Robert Pittenger and the Paranoid Style

The congressman's wacko fundraising letter was just another page in a long, old book

So freshman U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte sent out a fundraising letter in which he referred to President Obama as “Enemy Number One,” the product of "an Islamo-Communist upbringing,” and “evil, right down to his cold, black heart, which pumps not blood like yours or mine, but rather a thick, vomitous oil that oozes through his rotten veins and clots in his pea-sized brain, which becomes the cause of his Nazi-esque pattern of violent behavior.” (Actually, that last is a paraphrase of Mr. Garrison from South Park, like it’s any less insane than the other two.)

Anyway. Pittenger. One of the frustrating aspects of conventional newspaper journalism is that it requires reporters to treat such claims as good-faith statements of genuine opinion, as if the claimant truly does believe what he purports to. Does Bob Pittenger genuinely think the President of the United States, Bailout King of the U.S. auto and financial systems, is “Islamo-Communist,” whatever the hell that even is? (I look forward to the day we elect a Zoroastro-Objectivist. Maybe in my lifetime. Maybe it’s Paul Ryan.)

Who knows or cares? But it forces the McClatchy D.C. Bureau’s Franco Ordoñez—a friend and ex-colleague at the Observer and a fine reporter—to write this with a straight face:

As for Pittenger’s contention that Obama had an “Islamo-Communist” upbringing, the congressman said Obama’s father was a communist. The suggestion that the president’s father, who left him when he was a toddler, was a communist has been promoted for years by some right-wing groups. Fact-checking websites, including Politifact, say there’s no evidence that either of Obama’s parents was communist.

These same sites have also determined that no evidence exists that Obama is the love child of Malcolm X and “Weezy” from The Jeffersons; a silicon-based, rather than carbon-based, life form; a hologram; or a cactus.

You see the thicket you dive into when you treat this garbage seriously. It’s not like we don’t all know what’s going on here. It’s been around for quite a while. “No Less Than Western Civilization Hangs In the Balance!” Pittenger wrote in his letter.

Paging Dr. Hofstadter [emphasis mine]:

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days …

As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. 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, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction …

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry.

Harper’s published “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in November 1964. It’s been referred to and quoted a good bit since Obama took office. That’s because more than ever, it applies to our national politics, and it applies because this shit sells.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest