Dangerous outcomes from a culture of paranoia

Last October, Glenn Beck was musing on his radio show about the prospect of the government seizing his children if he didn’t give them flu vaccines. “You want to take my kids because of that?” he said. “Meet Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson.”

Last April, Erick Erickson, the managing editor of the right-wing RedState blog and a CNN commentator, was questioning the legality of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey on a radio show. “We have become, or are becoming, enslaved by the government. . . . I dare ’em to try to come to throw me in jail. I dare ’em to. [I’ll] pull out my wife’s shotgun and see how that little ACS twerp likes being scared at the door.”

Do right-wing talk show commentators incite violence against the government? Feel free to draw your own conclusions — but to dwell on the rise of violent rhetoric on the right is to miss an even bigger, though connected, problem. Let’s focus, rather, on the first part of Beck’s and Erickson’s observations: The government wants to take away Glenn Beck’s (and by extension, your) kids. The government wants to take a census and will throw Erick Erickson (and by extension, you) in jail if he, and you, don’t comply.

Can we see the hands of all the kids taken from their parents because they didn’t get flu shots? How about all those people rotting in jail because they didn’t cooperate in compiling the census?

The primary problem with the political discourse of the right in today’s America isn’t that it incites violence per se. It’s that it implants and reinforces paranoid fears about the government and conservatism’s domestic adversaries.

Much of the culture and thinking of the American right — the mainstream as well as the fringe — has descended into paranoid suppositions about the government, the Democrats and the president. This is not to say that the left wing doesn’t have a paranoid fringe, too. But by every available measure, it’s the right where conspiracy theories have exploded.

A fabricated specter of impending governmental totalitarianism haunts the right’s dreams. One month after Barack Obama was inaugurated as president, Beck hosted a show that gamed out how militias in Southern and Western states might rise up against an oppressive government. The number of self-proclaimed right-wing militias tripled — from 42 to 127, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center — in 2009 (and that doesn’t count those that are entirely underground).

As much of the right sees it, the government is planning to incarcerate its enemies (see Beck and Erickson, above), socialize the economy and take away everyone’s guns. At the fringe, we have figures like Larry Pratt, executive director of the Gun Owners of America, who told a rally in Washington last April that, “We’re in a war. The other side knows they are at war, because they started it. They are coming for our freedom, for our money, for our kids, for our property. They are coming for everything because they are a bunch of socialists.”

But the imputation of lurking totalitarianism, alien ideologies, and subversion of liberties to liberals and moderates has become the default rhetoric of the right. Never mind that Obama is a Marxist, a Kenyan and an advocate of sharia law. Consider the plight of poor Fred Upton, the Republican congressman just installed as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, over considerable right-wing opposition. According to Beck, Upton is “all socialist,” while Rush Limbaugh calls him the personification of “nannyism” and “statism.” Upton’s crime is that he supports more energy-efficient light bulbs. How that puts him in a league with Marx, Engels and Nanny McPhee, I will leave to subtler minds.

American politics and culture have a rich history of paranoia, as historian Richard Hofstadter and many others have documented. Many of the incidents of anti-government violence over the past couple of years – flying a plane into an IRS building in Texas, shooting police officers in Pittsburgh and carrying out last weekend’s savagery in Tucson — came from people who, however individually loony they may have been, also harbored paranoid visions of the government that resembled, though by no means entirely, those put forth by the Becks and the Ericksons.

That doesn’t make Beck, Erickson, Rupert Murdoch and their ilk responsible for Tucson. It does make them responsible for promoting a paranoid culture that makes America a more divided and dangerous land.

meyersonh@washpost.com

meyersonh@washpost.com

Harold Meyerson writes a weekly political column that appears on Thursdays and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.
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