comments_image Comments

Tea Partiers and the Revolt of the Pseudo-Cons

Over the weekend, I noted Rand Paul's fear of the "Amero," the currency of the mythic North American Union to come (see this if you have no clue what I'm talking about). It's a bit of connective tissue that ties the "ideology" of the Tea Party movement directly to that of the paranoid and intensely xenophobic John Birch Society Right of the 1950s. We're talking 5th columns and fluoridated water -- assaults on our precious bodily fluids stuff. Specifically, the North American Union arises from an idea articulated in an academic paper, later expanded into a book, by Robert Pastor (a perfectly ordinary professor at American University). Which may have been the end of it, except for the fact that it was published by the Council on Foreign Relations, which has always embodied the Evil Globalist Agenda according to the Birchers. As Political Research Associates notes,
Much of the early Birch conspiracism reflects an ultraconservative business nationalist critique of business internationalists networked through groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The CFR is viewed through a conspiracist lens as puppets of the Rockefeller family in a 1952 book by McCarthy fan, Emanuel M. Josephson, Rockefeller, 'Internationalist': The Man Who Misrules the World. In 1962 Dan Smoot'sThe Invisible Government added several other policy groups to the list of conspirators... In Smoot's concluding chapter, he wrote, "Somewhere at the top of the pyramid in the invisible government are a few sinister people who know exactly what they are doing: They want America to become part of a worldwide socialist dictatorship, under the control of the Kremlin."
Andrew Sullivan, pondering the Tea Party phenom, offers some fascinating passages from this 1955 essay by political scientist Richard Hofstadter. Hofstadter looked at the "Pseudo-Conservative revolt" of that era (Theodore Adorno coined the phrase), and I highlighted a few bits for skimability:
...Although they believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism, [pseudo-conservatives] show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions. They have little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism in the classical sense of the word, and they are far from pleased with the dominant practical conservatism of the moment as it is represented by the Eisenhower Administration. Their political reactions express rather a profound if largely unconscious hatred of our society and its ways — a hatred which one would hesitate to impute to them if one did not have suggestive clinical evidence. From clinical interviews and thematic apperception tests, Adorno and his co-workers found that their pseudo-conservative subjects, although given to a form of political expression that combines a curious mixture of largely conservative with occasional radical notions, succeed in concealing from themselves impulsive tendencies that, if released in action, would be very far from conservative. The pseudo-conservative, Adorno writes, shows “conventionality and authoritarian submissiveness” in his conscious thinking and “violence, anarchic impulses, and chaotic destructiveness in the unconscious sphere. . . . The pseudo conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.” 1 Who is the pseudo-conservative, and what does he want? It is impossible to identify him by class, for the pseudo-conservative impulse can be found in practically all classes in society, although its power probably rests largely upon its appeal to the less educated members of the middle classes. The ideology of pseudo-conservatism can be characterized but not defined, because the pseudo-conservative tends to be more than ordinarily incoherent about politics. The lady who, when General Eisenhower’s victory over Senator Taft had finally become official, stalked out of the Hilton Hotel declaiming, “This means eight more years of socialism” was probably a fairly good representative of the pseudo-conservative mentality. So also were the gentlemen who, at the Freedom Congress held at Omaha over a year ago by some “patriotic” organizations, objected to Earl Warren’s appointment to the Supreme Court with the assertion: “Middle-of-the-road thinking can and will destroy us”; the general who spoke to the same group, demanding “an Air Force capable of wiping out the Russian Air Force and industry in one sweep,” but also “a material reduction in military expenditures”;2 the people who a few years ago believed simultaneously that we had no business to be fighting communism in Korea, but that the war should immediately be extended to an Asia-wide crusade against communism; and the most ardent supporters of the Bricker Amendment. Many of the most zealous followers of Senator McCarthy are also pseudo-conservatives, although there are presumably a great many others who are not. The restlessness, suspicion and fear manifested in various phases of the pseudo-conservative revolt give evidence of the real suffering which the pseudo-conservative experiences in his capacity as a citizen. He believes himself to be living in a world in which he is spied upon, plotted against, betrayed, and very likely destined for total ruin. He feels that his liberties have been arbitrarily and outrageously invaded. He is opposed to almost everything that has happened in American politics for the past twenty years. He hates the very thought of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He is disturbed deeply by American participation in the United Nations, which he can see only as a sinister organization. He sees his own country as being so weak that it is constantly about to fall victim to subversion; and yet he feels that it is so all-powerful that any failure it may experience in getting its way in the world — for instance, in the Orient — cannot possibly be due to its limitations but must be attributed to its having been betrayed.3 He is the most bitter of all our citizens about our involvement in the wars of the past, but seems the least concerned about avoiding the next one. While he naturally does not like Soviet communism, what distinguishes him from the rest of us who also dislike it is that he shows little interest in, is often indeed bitterly hostile to such realistic measures as might actually strengthen the United States vis-à-vis Russia. He would much rather concern himself with the domestic scene, where communism is weak, than with those areas of the world where it is really strong and threatening. He wants to have nothing to do with the democratic nations of Western Europe, which seem to draw more of his ire than the Soviet Communists, and he is opposed to all “give-away programs” designed to aid and strengthen these nations. Indeed, he is likely to be antagonistic to most of the operations of our federal government except Congressional investigations, and to almost all of its expenditures. Not always, however, does he go so far as the speaker at the Freedom Congress who attributed the greater part of our national difficulties to “this nasty, stinking 16th [income tax] Amendment.” A great deal of pseudo-conservative thinking takes the form of trying to devise means of absolute protection against that betrayal by our own officialdom which the pseudo-conservative feels is always imminent. The Bricker Amendment, indeed, might be taken as one of the primary symptoms of pseudo-conservatism. Every dissenting movement brings its demand for Constitutional changes; and the pseudo-conservative revolt, far from being an exception to this principle, seems to specialize in Constitutional revision, at least as a speculative enterprise. The widespread latent hostility toward American institutions takes the form, among other things, of a flood of proposals to write drastic changes into the body of our fundamental law.
As I've said in the past, there's nothing new about Tea Party "conservatism" -- it's Richard Hofstadter's "paranoid style" and Theodore Adorno's "pseudo-conservatism." It is, ultimately, a reanimation of the John Birch Society Right. It should come as little surprise that the Birchers themselves are trying to make a come-back of sorts. Sullivan writes, "What you see is the predominance of acute alienation - the opposite of a natural conservative at peace with the world as it is - and the intensity of emotional rage it provokes."
I would add one thing to this analysis. The Bush-Cheney presidency was, in some respects, the perfect pseudo-conservative administration. They waged war based on loathing of the experts (damned knowledgeable elites!); they slashed taxes and boosted spending for their constituencies, while pretending to be fiscally responsible; they tore up the most ancient taboos - against torture - with a bravado that will one day seem obscene; and they left the country in far worse shape than they found it.
Thanks to our own Dr. Rick from the comments for sending Sullivan's post my way.