How Patriarchal, Christian Backlash Politics Have Only Become More Vicious
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When I tell Republicans — and even some moderate Democrats — that I wrote a book about right-wing hatred, their response, often as not, is skeptical and disapproving. Politics is a rough game, they say. Romney might have his 47 percent, but just listen to all those class war tropes about the 1 percent you hear from the left. Sure, the far right has an unfortunate legacy of racism, sexism and homophobia, but Obama has a whole deck of race and gender cards that he plays. And anyway, the nuts are ultimately unimportant — national elections are decided in the middle.
All of that might be true, but the kind of hatred that I’m talking about goes way beyond ordinary politics and deep into the realm of abnormal psychology. In its full-blown manifestations, it is akin to what an ophidiophobe feels at the sight of a snake: visceral and existential; categorical and absolute. It turns on the gut certainty that your adversaries aren’t looking just to raise your taxes but to destroy your whole way of life: that they are not only wrongheaded, but preternaturally evil. Comparatively few people experience these feelings on a conscious level, but they lie latent in many more of us than we might suspect.
It is precisely because appeals to those kinds of feelings work below the level of consciousness that I am so alert for them — and they have been very much in evidence throughout this whole campaign. When Mitt Romney promised to “ keep America America” and Michele Bachmann launched a witch hunt against Muslims in the State Department, when Newt Gingrich called Obama a “ food stamp president” and Rick Santorum railed against the “elite, smart people” who will never be “ on our side,” those were the buttons that were being pushed.
Conspiratorial shibboleths are seeded throughout the GOP platform, which, among other things, gestures toward a return to the gold standard and repudiates the John Birch Society’s favorite bugaboo, the United Nations’ Agenda 21 (which Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate, calls a George Soros-financed attempt to “abolish ‘unsustainable’ environments, including golf courses, grazing pastures and paved roads”).
None of this is new. Not surprising for a nation whose founders were in large part the descendants of religious refugees for whom the devil was both literally real and ubiquitous, an undertone of paranoid dread has been a constant if largely unacknowledged feature of American politics. All the way back in the 1790s, the Illuminati — a secret society that was founded in Bavaria in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, an ex-Jesuit whose dream was a self-ruled, secular, trans-nationalist Cosmo-political order — became the screen on which New England religious conservatives projected their anxieties about the rising tide of anarchy and atheism. “God grant,” wrote an exposé that descried the hand of the Illuminati in the French Revolution, “that the United States may not learn to their cost that Republics are equally menaced with Monarchies; and that the immensity of the Ocean is but a feeble barrier against the universal conspiracy.” A contributor to the Hartford Courant declared that President Thomas Jefferson is “the real Jacobin, the child of modern illumination, the foe of man, and the enemy of his country.”
In the 1820s and ’30s, apprehensions about what the Masons were getting up to in their secret Lodge meetings fueled a national political movement. Former President John Quincy Adams (who had been defeated by the Mason Andrew Jackson) ran for governor of Massachusetts on the Anti-Masonic ticket in 1834. In his book “Letters on Freemasonry,” he wrote that Masonry “is wrong — essentially wrong — a seed of evil, which can never produce any good.” If the Illuminati had been feared for their irreligion, the Masons were condemned not just as freethinkers, but as occultists, Jesuits and even Jews of a sort. The anti-Masonic panic was followed in short order by the know-nothing era of anti-Catholic Nativism.