“The socialists are coming,
the socialists are coming,
and they’re 10 feet tall!”
That yawp — or any of many variants such as “the pedophiles are coming!” “the Democrats are coming!” “the antifas are coming!” or “the Guatemalans are coming!” — could be the motto of our time here in the latter days of the Age of Trump, when paranoia and its abettor, ignorance, define politics and the highest planes of nearly every discussion of current social movements.
If you are old and fortunate enough to remember the fine 1966 comedy film “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming,” you have at least an intuitive grasp of the paranoid style of contemporary American politics. The movie depicts the hysteria that occurs on a tiny New England island when a Russian submarine runs aground (its stupid commander tries to get a too-close look at the fabled place called America). It ends happily when the suddenly sympathetic villagers protect the Russkies from the U.S. Air Force. The film, starring Alan Arkin, Eva Marie Saint, Jonathan Winters and Carl Reiner, was made a couple of years after our introduction to “the paranoid style in American politics,” occasioned by the historian Richard Hofstadter’s study in Harper’s Magazine and his groundbreaking book by the same name.
Hofstadter had tracked paranoid spells in history, from the ancient fears of papal or Zionist plots to take over Europe, the United States and the whole world to the many consuming fears of Wall Street cabals in the populist era of the 1890s and beyond, and finally to the McCarthy-fed fear of secret communist control of the Eisenhower administration. Hofstadter did not just chronicle those episodes but analyzed the “paranoid modes of expression” by screwballs and people with profoundly disturbed minds, as well as the heartfelt expressions of ordinary people hypnotized by magnetic but unscrupulous politicians.
Hofstadter, however, never imagined anything like today, when millions and millions of Americans — perhaps a third of the population, including virtually an entire political party, much of Congress, many legislatures (including Arkansas’s), and even Black sports heroes — are so mesmerized by a cult leader’s lies and unhinged claims that they are willing to endanger the lives of loved ones and friends by refusing masks and vaccines, and to endorse the violent overthrow of democratic institutions in order to support the great leader’s self-serving fantasies.
Like Hofstadter, the next generation of scholars will figure out for the guidance of our grandchildren how all this came about. Let’s be optimistic. The first question to be answered might be this: How did millions of people — people who, all their lives, had willingly observed all kinds of public health and safety rules like traffic lights and speeding laws, and who had always accepted vaccines for smallpox, measles, whooping cough and other diseases in order to go to school or join the armed forces — suddenly decide that their basic rights would be violated by taking a shot or wearing a mask in crowded places to avoid transmitting to their loved ones, friends and co-workers the deadliest new disease in more than a hundred years?
Here’s a related question: How did a corrupt, fundamentally immoral, failed businessman attract such a multitude of cultish worshippers? Merely by barking “You’re fired!” on scripted TV shows?
At the outset of the Trump Era in 2015, I had my own theory about his populist appeal. It involved the Trump family’s long racist history in New York, Donald’s own deployment of the comical Obama-is-not-an-American lie, and the total collapse of the Democratic Party in the South and industrial Midwest after the 2008 election of a Black president. But the mystery remains how so many millions of Americans could believe, persistently, without a shred of evidence, a politician’s claims that dark forces stole his landslide elections from him when every legitimate poll, including those conducted by Fox News itself, showed that he would be beaten by some 10 million votes. Even in his first official loss — the February 2016 Republican caucuses in Iowa — Trump claimed that “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” had stolen Iowa’s votes from him, apparently with the collusion of all the Iowa Republicans (not a socialist or a Democrat among them) whose job was to count the caucus goers. Proof of the absurdity of his claims will continue to pile up, but it will make no difference to all the true believers, the “patriots” whose heroes broke into the Capitol on Jan. 6 to lynch Vice President Mike Pence and House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and to force the U.S. Senate to throw out the election results and install Trump as president for life. Maybe the scholars and data analysts will furnish some credible theories by, say, 2035.
What we do have now, as far as it goes, is some historical grasp of the more enduring forms of political paranoia, like the morbid fear of an impending socialist overthrow of democratic capitalism — soon after they succeed in beating down the National Rifle Association and confiscating everyone’s guns. The gun craziness began with the gun industry’s takeover of the NRA in the 1970s, when the industry and paranoid citizenry began to change the purpose and meaning of the Second Amendment from the protection of state militias to protection from socialists. Guns became the solution to everyone’s problems, from muddled teenagers to distraught workers and lovers. The escalating daily explosions of gun violence across poor Arkansas in 2021 were so inevitable.
We have heard those cries about socialism across the South and Midwest since the end of World War I and the bloody Red Summer of 1919, when socialists were supposed to be plotting a takeover by stirring up and organizing workers and Black tenant farmers to fight for better pay and working conditions. That fall, in Phillips County, scores of soldiers, lawmen and vigilantes murdered hundreds of Black men, women and children because they suspected the desperate people of trying to form a union to press for better pay for the crops they produced. Unions in those days, and perhaps still, were suspected of being the socialists’ vehicle for destroying capitalism and taking over the country. At the time, the editors of the Arkansas Gazette (years later, my employer) scolded eastern “socialists” whom they thought were siding with the murdered farmers in Phillips County and the dozen innocent Black men who had been condemned to hang for the troubles but who were later absolved by the courts and freed.
Some things never change. Last month, the likely next governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, cut a TV ad saying she was running for governor to fight the “radical left” — i.e. Democrats — who were intent on destroying our freedoms and condemning us to live under socialism. Her daddy, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and her mentor, former President Trump, had condemned Barack Obama as a socialist for his efforts to offer health insurance to everyone through a voluntary system of private and public insurance. They called it “socialized medicine,” although the only real socialized medicine in America today is government-directed care for old soldiers — the VA. While Republicans and their public-relations outlets, including the current statewide Arkansas paper, refer to the Democratic Party and the president as “radical leftists” and “socialists” because of a half-dozen tough-talking women of foreign descent in the House of Representatives, the party and the president are, in reality, no more liberal than they have ever been. The most liberal American president in history, surpassing Lyndon B. Johnson, remains Harry S. Truman, who fought hard for a tough civil-rights law and a system of universal health insurance that covered everybody. Truman was enraged that Republicans and the American Medical Association called his health care bill “socialized medicine.” Truman’s health care system, like Obama’s — and like the one Bernie Sanders proposed, and like the plans pushed by Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford — would have retained the private health care delivery system.
But, as I said at the outset, paranoid politics requires a consort, and that consort is ignorance. I mean ignorance not merely of what socialism actually is, but of science, of history and of life itself. Ignorance manifested itself often in the Arkansas legislature this year, with laws that impose cruelty on both children and adults, laws that ignore hundreds of years of scientific advancement and hundreds of years of American history. What the current Arkansas legislature has demonstrated, more than anything else, is that its members do not understand how the United States government and its local divisions have carried out the mandate in the Declaration of Independence to protect the life, health and safety of all the people.
Thomas Jefferson at least seemed to think that God expected the government, as the first of its tasks, to protect His people by taking steps to prevent the spread of disease and untimely death. Some, like Sarah Sanders and Sen. Trent Garner of my hometown of El Dorado, and perhaps most of the Arkansas General Assembly, think they know better than Jefferson what God expects. The casualty numbers don’t seem to support them, but maybe time will tell.