands an excellent chance of beating any Republican on the horizon.

The purity of the idea that Obama is deliberately out to destroy the economy and the country gets a little muddied when washed through the logic machine. But there is a slight variation to the argument that almost makes it sound plausible: President Obama is not consciously trying to destroy the country -- he just can't help himself.

In this scenario, the president has good intentions for America but his warped view of the country forces him to enact policies that are disastrous. His is a creative destruction. He wishes to bring down our capitalist system and replace it with the soft socialism that he believes will be much fairer. He seeks to deliberately weaken America because we are too strong and it's not fair to other countries. He wants to bend the Constitution to its breaking point -- or beyond -- because it is too restrictive of government action that would make life fairer for all.

At least this is the response you'll get from many who claim they don't really believe Obama is evil. But again, the reality of politics raises its ugly head and begs the question: what politician in their right mind would do all of this and then ask the American people for another term?

A president who knowingly creates conditions that make his re-election nearly impossible? It has the virtue of never having been tried in American politics before, probably for good reason: it would lead to humiliating defeat.

Instead, we are confronted with the ridiculous and pathetic evidence that the president and his advisors have advanced policies believing that they would create millions of jobs, reduce the deficit eventually, solve our health care crisis, give capitalism a "human face" by polishing off the rough edges, and make America stronger by turning our enemies into friends. Ascribing evil intent to stupidity, incompetence, ignorance, and cynical calculation is beyond irrational. It is paranoia born of excessive partisan animus.

A branch of this paranoia has to do with the belief of many on the right that the president is following a "strategy" set down by the satanic duo of Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, who advanced the theory in a Nation article in 1966 that if every single American eligible for welfare payments would apply, it would overwhelm the system and force the Democratic Party to pass a guaranteed national income. That's it. No treatise on how to start a Marxist revolution. No blueprint for a commie takeover. Just a cockamamie idea about how to goose the less radical Democrats in Congress to pass a bill that would give every American a guaranteed income.

Prominent conservatives like Glenn Beck latched on to this theory and after a little shaking and baking, came up with the idea that Cloward-Piven could be applied to the entire government; that what Obama was really trying to do was overwhelm the system with debt and dependency, thus opening the door to a Marxist dictatorship. How Beck extrapolated all of that from the idiotic notions of two far left liberals about welfare is a mystery. It is certainly a mystery to the authors, who never imagined that their article would be used 40 years later to "explain" President Obama's evil intent.

How widespread is this belief? No one has done much polling on the question of Obama's deliberate destruction of America using the Cloward-Piven "strategy," but given that 51% of likely Republican primary voters think Obama is a "foreigner," it could easily be extrapolated that a significant number of conservatives believe this twaddle.

It is also probable that a similar number on the right believe that Obama is following a game plan authored by New Left godfather Saul Alinsky, whose Rules for Radicals outlines tactics in community organizing and grassroots politics used to start the revolution. It is unknown what old Saul would think of Obama cuddling up to Wall Street bankers and other fat cats, but those particular characteristics shown by the president throughout his term are nowhere to be found in Alinsky's simple-minded notions of how to move the masses. Much of the advice in Rules is basic common sense and tactics used in grassroots organizing since forever.

Obama may very well be using strategies employed in Rules for Radicals, but given how commonplace those strategies are, how can anyone rationally conclude that he is somehow held in thrall to Alinksy's treatise as a consequence of his radicalism?

Richard Hofstadter, author of the famous essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," (who George Will correctly referred to as "the iconic public intellectual of liberal condescension"), was fascinated with how conspiracy theories and other paranoid fantasies emerged in American politics. The historian, who later in life moved to the right in his politics, described, in general terms, the mind set that made paranoia and politics such an incendiary combination:

Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.

This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began...

I will leave to the reader's imagination the modern day equivalent of the paranoid from the early 1960s. He is easily seen in those who oppose the president and his programs based not on logic and reason, but on fear, and on the wrongheaded belief that one's political opponent harbors evil intent toward the nation.